An Interview With a Guy That Runs a Cafe in South Tel Aviv

A derelict building in Shapira, Tel Aviv (source: Cool Hunting)
A derelict building in Shapira, Tel Aviv (source: Cool Hunting)

In the past fifteen years, tens of thousands of Africans, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have crossed into Israel. The majority of these people now live in south Tel Aviv.

Shapira, a traditionally blue-collar area, is one of the neighbourhoods they have ended up in. Hipsters have also begun to move into the area, complete with fixie bikes and yoga lessons. These newcomers have come into conflict with Shapira’s original inhabitants, most of whom are religious Jews from Uzbekistan, Turkey and Greece.

Add lady-boy prostitutes, drug addicts and several hundred Philipino care-workers to the mix and it’s easy to see why Shapira, a neighbourhood that isn’t much more than a square kilometre in size, is a microcosm of so many problems relating to identity, tradition, immigration and crime that countries across the world are facing today.

During the past twelve months, I interviewed people in Shapira to see how they wound up there and what they think of the things happening in the neighbourhood. Here’s what the owner of local cafe had to say.

Cafe dude, 44 years-old

I moved to Shapira 18 years ago, I’m 44 now. But I am a ‘real’ Tel Avivian. I was born in the north of Tel Aviv and when I became more independent, I always chose to live in the south of the city. I feel that there is something more alive here. People are still in the streets, there’s still a connection between people, not just cars, computers, telephones and all of that shit.

I had never really been to Shapira before I moved here. Even now, I speak to people that come to the cafe and they don’t know where the toilet is, so I know they’re new here, and they say, ‘oh yes, I haven’t been to this area before.’ There’s no reason to come to Shapira if you don’t have friends or something to do here. Today, there is a bit more to do because there is a bar and a couple of coffee places and a club down the street. But Shapira and HaTikva and some other neighbourhoods, they still have this reputation for some people that you should not even step in them.

When I first moved here, the neighbourhood looked the same but the people were different. It was only Jews from Uzbekistan, from Greece. And also there were a lot of Arabs and some Romanians. You had a few workers from all over the world. And a lot of prostitutes and a lot of pimps. Really a lot of both of those. And many heroin addicts too. So when all these people say that, ‘oh Shapira, it was so great in the past, all the good times we had.’ Shapira was a disaster!

But it’s for sure true that there was more of a community feel. Because when you are a community, say all the Jews from Uzbekistan, they are here with just other people like them. And when you are in that position then you always feel more secure. That’s your people, your language, your habits. So you feel more comfortable. But actually, there are stories about Shapira that the leader of the thieves in Tel Aviv used to live here. So Shapira was safe because the thieves wouldn’t steal in their own neighbourhood.

I don’t know about that shit but I can say, and I’m not taking sides here, that, for me, with the Africans, Shapira became much safer and the energy is much more positive. It’s a big difference. Before, most of my neighbours were prostitutes and pimps. My apartment block was full of them. And many, many drug dealers and drug addicts. When the refugees came, they moved into these houses and they’re people that are actually looking for a better tomorrow, that are looking to work and all the prostitutes and addicts, they don’t aren’t like that.

When I moved here and until five or six years ago, you would see barely anyone from the more ‘new age’ part of Israeli society. What’s happened in the last five years, is that about a third of Shapira changed. That’s made a big ripple. The old people from the neighbourhood have ‘new’ people to look at and say, ‘hey, they’re new people.’ But before there was no one to call ‘new’ here. So now you have this whole thing with people calling each other ‘old’ and ‘new.’

I decided to open my place four years ago because I just wanted somewhere to have a coffee, a beer, something to eat. And in this neighbourhood, there was nothing like that. I can tell you that our most loyal customers are three old women who come every day. They finish their coffees and then put arak in the cups so that no one will see what they are drinking. In the beginning, they said it was a crazy idea to open a cafe here but actually it turned out to be a great thing.

I grew up in quite a bohemian place, on the left side of the map and all that sort of stuff. Not religious at all. Then I went to India for a year and, after that, I was also in Thailand for a year. And in the mountains, I met this guru guy and we were smoking weed together. This guy was talking about life and nature.

Everything was so interesting. I couldn’t believe that we were talking about god. My point is that it’s easy for us to find things cool or interesting in another culture. It’s easy to see something that’s beautiful in something you aren’t familiar with. And so I think that’s why so many of the lefties here in this neighbourhood, they find the Africans and their religious practices so interesting but they will talk shit about any Jewish person that says anything about their religion. So really, people are totally stupid. I think that’s it.

I see many Jewish children in this neighbourhood that actually don’t have enough food to eat. They’re very poor. But most of the ‘new age’ types that have moved here will not help them. They’ll give food to the Africans and help their children. That’s good of course but I think we have to help everyone that has less money. I find it a bit weird that it’s like that.

Gentrification is, for me, like evolution. Change happens. For sure Shapira is getting better. But there’s also something unnatural here. How houses and rents are becoming so expensive. If I look at myself, I have a contract on my apartment for two years, I’m not sure at all that I could pay a new contract. I used to pay 2,000 shekels for my house. When I moved two years ago to a new place, not that much different in size, I had to pay 6,700 shekels a month – and they wanted 7,000. I can’t do that.

I don’t know what I’d do. I’d move to Italy maybe. I want to leave because Israel is a dead place. We are a conquering country. It’s a disaster. Without the politics of the situation, If you control something for a long time then you become the king and the other….well….it’s a disaster. It affects everything. We have lost our balance, our way of living. It’s corrupted us. Without even the politics of it. It’s a disaster for us.

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