Tuesday, December 6, 2011


A rather close family member of mine works for the Jerusalem light rail, and the light rail project is, naturally, a recurring topic of conversation in our household. Based on this, one might assume that I was an "early adopter" of that shiny and elegant new mode of local transit.

But I wasn't. Unfortunately, the light rail in its current configuration doesn't happen to come my way.

My three older children have been on the trains. As part of a staff event to which family members were invited, they actually got to ride along a stretch of the route about a year ago, many months before the light rail became operational. They even have cute tee-shirts to prove it.
I was probably home with a sick toddler. I don't really remember. Do I feel deprived? Not especially. That is, I'd be perfectly happy to go for a spin on those sleek and silent new trains -- just as I'd be happy to pamper myself for a day at a spa. But "going for a spin on the trains" would mean, for me, traveling downtown just for that purpose, and in my everyday life there's no realistic occasion for a trip downtown. A trip downtown would have to be prompted by more practical considerations than a desire to experience the light rail -- and the "revitalized" city center -- in all their glory.

Where downtown Jerusalem is concerned, I guess you could say I'm a bit detached.

On an abstract level, I can certainly understand all of the attention that is being lavished these days on the city center. The area was depressed for quite a while, and it's gratifying to see something happening there.

What I find disorienting, though, is the chicness and sleekness of it all. It doesn't seem like part of my world.

Skyscraper complexes encompassing office and commercial space, luxury penthouses for the wealthy and ground-level plazas for the masses are being approved for downtown Jerusalem by the Municipality. The Binyanei HaUma/city entrance area is slated to become Jerusalem's answer to Paris' La Défense business district (a comparison that deserves its own blog post, and then some). Suddenly nobody is satisfied with poor old downtown Jerusalem and its "country-bumpkin" atmosphere; everybody wants to see it transformed and modernized.

Suddenly the words "density" and "mixed development" are on everyone's lips.

I guess as a New Urbanist wannabe, I should be thrilled that downtown Jerusalem is being densified and reinvigorated. And I suppose I am -- but at a distance.

From my vantage point in southern Jerusalem -- the vantage point of someone whose everyday activities revolve around the needs of children elementary school aged and younger -- "downtown" is the Talpiot Industrial Area. In the time it would take me just to travel to the city center, I can pop over to Talpiot, run my errands, and be home in time for whatever I need to be home in time for.

Central Jerusalem is a place I never get to. Talpiot is my city center.

A city can have more than one center. It's allowed. Very likely, the fact that a city can support more than one center is a sign of its vitality.

Yair Assaf-Shapira, an architect and urban planner who blogs (in Hebrew) at planning Jerusalem , wrote a while back that the Jerusalem Municipality's "exceptional" approvals of commercial activity in the city's "periphery" or "margins" (i.e., Talpiot) pose a threat to business downtown. He has similar things to say about the Pisgat Ze'ev mall.

Assaf-Shapira's position appears to reflect current received wisdom in the Municipality, namely, that "priority should be given to the city center over the secondary centers that developed over the years and attracted commercial activity from the CBD ["central business district"], thereby contributing to its deterioration [...] Developing high-tech [תעשייה מתקדמת] should be preferred in [Talpiot] to developing commercial activity that harms the city center."

With all due respect to the local planning community and its concern for downtown Jerusalem (a concern driven by an awkward mix of hipster urbanism and old-time lefty nostalgia for the pre-1967 era, when Jerusalem's pesky peripheral neighborhoods had yet to be built), I have to think that this interventionist approach is incredibly wrong-headed. Restricting commercial uses in areas that serve the city's far-flung suburbs, and forcing people to travel way out of their way to the city center ... not cool. Why on earth shouldn't residents of Pisgat Ze'ev and Neve Yaakov in northern Jerusalem, or of Gilo, Har Homa, and Armon HaNatziv in southern Jerusalem, have good commercial facilities closer to home than Jaffa Road? What's preferable -- that people spend an hour in public transit, possibly switching buses and trains several times (with strollers and children in tow), to get to shopping facilities in the city center, or that they walk (or ride public transit for just 2 or 3 stops, or drive for 2.5 minutes) to local shopping?

I think Jerusalem's planning cadre has become too "center-centric" in its urban thinking. The idea that the city needs only one center, and that that center should be lavishly developed while peripheral commercial areas are neglected and/or subjected to restrictions on the kinds of commercial activity that can be conducted within them, reflects ignorance of how working Jerusalemites -- middle-class families based in neighborhoods that aren't terribly close to Jaffa Road -- really live.

