Saturday, May 8, 2010

The First Boulevard

The cultural season is upon us and Tel Aviv is abuzz with people scurrying from one exhibition to another and in vast numbers. I missed the 'Fresh Paint' exhibition at the newly opened Hangar 1 at Jaffa Port but joined what seemed like thousands of people wandering aroundthe city yesterday and today clutching the catalogue of Open House weekend, known locally as Houses from Within  .

Yesterday we joined an eye-opening tour along Jerusalem Boulevard (sderot yerushalayim) in Yaffo. The photo above will give you an idea of what it looked like in the 1930s under the British Mandate when most of its population was Palestinian.
This will give you an idea of what it looks like today.

Sderot Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Boulevard) started life as Jamal Pasha Boulevard after the Ottomon ruler of Syria and Palestine. In 1914 Jamal appointed Hassan Bek to run Yaffo. In the spirit of the Young Turks, the latter set about adapting the ancient city to the modern age. Work started on Jamal Pasha Boulevard in 1915. It was designed by a Jewish engineer from Haifa and the Turks were so pleased with the results that they asked him to design a similar boulevard in Damascus. The new boulevard, planted with Washington palms cultivated in the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school (another Jewish connection), started at the Manshiyeh neighbourhood (now Charles Clore Park) and cut eastwards through the citrus groves ending abruptly in the middle of nowhere. This was happening at the same time that Jewish Ahuzat Bayit, sooon to be Tel Aviv, founded in 1909, was also beginning to develop to the north. 

The idea behind the boulevard was to create the central axis of a new modern urban centre, and it worked. Under the British Mandate in the 1930s and 40's, Jamal Pasha Boulevard, by now dubbed King George V Boulevard, was a thriving commercial and cultural hub, with 5 cinemas, restaurants , cafes and public buildings. After most of Yaffo's Arabs fled in the 1948 war, many of their houses were occupied by new Jewish arrivals from Bulgaria. Thus in the 1950s and '60s the boulevard was transformed into Little Sophia', a bustling centre for the Bulgarian community which, among other things, had its own nationally famous Zadikov choir and its own football club - Maccabi Yaffo. Modern Socialist type residential blocks were built between the Arab buildings to house them.

Conservation architect, Amnon Bar Or and his team of students recently held a fascinating exhibition on Jerusalem Boulevard with the aim of finally bringing some attention to this neglected treasure and to restore it to some of its former glory. Since that also means paying some attention to the Palestinian built heritage of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, the exhibition attracted some political flack from the right.

It was called The First Boulevard. Click on the dots along the way to see the names of each building (in English too) and access photos and documentation (mainly in Hebrew meanwhile).

On the side of no 6 you can still make out the outlet of the 'Spinneys' sign . Spinneys was established by an expatriate Brit living in Alexandria who made a deal with the British Army to provide food and refreshments for the troops. They now own hypermarkets throughout the Middle East.

This was the splendid Alhambra cinema which showed films and held performances. The famed Egyptian songstress Oum Khoultoum wowed crowds here more than once on her way from Alexandria to more shows in Beirut; a tour that would be impossible today.

A shadow of its former self today, the Alhambra is is shrouded in green in preparation for its conversion to - a Scientology centre.

Along the way, various architectural styles can be detected behind the decades of neglect, grime and all sorts of ugly additions: traditional Palestinian, Art Deco, International, faux Oriental, Israeli socialist etc.

Here and there, the first signs of gentrication are appearing but it will take a new planning approach if Jamal Pasha/King George/Jerusalem boulevard is to be given the respect it deserves. As things stand a high speed above ground light railway is planned to divide one side of the boulevard from the other....

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