The southern area of Tel Aviv has been in and out of the Israeli news cycle in 2013. Headlines have highlighted an environment of crime and fear, overcrowded housing, inadequate infrastructure or, most likely, Israel’s migration woes. The picture painted is one of deterioration and despair.
As someone who’s end-of-workday journey home includes a trek through the wretched maze of streets that lead to the infamous architectural marvel that is Tel Aviv’s New Central Bus Station (it is sad that this monstrosity is still referred to as “new”), I have no choice but to concede to this sentiment.
During my travels, I have seen: a man defecating on the sidewalk; a man passed out in a heap of trash with a needle still stuck in his arm; a man lying unconscious on the street at the corner of Hagdud Haivri Street and Har Tzion Boulevard, with the neon Kingdom of Pork sign looming overhead. A female Israeli pedestrian pours water into his mouth, crying that she can’t just leave him to die, until a paramedic arrives and tells her that he sees this all the time; a gleaming black Mercedes with tinted windows parked outside the run-down street-level brothels, beside the forty and fifty-year old women braving the daylight to share a smoke outside together.
I have seen more but will stop here.
And yet, the fact that the area is decrepit—perhaps more so than any other area in the country—is not what startles me most. It’s the totality of my evening walk that has impelled me to set pen to paper.
I have the privilege to work in a law firm housed in what is, in my opinion, one of the most tasteful buildings I have visited in Israel, with biometric pads at each entry, a fifteen-meter high glass-domed atrium and a ten-meter long state-of-the-art boardroom.
One block in the direction of the New Central Bus Station is the stunning Rothschild Boulevard, where a stroll under the tree-lined pedestrian and bike path at its center can soothe the soul. As I race to make my bus after work, I pass within a stone’s throw from the construction site of the forty-two-storey Meier-on-Rothschild Tel Aviv Tower, whose penthouses hit the market at an asking price of $50,000,000. That’s right, fifty million dollars.
One block later, I arrive at Yehuda Halevi Street, a typical Israeli thoroughfare, functional and unimpressive. But three minutes after that, I meet the slums.
Three minutes. On foot.
While it is no anomaly for luxury and squalor to exist in close proximity, something here just isn’t right. The extremes of the spectrum of Israeli society are being housed too close to one another for comfort. This is a recipe for disaster. Israel’s Gini coefficient (which measures dispersion of income distribution) is not a national secret (and is anyhow better than some, and not much worse than most, OECD countries), yet the existence of so glaring a microcosm of imparity strikes me as cynical and morally unsound.
When a cadaverous legless man wheelchairs his way into the oncoming traffic by the high-priced Levenstein Tower in search of donations, I am not in the least surprised. Why should he care about disturbing the peace when his fellow citizens living, literally, down the road from him would have nothing to do with his most valuable finery except to wipe their behinds?
Politicians of all stripes have proposed ways in which Southern Tel Aviv can be reinvigorated: Municipal engineers have explained how things will change by 2025. The Our Land of Israel organization set up citizen vigilante task forces in efforts to meet crime head-on. Nitzan Horowitz has made this a talking point in the upcoming Tel Aviv mayoral elections and the incumbent mayor, Ron Huldai, has answered in kind.
However, a survey of the area by a lawyer on his daily commute (me) shows that little has been done: It is not enough that there is periodic police surveillance around Levinski Park; or that the a portion of the trash cesspool on the corner of Hagdud Haivri and Bnei Brak Street has recently been gathered into a new industrial dumpster; or that the two-foot opening in the divider at the center of Levinski Street opposite the Central Bus Station has been barred up so pedestrians must walk to and from the far traffic light to access the station’s side entrance; or that a glazed-eyed “shomer” touches his hand to the outside of my bag (searching for a heat bomb?) as I enter the station.
The area is in tatters and, even more so, its proximity to Rothschild Blvd. stands as monument which highlights the inequality in Israel and the indifference of the wealthy to the plight of the have-nots.
I can’t help but thinking that some inspiration for a solution to “the problem in southern Tel Aviv” would be found if the decision makers would set aside their lofty plans and the migration woes for a moment and join me for a walk at the end of my workday.