On the other hand, I have to say I'm glad that my little south-Jerusalem commercial hub in Talpiot hasn't been declared a "priority" area, which would doubtless smooth its rough edges and harm its funky character. Although the Jerusalem Development Authority website does mention some kind of plan to "redesign" the TIA -- to downplay its light-industry component and introduce elements of "accessible housing" [מגורים זמינים] and "employment" (i.e., office buildings for high-tech), this doesn't strike me as the same kind of large-scale sanitization and elite-ization effort that is underway downtown. And for this I am grateful. Everything I like about the Talpiot Industrial Area reflects the fact that planners have pretty much left the place alone.

When I think about Talpiot, the term loveably chaotic spontaneously pops into my head. Actually, the word spontaneous also pops into my head when I think about Talpiot. Other words and expressions that, for me, are associated with this part of town include: anarchic, hodge-podge, chock-a-block, haphazard, tumultuous, heterogeneous ... you get the point.

I love it that nobody thinks the Talpiot Industrial Area needs a glamorous new transit solution entailing a decade of road work (shudder), or that skyscrapers should be built there to increase its "density" (already dense enough, thank you), or that the area needs to become a "magnet for high-tech" (yawn).

I love it that you can do the following in Talpiot: purchase high-end housewares and low-end footwear; get your car fixed; bowl; do one-stop back-to-school shopping at a bargain outlet; sip a cappuchino at a cafe table; triumphantly snag a free parking spot after circling around weird little service roads for half an hour; "sneak" around the back of a building to get to a factory outlet for ladies' hats and grab some gourmet peasant bread while you're at it; pile a shopping cart with several weeks' worth of groceries; go to a shiur; check out tile and fixture samples for your latest home renovation project; get a driver's license; get married.

Where else but the Talpiot Industrial area can you enjoy fine pastries at an outdoor cafe table, situated on a gritty industrial walkway overlooking factories and auto repair shops? HaLechem shel Tomer:

I often think that Jane Jacobs would have approved of the Talpiot Industrial Area -- not necessarily its lack of a residential element, but certainly its vitality and the spontaneity and naturalness with which the area developed its diverse mix of commercial uses. By contrast, I don't think she would too impressed by the grandiose plans currently in place for Jerusalem's entrance area. She liked development from the bottom up, not top-down "strategic planning."

TLC for the TIA

All this being said, there are areas where Talpiot could stand a little tender loving care. Not overbearing strategy, but some minor tweaking -- preferably driven by those who use the area -- merchants and shoppers.

Here's my wish list:

-- A little bit of regulation to ensure appropriate pedestrian access to shopping areas. Talpiot is home to two malls (Hadar and Achim Yisrael) that are pedestrian-friendly, meaning that they have regular street-front entrances -- and to two other malls (Rav Chen and Lev Talpiot) that are entirely pedestrian-hostile (you basically take your life into your hands trying to get into them on foot). There ought to be municipal ordinances regulating this issue.

-- Get some kind of substantial green public space in there. We're talking about a major commercial hub -- surely the level of human traffic in the area justifies the creation of a modest park. There's currently nowhere in the TAI where you can take a break from shopping to just sit and get some fresh air, or bring your kids to decompress between errands. What's more, there is no existing venue that can accomodate the kind of public events (e.g.,concerts, speeches, fairs) that one would normally expect to find in a bustling urban commercial district.

There are still some parcels in the TIA that are undeveloped/in development, and which the Municipality apparently has earmarked for "higher-tech" industries [תעשיות מתקדמות יותר] than those currently served by the area (though, thankfully, not in an aggressively "strategic" way). IMHO, anyone who wants to build an office tower in the TIA should be required to incorporate some kind of open green space into the plans -- a small park, or a plaza with a funky fountain. It's by no means far-fetched to expect Talpiot-area developers to provide the public with some amenities. That's what's happening, after all, with the upscale high-rise projects under development in downtown Jerusalem.

-- Relatedly: There are a few strips of neglected green/shady space along Pierre Koenig -- between the Hatenufa and Tzeret intersections (i.e., between the old Triumph building and the Carmel/Beitili building), and across from the Hadar Mall:

These strips could, perhaps, be upgraded into small promenades or pocket parks
. Why not make something of the little bit of nature that already exists in the TIA? Instead of allowing people to jam their cars between the trees along the Hatenufa-Tzeret strip ...

... why not fence the strip off from the adjacent parking lot and cultivate it a bit, install a bench or two and a couple of small animal-shaped climbing structures? These green strips always look to me like wasted opportunities.

