Mars and Venus in Jerusalem

Economic engines. Top-down planning. Ten million tourists per year. High-rise business districts. Macro picture. Creating a hundred thousand jobs. Sports arenas. Spurring growth. City branding. Racing car events. Mega-projects. Roads and expressways. Ruling coalition. Male.

Playground shade structures. Family-friendly Shabbat activities. Healthy school lunches. Daycare teacher wages. Garbage collection. De-segregating the public realm. Peripheral neighborhoods. Bus frequency. Community services. Stroller ramps. Opposition/subordinate faction. Female.

Could something be amiss here?

It’s generally thought that we’ve progressed beyond the era when fathers/husbands concerned themselves with the “big-picture” aspects of family life — the breadwinning – while wives/mothers made sure the house was clean and tidy, and the food nutritious. The dads didn’t know what drawer the school supplies were kept in, or how to apply diaper rash lotion. The moms relied on the dads to bring home the bacon and were expected, in return, to handle all the nitty-gritty household details that the dads were too busy making money to deal with.

This dichotomous situation, which supposedly no longer exists at the familial level, is all too apparent at the municipal level – in Jerusalem, at least. We have a daddy-breadwinner mayor who, wholly preoccupied with big-money projects, refuses to concern himself with the municipal services provided to residents, and an opposition party – led by a woman – that has taken upon itself to advance all of the community-level matters that the Municipality would otherwise be neglecting.

Somewhere back in 2007 or so, when Nir Barkat was just a mayoral hopeful (i.e., in the “feminized” position of being in the city council opposition), he came to plant a few shrubs in a profoundly neglected peripheral Jerusalem neighborhood, to demonstrate solidarity with the local residents.

This is what the area where that “protest planting” was orchestrated looks like today:


Here’s what a population of 20,000 taxpaying Jerusalemites in this same peripheral neighborhood are getting in the way of library services — an unventilated bookmobile, redolent of cigarettes, that is available three times a week for 1-2 hours at a time — often leaving the neighborhood just as many of its children are coming home from school:


The neglect goes on and on. Campaign flyers of breathtaking cynicism were recently distributed in this very neighborhood detailing the Barkat administration’s “contributions” to the area since taking office. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Is the installation of street lighting on an urban street an achievement worth mentioning in a campaign context? How about basic road maintenance?

The flyer does schvitz about a new park with exercise equipment that was recently installed in the neighborhood. Even this park is the kind of non-amenity that can make residents want to tear their hair out. After years of local mothers begging the Jerusalem Municipality for shade structures in the neighborhood playgrounds, to make them usable for children on hot summer days, the Municipality finally installed shade structures in an exercise park intended for adults who are normally at work during the sun-scorched hours when shade solutions are needed:

Sign: “Use of equipment restricted to ages 14 and up”

Meanwhile, the children’s play areas directly across the street from this shady oasis for absent grownups remain completely exposed to the harsh Mediterranean sun, and utterly unusable during the hours of 8:00 am — 4:00 pm:

Children’s playgrounds unused during summer vacation due to lack of shade

There is no professionalism; no mapping of needs; no real involvement of residents in crucial decisions about community amenities and quality of life. Here and there the Municipality decides to throw a few shekels into the pot, but with no rhyme or reason. And generally speaking, the amount thrown in is negligible compared with the actual needs on the ground.The budget for a library in the aforementioned neighborhood was mysteriously “cancelled,” with no reinstatement in sight. The Jerusalem Municipality, which supposedly wants to attract and retain young families and “productive” working people, can’t come up with the money for even the most basic library facility (a single room in a school bomb shelter) to serve a neighborhood that consists almost entirely of young working families.

But it’s nice to know that a couple of million shekels can always be coughed up for events like Formula 1. And it’s nice to have a photogenic mayor who looks good posing beside racing cars. It’s clearly good for the city’s economy. It’s good we have a man at the helm – a woman could never pull it off! We obviously need a guy in charge to come up with these macho branding opportunities, to ensure that the city’s mothers and children will, in some mythical future, be liberally supplied with shade trees and libraries.

Or do we?

