“Gentrification Isn’t a Moral Issue” – Life in South Tel Aviv

Photo: Jacques Bopp

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 one guy had to say.

Amir, 31

I was living in Shapira for four or five years. But actually I was raised in central Tel Aviv, I don’t know, I think that maybe that’s a rare thing. It’s like you. You’re from London, you probably get people that say, ‘what, you’re really from London?’ Because everyone they met in London just moved there from somewhere else in England. Tel Aviv is like that, people move from outside.

I didn’t know anything about this neighbourhood when I was a kid. We had a good family friend that lived here but I didn’t know anything about it. Florentine [a very gentrified neighbourhood] was the same. When I was growing up, there was nothing in Florentine. It wasn’t so happening, there was one bar. It’s not like now.

But even my street, in central Tel Aviv, it was much shittier than now. In my block, there was a whore house. When I went to my friend’s house in Neve Tzedek [an upscale neighbourhood] there were a lot of junkies and stuff hanging out there as well. It wasn’t a tough place though. There were also academic and successful people there, just living among junkies and whores and everything. It wasn’t such a family thing to live in Tel Aviv. We were the only family in my block and it was the same for all of my friends, they were the only family in their block. The city changed so much. Florentine looked a lot like Shapira ten or fifteen years ago. 

I lived in Tel Aviv all my life. I studied for a couple of years in the Sderot [a city in the south of Israel] then I came back. So when I moved to Shapira, I already knew that it was a place to live, a cool place to be and everything. It wasn’t a developed place. But I really like that it’s like a village outside Tel Aviv. There are not a lot of high buildings or businesses. So you can feel like you are a bit outside of the city, which I think is for the better. You can be inside the city but also a little bit outside of it. You don’t want to live in the middle of everything. 

I think when we were kids, we never came here because there was just nothing to do. We didn’t know anyone here or anything. Florentine was maybe the ‘far away’ place that we came to but never here.

From my point of view, I never saw any tension between the old residents and the young people that are moving here. I heard of things but I never saw anything. But on Facebook, you can see a lot of discussion of the immigrants, the people from Eritrea. Then it’s very easy to see who is who. The older generation, the more religious generation don’t like them so much and the opposite for the young people moving here. I don’t really agree with either side. I understand both of them, I think they both have valid arguments.

I never had bad experiences with the Eritreans. I used to work in kitchens as a cook, so I worked with a lot of Eritreans. I know them, I know their culture. They’re very humble people, they work hard. But there are problems for sure. There was a stabbing not that long ago in the street. 

I think if they are in the country, we should give them the rights that they deserve. But I don’t think everyone can come here. Like, I think building the fence on the southern border was good. I understand why they did that because you can’t just let everyone in. A lot of my friends didn’t agree with me on that. But like I said, if they are here then we should give them rights. 

Do I think they can fit in here in Israel? If you look at the children, they seem very Israeli. I see their parents a lot of the time speaking with them in Hebrew. I don’t know why, maybe they don’t have the time to teach them their own language. So the kids seem to be very Israeli. For sure though they are from a different culture. They are raised with different values from western people. They are always playing in the street, their parents don’t care, no one is looking after them or telling them to get off the road. They are a bit more wild in that way but I think they can fit in. The story of Israel is different people coming from different places and fitting in, though I guess they were Jewish.

The thing is….it’s a problem. Because our nationality is also Israeli and also Jewish. When the founders of this country built it, they built it for the Jews but it wasn’t religious in any way, actually they were very secular. They didn’t go to synagogue. They weren’t interested at all in religion. They invented a new nationality and called it ‘Jewish.’ But I think anyone that is Israeli by law, is Israeli. Israel is a state for all of its citizens, it’s written down. It’s a democratic, Jewish country. There’s no law that you have to be Jewish to be Israeli.

One of the controversial actors in Shapira’s ongoing gentrification is Venn, a real estate and workspace company that is buying up apartment blocks and supporting hipster-y businesses. What do you think of them?

I know that there is a lot of criticism of Venn but I don’t understand it. It’s a business and they are doing the best they can. Personally, I don’t feel attracted to this kind of business. I wouldn’t want to live in one of their apartments. It’s flattening the neighbourhood. All of their places are similar, it’s like Starbucks but for apartments. But that’s not immoral. So when people are criticising them from a moral viewpoint, I don’t relate to it because it’s not really a moral question.

I think in ten years or so, Shapira will just be like Florentine. It’s not a moral thing, it’s not good or bad. It’s just nature. Also Neve Tzedek used to be a really shitty place. My father and mother lived there before I was born and you could buy an apartment there for nothing. It was really shitty and it developed, it became more expensive. That’s the way life is I guess, in our capitalistic system. This is life. When you put ‘good’ or ‘bad’ into this, it doesn’t make sense. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ is something higher than a neighbourhood getting nicer. There’s no point in moral judgements in this sort of thing.

Maybe the village vibe will die here but then it will start again somewhere else. Maybe in some place outside of Tel Aviv. Maybe in Holon or Bat Yam. It’s the same story in Brooklyn, I heard. I relate to this nostalgic feeling that it will end. But I think of it also from the point of view of someone trying to solve that problem. I wouldn’t like it if there was a law that ‘only young people can live here’ or ‘only artists can live there.’ It’s not a good system. It’s better to leave things to themselves. Maybe it’s a very capitalist point of view, I don’t know. My friends, I see them on Facebook always complaining about this. It’s a problem in Israel though, everything is so expensive. Maybe there are too many people, I don’t know.

I can see that I could relate more to the vibe of how it was. It was nicer but I don’t see anything evil in these changes. Because I see it that way, it’s difficult to say that it’s bad now. When I think about this issue, I try to be as reasonable as possible, so I try to put my own feelings to the side as much as I can. There are loads of other people in the world so it’s hard for me to judge things and say, ‘oh it was better before’ because there are many people that want different things. 

I think if I didn’t live in Tel Aviv….I don’t know….maybe I’d live in the countryside or somewhere I guess. The other cities in Israel aren’t so cool, apart from Haifa, which is developing a bit. But maybe outside of Israel. A lot of young people are thinking of leaving. It’s very small here, you feel disconnected from the rest of the world. I think Israelis don’t understand how weird it is here. We think we are living in a western country and we are like the Americans or the Europeans. And, you know, we play football in the European Cup – we are like a western country but we don’t understand how different we are. In our mentality, in our geography. We don’t understand because we’re not connected to any of the countries next to us, so we’re living in a kind of Matrix situation. Everybody thinks we’re living in Berlin but we are closer to Africa.

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