-- Put some sane limits on outdoor advertising in the area:

The intersection of Pierre Koenig-Poalei Tzedek does not have to be a billboard-fest. Hasn't it occurred to anyone that drivers rounding the traffic circle there don't need any more visual distractions than they already have?

Also, what's with those tall advertising "stalks" lining the street in front of the Hadar Mall? When the mall first went up a decade or so ago I thought they were temporary installations meant to inform the public about what stores they could find inside. Nobody needs them now -- we all know what's in there. They create a tacky, carnival-like atmosphere along the street:

Replace the advertising stalks and those stunted potted trees with some shrubbery and some real trees that give shade! The building set-back is pretty large; one would expect more greenery in front of it. Sounds like a good formula to me -- replace billboards with trees!

The items on my wish-list are point-specific things that, I think, could be accomplished without turning the Talpiot Industrial Area into a "strategic project," or doing away with the grit, grunge and spontaneity that make the place loveable and fun to spend time in. All that's needed is recognition on the Municipality's part that the area is a legitimate urban commercial center, one that attracts a large and diverse local population, and is therefore entitled to appropriate municipal services.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Gan Gidon (Gideon Park), Baka -- Jerusalem Playground Review #3

Location: Efraim and Gidon (Gideon) Streets, Baka.

Parking: It is still reasonably easy to find on-street parking along Efraim, Gidon and other nearby streets. The shady spots lining the park itself, which until a year or two ago were snaggable at all hours, now tend to be taken up by 8-8:15 am.

Shade: This park is pretty shady, which is one of the reasons I use it regularly. Although not all of the play equipment is in shade at all times, much of it is shaded at any given time. Notably, the swings are in shade during the early afternoon hours -- a problematic time slot for Jerusalem playground-goers who don't want the sun beating down on their heads.

I have taken children here at the unthinkable hour of 1:00 pm on a summer's day, just to use the swings ... And although the slide/climbing structure is in full sun for much of the day, it actually provides shade for the sand pit in which it stands (along with some surrounding trees). The open green space is shaded to some degree at any given hour.

Even the Mom-Mobile (can you guess which one it is?) enjoys the shade.

Playground equipment and features:

-- Large climbing structure with sections suitable for both toddlers/preschoolers:

and older children:

-- Swings (one toddler swing and one older-child swing). The swings are in shade from the late morning into the afternoon.

-- Sandbox. Sandboxes are a dying breed in Jerusalem; you find them only in older playgrounds -- and when such playgrounds are renovated, the sandboxes are generally removed. I guess it's a labor-intensive affair to keep them free of animal droppings, though some appear to stay cleaner than others. The Gan Gidon sandbox unfortunately tends to be dirty and smelly; on one recent Friday morning I simply had to keep my daughter out of it due to its kitty-litter ambience. Usually, though, the situation is tolerable, and in my experience the sandbox in this park is extensively used.

Sandboxes in general are not for the fainthearted mom; even when they look clean I always suspect the worst -- but I steel myself and let my kids play in them because I feel that they provide a valuable kind of sensory stimulation that other playground features/equipment don't offer. They certainly keep my little one occupied for relatively long periods of time.

I just call in the biohazard squad to decontaminate her afterwards.

-- Seesaw
-- Merry-go-round-- Spring toy-- Basketball and soccer court

-- Open green space (smallish), with large rocks for climbing.

-- Picnic tables

-- The shady, tree- and shrubbery-bordered length of sidewalk along the Efraim St. side of the park is really part of the park itself, and is a good area for bicycling/scootering/bimba-ing.

Age range: toddler/preschool, school-age

Snack factor: A kiosk at the park entrance on Efraim St. sells the usual ice creams/ices, salty snacks, and drinks. The kiosk recently changed hands and now calls itself "Efraim Bar." Previously it was called "Yummy BaPark"(יאמי בפארק) -- a name that never failed to raise a smile on my lips. Beyond this, myriad eateries, groceries/minimarkets and greengrocers are available a block or two away on either Derech Beit Lechem (Bethlehem Rd.) or Emek Refaim St.

The back of the kiosk has been "decorated." While I accept that graffiti can be an authentic mode of artistic expression, I'm not too fond of the pink, green and black color scheme here...

Schmooze factor: Gan Gidon attracts a particularly varied population of veteran Israelis, immigrants, short- and long-term visitors. On fine mornings I often see metaplot (family-based childcare providers) wheeling their young charges into the park in kibbutz-style wagons. I have also struck up conversations with the elegant, slender wives of American journalists stationed in Jerusalem, fresh from their cosmopolitan morning swims at the Y, slumming it with their lone toddlers in the less-than-hygienic sand pit. There are lots of French-speaking immigrants in Baka these days, so you hear that language along with the occasional Russian and ubiquitous English (Hebrew too, sometimes). Altogether Gan Gidon is a sociable little park, situated halfway between two fashionable thoroughfares; a true "third place."