Does it have to be this way? Are top-down planning, pretentious office towers that make a mockery of local architectural traditions, contrived branding and marketing exercises, and grandiose, flashy, budget-busting sports-and-entertainment complexes really the way to make life better in Jerusalem, for Jerusalemites? Does the income generated (supposedly!) by such ventures really trickle down to the average citizen? Is the benefit anticipated from such ventures really sufficient to justify diverting scarce resources from the neighborhoods in order to implement said ventures? And should municipal officials be so entirely consumed by the effort to launch these ventures that no attention is left for other things?

And conversely: are the services provided to citizens at the neighborhood level an unjustifiable drain on the municipal coffers? When citizens demand proper maintenance of parks, tree-plantings along streets that have been populated for many years, shade structures, and vital public services within a reasonable walking distance of their homes, are they torpedoing their city’s economic “growth?” Is the state of a neighborhood promenade too unimportant for a mayor to be aware of? Is staying aware of such things beneath the dignity of the higher-echelon city officials? Is it an unwelcome distraction from the business of promoting business in the “central business district?”

The Yerushalmim Party, under the leadership of Jerusalem City Councilwoman Rachel Azaria, has been taking the lead on issues of importance to Jerusalem’s residents. Among other things, the Yerushalmim have been organizing events in neighborhood playgrounds and meeting with residents to hear about their needs, concerns and aspirations.


“Model Park”
Yerushalmim playground events in neighborhoods across

In their platform, the Yerushalmim display an awareness of the needs of ordinary citizens in their specific home neighborhoods and of sound urban planning practices — i.e., promoting mixed-use development “that integrates residential, commercial, and leisure structures, both in existing neighborhoods and in future projects.” This is a refreshing change from the “”ten million tourists!” talk and the relentless pushing of mega-projects in which our present municipal leadership decided early on to specialize. Of those in local public life who quote Jane Jacobs and those who are preoccupied with artificial city branding and dubious economic growth fads, I prefer the former.

Now, Rachel Azaria was originally a member of Barkat’s coalition until ousted over an issue related to desegregating the public realm, and could, theoretically, return to the coalition. But there’s still something extremely odd, I think, about the idea that a separate faction is required to represent residents and their needs, even within the “coalition” — as though resident/neighborhood services are not normal concerns of a municipal leadership. Azaria notes in an interview that, whether in the coalition or the opposition, her work is pretty much the same: “[…] we just use different platforms. So we just push the municipality to do what we believe in. At the end of the day you are supposed to push the municipality to do what you believe in. As a member of the coalition I did it through convincing the mayor. As a member of the opposition I did it through pushing people to city council meetings.”

Should “pushing” and “convincing” the mayor/municipality to provide residents and neighborhoods with needed services be the job of a specific faction? This, unfortunately, appears to be the case in Jerusalem’s present political climate.

Whether the Yerushalmim are destined for a coalition or opposition role after the coming elections, they definitely get my vote. But I have to admit: I don’t care for the gender narrative that is emerging here — a narrative of “masculine” power-and-money-chasing at the top of the hierarchy, and of “feminine” concern for everyday matters at the bottom.

A recent article in Yedioth Aharonoth’s “24 Hours” supplement highlights the burgeoning political activism of women who were involved in the 2011 “stroller march.” “There are going to be a lot of mothers in municipal leadership positions. When that happens, life will be different here.” The “24 Hours” cover features a photo of (I presume) the women in question, with Yerushalmim’s Rachel Azaria front and center, hands on stroller handle and looking like a smart mom who will do what it takes to get what her family needs.

I haven’t read the article — it appears to be unavailable online — and I’m not sure I want to. I don’t think I want to read about how we need women in office in order to make sure that basic citizen needs are being met. I don’t want to read about how the “moms” of public life have to fight the “dads” over how the family budget is being distributed.

I don’t want to be part of a “mom” revolution. I want to be part of a sensible-persons’ revolution, a good-urbanism revolution, a fair-and-equitable-distribution-of-resources revolution, a sustainable-development revolution. If I have to align myself with a “feminized” faction in order to get what I need, I will do so … but only under protest.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.