Multiple uses within the park: This compact park/playground manages, within its narrow confines, to encompass quite a few different uses that complement each other and enhance the site's value as a family-oriented public space.
-- Play equipment suited to both young and older children
-- A sand pit that constitutes a separate attraction, distinct from the play equipment
-- A basketball and soccer court
-- A lawn that is reasonably shady even in mid-afternoon
-- Picnic tables
-- Shrubbery areas suitable for young children to explore and muck around in
-- Adjacent kiosk (with seating) that fuels additional human interaction.

Bottom line: You can occupy kids here for decent amounts of time, because there are several distinct play areas/activity options. If only the sandbox were cleaner!

Beyond the park: a walk along Gidon (Gideon) St., Baka

Gidon St. provides the urbanista mom with a conveniently direct route between the two chic commercial hubs of Derech Beit Lechem (Bethlehem Rd.) and Emek Refaim St. But Gidon St. is more than just a connecting line. If you take Gan Gidon (Gideon Park) as your starting point, a walk along Gidon St. in either direction offers a kind of classic urban Jerusalem experience, in the form of residential architecture and landscaping that run the gamut in terms of style, period, and socioeconomic context.

The intersection of Gidon and Efraim features an attractive seating area:

Children like to walk around the stone benches surrounding these old olive trees, and (depending on age) to climb the trees themselves.

The lovely flower garden adjacent to the seating area perpetuates the memory of Eli Altretz [sp.?], a painter and sculptor who was murdered by an Arab terrorist in 1990.

Turning eastward up Gidon in the direction of Derech Beit Lechem, one finds interesting old houses ...

... newer residential buildings, and hybrids of the two:

I'm no expert on Jerusalem architecture (that's an education I hope to acquire when I no longer find myself spending large chunks of time in playgrounds), but when I look at the building pictured above I think, Middle East on the bottom, Bauhaus on top.

Another building that incorporates the old into the new:

Too bad the arched windows in the photo below (the same old-new hybrid building as the one pictured above) are mostly hidden by a high, forbidding wall.

Here, one new project offers the passerby a garage-scape to look at ...

... while on the opposite side of the street you can glimpse a beautiful garden through a chain-link fence:

As you approach Derech Beit Lechem, Gidon Street becomes closed to vehicular traffic and narrows to a footpath:

New but tasteful:

The trendiness that is Derech Beit Lechem:

Corner of Derech Beit Lechem and Esther HaMalka St. (one block down from the Derech Beit Lechem-Gidon St. intersection). The yellow awning (if I remember correctly) belongs to Siman Kriah (a.k.a. "Bookmark"), a store that sells used English-language books:

Returning to the Gidon-Efraim intersection:

A sign exhorts us, in one official and one non-official language, to care for Jerusalem's appearance:

Yet just across the intersection, one finds legalized street spam (a.k.a. litter on a stick), courtesy of the Jerusalem Municipality:

The section of Gidon St. that extends from the Efraim St. intersection to Derech HaRakevet is a study in contrasts.

The even-numbered side of the street is the more upscale side, featuring attractive and well-maintained stone buildings. The odd-numbered side consists of shikun buildings (Israeli mass housing of the 1950s and 1960s). Some of the buildings have been refurbished, while others retain their old-style facing:

The location being what it is, even these less upscale buildings have their signs of gentrification, such as sleek and shiny designer doors to individual apartments -- which contrast starkly with internal courtyards that have yet to be gentrified:

The end of Gidon St. is picturesque:

From here you enter Derech HaRakevet, where a new park, featuring attractive greenery, walkways, bicycle and running paths, has tastefully incorporated the old Jerusalem railroad track ...

... proving that the Jerusalem Municipality can plan something right when it wants to. Park HaMesila is a pleasant urban space to cross on the way from Baka to Emek Refaim, and an equally pleasant destination in and of itself, for humans and their canine friends alike.

The new trees have some growing to do before they can give any real shade. During chol hamoed Sukkot, DH and I stood/sat mainly in the sun for half an hour while our three school-aged boys cycled happily up and down Derech HaRakevet:

The building with the arched windows in the background was hidden from view until recently, when the area around it was cleared for a new parking lot. From an urbanist point of view, perhaps this is a net gain.

The vibrant commercial hub of Emek Refaim is just a block down.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Jerusalem Playground Reviews -- Agenda and Parameters

Two main objectives motivate my effort to review Jerusalem playgrounds:

1) To provide parents and others with information about parks and playgrounds in Jerusalem -- information that might be hard to come by in the course of their day-to-day activities.

* With regard to local residents, the idea is to offer a glimpse of play areas throughout the city. People naturally tend to stick with what they know, with what is closest to home. But sometimes the answer to a need lies a bit farther afield. And sometimes a perfectly worthwhile solution is closer to home than one might think.

* With regard to tourists, I thought it might be a good idea to offer information about more "heimish" or local-color playgrounds -- places that can be used as bases for exploring different neighborhoods on foot.

2) Grandiose as it might seem, I hope to exert an influence on those involved in planning Jerusalem parks and playgrounds. Probably the main reason that I have come to explore playgrounds outside of my home neighborhood over last dozen years or so is the erosion (as I see it) of traditional standards of playground design. A failure to provide for shade (not just in immediate terms, but in the long term as well); a lack of concern for how parks/playgrounds interact with the neighborhood as a whole (isolated locations, distance from shopping, services, etc.); a disregard of visibility issues (e.g., hiding play areas behind high walls); an inappropriate separation of shrubbery and trees from playground users ... these and other issues have frustrated me over the years as I have transported my children to play areas around Jerusalem in search of shade, contact with nature, and stimulating encounters with urban life.

Review Parameters

Parameters include:

Location (street and neighborhood)
Shade -- IMHO, the single most important factor in determining a playground's usability during daytime hours, and one that the Jerusalem Municipality has consistently ignored in the design of its newer playgrounds.
Play equipment -- In general, Jerusalem playgrounds are rather poorly equipped by Western standards. There is little creativity and much repetitiveness. In my home neighborhood, playgrounds within a block or two of each other have virtually the same slide/tunnel structures, spring toys, etc. Even the playgrounds which I have reviewed most enthusiastically are not those with the fanciest equipment -- but I'm not sure that's such a terrible thing. One point that I try to underscore throughout these reviews is the importance of a playground's location, overall layout, multiple-use status, and interaction with the surrounding environment. Children don't need the most expensive toys available on the market -- they need environments that are stimulating.
Age suitability
Snack factor -- Although I, like many other mothers, try to bring healthy snacks or even meals (depending on the time of day) along on park outings, there are certain summer mainstays, such as ice creams and ices, that are often inconvenient to pack and schlep. Sometimes you forget stuff. Sometimes you just want to fly out the door and not pack anything. A small grocery or kiosk near the park can be a lifesaver. It can also bring more human traffic to the park, and make it a more sociable place.
Schmooze factor -- Both children and their adult escorts benefit from human interaction. Sometimes it can be pleasant to have a park/playground to yourself, but usually you want to see people.
Multiple uses within the park -- A playground with just one item of play equipment, or a number of items that are suited to a specific age range, will obviously be of limited use. Likewise, a space that contains some play equipment but offers no access to nature and no areas to explore, will not be too attractive to children or adults. Multiple uses give parks the ability to be different things to different users, or different things to the same user on different occasions.
Beyond the park -- Items of interest to parents and children that are within an easy walking distance from the park. Parks and playgrounds that are isolated from commercial and other land uses are less valuable than they might otherwise be -- however fancy the equipment in them.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summertime, libraries, Brooklyn, Jerusalem

It's mid-August. The kids' summer camps have long since ended. Every day is an exercise in parental ingenuity: how to keep the children occupied in a positive way. How to keep eyes off screens, grubby little fingers off keyboards.

Outdoor excursions are important in summer, at least to our family. But reading is also an activity that -- in the mind of yours truly, a former librarian -- is strongly associated with summer vacations. August, as I remember it from childhood, is public-library prime-time.

Granted, the Brooklyn of my formative years was a public-library-goer's utopia. Perhaps I was spoiled -- though I do recall a certain famous NYC fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s ("Ford to City: Drop D--d") in which public library hours were curtailed. But that didn't leave much of an impression.

Israel has never developed the kind of public-library culture that exists in the US. The municipal library systems here vary greatly in caliber from locality to locality, and there are no professional organizations with sufficient clout to set and enforce standards. I'm not sure why the Israeli public-library sphere has evolved so little over the years. Books certainly are expensive here -- like everything else; how Israelis have managed to obtain reading material all these decades in the absence of quality public libraries, I cannot imagine. (But then I have trouble understanding how they can afford expensive new cars, trips abroad, etc., on their Israeli salaries.)

It's worth pointing out that a neighborhood branch of a municipal public library system doesn't have to be anything grandiose. Some of my fondest Brooklyn-childhood memories are of a modest storefront library that was located around the corner from our home on East 58 St. I was sorry when it later moved a few blocks away to a new, larger building at a busy commercial intersection. The storefront library had perfectly complemented the sleepy little strip of shops around the corner from us on Ave. T: the old-style luncheonette with the swivel stools; the cool, dim grocery with its fascinating stacks of canned goods -- themselves like bookshelves in a way; the perfumey drugstore with its aisles of greeting-cards; the Chinese laundry with the honest-to-goodness Chinese family living in its back room.

The little library nestled among these stores might not have served the adults of the neighborhood very well, but from a child's perspective, it was "right-sized."

Nostalgia aside, it is worth noting that, even before a proper, dedicated library building was built to serve this part of southeast Brooklyn, the municipal library system recognized the need to provide services to the local taxpaying population. In the absence of a building, the municipality rented a store and set up a library in it, with regular opening hours. Not too difficult, right?

The Jerusalem municipality was capable, in the past, of coming up with solutions of this kind, in order to serve residents in newer neighborhoods where library buildings had yet to be built. If I'm not mistaken, both central and eastern Pisgat Ze'ev had public library branches operating on the premises of local schools, within a reasonable time frame after these areas became populated. Nothing fancy, for sure. But serviceable. Normal, convenient opening hours. Someplace to take your kids for an hour or two on a hot summer afternoon. Someplace to read a magazine, get some books.

Something happened during the Lupolianski mayoral administration. Suddenly, it became okay to disenfranchise taxpaying Jerusalemites -- to penalize them for deciding to live in the city's newer neighborhoods. Suddenly, the lack of a library building became a good excuse for simply neglecting to provide library services. Send the bookmobile in there 2-3 times a week for an hour. That'll do.

Below is the site where a public library is slated for construction, in the neighborhood of Jerusalem where I live -- Har Homa:

Plans for this site also include kindergarten buildings and a small synagogue (the neighborhood is in a perpetual state of crisis regarding both kindergarten and shul space).

The photo above was taken about half a year ago. The work has not advanced appreciably since then.

In lieu of a real library, our neighborhood's children have been served for nearly a decade now by this rather forbidding specimen of a mobile library:

For years I and my family snubbed the bookmobile. I had a "Mom-mobile" at my disposal and Baka wasn't too far away; we could get there on a weekly basis in summer, and perhaps once every six weeks during the school year. Not ideal -- certainly not walkable -- but it seemed pleasanter and more civilized to patronize a real (albeit modest) library every few weeks than to climb into that unventilated and unappealing little truck -- like a furnace in summer, and (so my kids claimed) reeking of cigarette smoke.

Then, a couple of summers ago, the arrival of a new baby made the trip to the Baka library less practicable. I went through the mobile library's irritating subscription process (writing out half a dozen deposit checks for a hundred shekels each, so my 3 older kids could each take out two books at a time). Of course I hardly expected the Jerusalem mobile library's circulation system to be integrated with that of the city's public library system as a whole -- seeing that the neighborhood branches themselves are not integrated as a Westerner would expect them to be: instead of having a library card that serves you at all municipal branches, you have to take out a subscription at each and every branch that you want to patronize, going through the annoying deposit-check process every single time.

So we subscribed, my kids used the mobile library a few times that summer ... then stopped once school started up again.

The mobile library comes to Har Homa only 3 times a week, for an hour or, at best, an hour and a half at a time -- somewhere between 3:30 and 5:30 pm. What this means is that a child who goes to school outside of the neighborhood (a large proportion of Har Homa's children fall into that category) and comes home at around 4:00 pm, has little chance of making it to the mobile library, after unpacking his/her day for Ima and grabbing a bite to eat. What is more, many organized after-school activities, such as martial arts or music lessons, conflict with these miserly mobile-library hours.

As things worked out, my kids were unable to make use of the Jerusalem mobile library during its operating hours in Har Homa.

What is needed, clearly, is a local library that offers services during the normal range of hours for a Jerusalem branch -- from 2:00 pm to 7:00 pm, 4 or 5 afternoons a week. Whether that library is operated out of a storefront rented by the municipality, or in a caravan planted in one of the schoolyards -- that's for the iriya to decide.

Har Homa, for those not aware of the local demographic situation, is overwhelmingly a neighborhood of families with young children. Basically, an entire generation of children has been growing up here without library services worthy of the name. Nine years is an awfully long time for the "new neighborhood" excuse to be employed. And library service is hardly the only sphere in which that excuse is being employed.

Not that things are altogether rosy in Baka. To get to my summer 2011 library saga: I decided to try the mobile library again this year. Not out of any enthusiasm, but because I found out that the Baka library would be closing for two whole weeks during August.

Based on previous years' experience I had been expecting the library to close for one week, when the community center that houses it shuts down for "concentrated" staff vacations. One August day a few years ago I arrived in Baka with my kids expecting to pass a couple of pleasant hours in the library, only to find, along with other families that had come for the same purpose, that the library was closed for the week -- nobody had bothered to post notices beforehand. When I inquired afterward why the library had shut down for a week during the month when it was probably most needed, the librarian told me that it is unsafe to keep the library open while the community center itself is closed.

That, unfortunately, sounds like a typical Jerusalem Municipality solution -- rather than getting a security guard to stand at the entrance to the community center so the library can stay open during peak season, they just cancel services for the duration (ditto for several other Jerusalem public libraries housed within community centers).

A public library branch, even a small and poorly-equipped one, represents a considerable investment of public resources. Isn't it a horrible waste of resources for a library to shut down for even one week -- let alone two -- during the summer vacation?

In despair, I decided to try again with the mobile library. However, I had misplaced the sheet I once had detailing the bookmobile hours. I spent quite a while online trying to find the information, ultimately reaching this page which lists bookmobile hours for other neighborhoods, but makes no mention of Har Homa. The mobile library does not appear on the list of Jerusalem public libraries provided at the municipality website.

Okay, I could just have picked up the phone to the main branch at Beit Ha'Am and asked. But as it happened, the bookmobile was there one afternoon while I and a couple of my kids were walking down the street. So we climbed on in. My kids chose a few books for themselves; but when we tried to check them out, the librarian was unable to locate any record of our subscription. It's all hard-copy, you see. The index card had been lost.

I didn't have any checks on me and couldn't re-subscribe. So we left the books behind and went home. A few days later, we subscribed at the Gilo library branch (which has its own building, so it doesn't close during August). I hadn't thought of it as an option before, as I had understood the English children's book collection there to be quite minimal compared with Baka's and it's important to me that my kids read in both of their languages ... but in the end it was fine. My oldest found a Hardy Boys book that he had never read before, the staff displayed a heroic degree of understanding when my toddler threw a tantrum over a sippy cup that didn't belong to her, and we were able to combine the library visit with a trip to the Gilo pool next door. My only gripe: having to haul a stroller up a flight of stairs to get to the library, which was built in the days before anyone thought of access. A person who gets around in a wheelchair could not make use of the facility (and I gather that this is the case at other Jerusalem branches as well).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Lifschitz Street Park -- Jerusalem Playground Reviews, pt. 2

Location: Access to this large Baka park/playground is via Lifschitz and Peretz Streets, and by a footpath to the side of the kindergarten building at #9 Pierre Koenig St. (the path includes a few steps).

It took years and years for me to discover this gem of a park -- and I thought I knew the area well, despite not actually being a Baka resident. Presumably anyone who lives in Baka would be familiar with the place; yet it is remarkably invisible to non-residents, despite its size (large by Jerusalem standards) and open, flowing design. Somehow the park manages to be wedged between two major thoroughfares -- Rivka St. (to which Lifschitz runs directly parallel -- pictured at left) and Pierre Koenig (the main drag of the Talpiot Industrial Area) -- yet without being visible from either.
Rivka and Pierre Koenig streets bustle with commercial activity, vehicular and foot traffic, yet the Lifschitz Street Park -- accessible to both via short footpaths, is a veritable oasis of greenery and calm.

Shade: In general, this park has abundant shade.

The toddler play area has sufficient shade to make it usable throughout the morning, until noon.
The play area for older children is, unfortunately, in full sun pretty much all day -- from 10:00 am or so until 3:00 or 3:30 pm.
The lawns/picnic areas have plenty of shade throughout the day.

Play equipment:

Older children: The play equipment for older children includes, in addition to the swing set pictured at top, a large slide/tunnel complex.

Toddlers: A separate play area (on the park's lower level) includes a slide, a carousel, a running barrel, spring toys and seesaws. Nothing too fancy, just plain, old-fashioned and serviceable equipment.

On the upper level (the older children's play area), the aforementioned swing set includes one toddler swing.
The upper and lower play areas are connected both by steps and by a winding path for strollers.

Seating: There are plenty of benches in shady spots throughout the park, as well as a couple of picnic tables.

Snack factor: There is no adjacent grocery or kiosk, making it hard to pick up something healthy if you've forgotten to bring provisions, or to treat the crew to an ice cream. However, the nearby Talpiot Industrial Area offers an abundance of eateries and supermarkets. Rivka Street, directly parallel to Lifschitz, is home to Burekas Ima (pictured at left). Ima, a venerable local institution , offers a particularly large selection of semi-nutritious mizrachi-style savory baked goods such as individual pizzas, pitot topped with roasted vegetables, blinz-type things filled with chickpea paste, etc. -- along with the standard burekassim, breads/rolls and dessert items. So you don't have to feel too guilty about having left those tuna sandwiches home. Treat yourself to an iced coffee, while you're at it.

Chevra (schmooze factor): One thing that I find distinctive about this park is the presence, on weekday mornings, of a regular crowd consisting primarily of metaplot (family-based childcare providers) and their young charges. This provides a certain user base that makes the park attractive to other people as well. As noted above, the park, despite its proximity to a major commercial and shopping area, is hidden from the nearby main roads and doesn't get much "incidental" traffic -- i.e., shoppers dropping by to sip a soft drink, or to let their kids air out between errands so they don't get pushed past their boredom limit; working people on their lunch hour, and so on.
This limitation on the park's user diversity is compensated for by the presence, at regular hours, of metaplot and young children, who attract other users that the park might otherwise not get.

Knowing that Orly will be in the toddler playground area at around 11:00 with her little troupe of 2-3 year olds --
and her exceedingly gentle and tolerant dog Angie --
makes me and other SAHMs/WAHMs want to be there too.

This combination of metaplot who integrate the playground into their daycare routine, and mothers who drop by on a more irregular basis with their youngsters, creates a sense of community -- a social framework that is intimate yet open, stable yet fluid.

Multiple uses within the park:

-- There is play equipment that suits both toddlers and school-aged children.

--The fact that the toddler and older-child play areas are on separate levels, rather than being inconvenient, is actually a plus.

The areas are visible to each other, so a mother in the toddler area can keep track (to some degree) of what the older kids are up to, and they are connected both by steps and by a winding path for the convenience of stroller-pushers and wheelchair-users. (This concern for access is, unfortunately, not something to be taken for granted in Jerusalem.)

-- The older-child play equipment includes some items that can be used by toddlers, e.g. a toddler swing within the swing set ,
while some of the toddler equipment could be attractive to older children as well
... meaning that a youngster who gets bored in one area of the park can wander to another area and find something to do there.

-- Lawns on both levels with ample shade throughout the day.

-- Picnic benches.

-- Shrubbery that is open and child-friendly (suitable for exploring).

-- Paths for bicycling/tricycling/scootering/"bimba-ing".
-- Sometimes features intended for other uses entirely become successful play arenas. My two year old just loves to walk around and around the stone perimeters of these raised tree/shrubbery platforms:

Beyond the park (services and amenities available in the Lifschitz St. area)

Despite being hidden and little-known, the park is close to all sorts of worthwhile things:
-- In one direction you have the shopping mecca of Talpiot, with its lovably chaotic mix of malls and commercial strips, carpentry shops, eateries, auto repair shops, educational institutions, government agency offices, and organizational headquarters. If you know where the Lifschitz Street Park is,
and your errands are confined to, say, the Hadar Mall on Pierre Koenig St. (pictured at left) and thereabouts, you can easily combine a shopping expedition with a park outing. If you come to the area by car, I recommend simply parking on Lifschitz St. (parking there is plentiful; in addition to the on-street parking there is a large lot surrounding the Yedidya shul adjacent to the park). You can get out to Rivka St. via one of two footpaths that start directly across from the park and from the adjacent Kehillat Yedidya shul.

--In the other direction, into the quiet streets of Baka, there are a few points of interest for those seeking to entertain children. One is the Baka branch of the Jerusalem Public Library, located in the community center at 3 Issachar St. Although by Western standards this library is exceedingly modest, by Jerusalem standards it is quite presentable. There is some comfortable seating, and parents can often be seen reading to young children here. The library has a relatively decent collection of English-language books for children.

Another item of interest in Baka is Zoology (pronounced in Hebrew with a hard "g") -- an animal-based enrichment and activity center for children. It is located on the premises of the Tali Geulim School on Kibbutz Galuyot St., a couple of blocks from the Lifschitz Street Park. Zoology runs courses and also has open hours for visitors, with explanations by trained guides.

Items of visual/architectural interest on Lifschitz St.:

Lifschitz Street features an eclectic mix of old stone houses ...

newer imitation Arab-style houses ...
and shikkun buildings (1950s-era Israeli mass housing) that have been refurbished in a respectable, if uninspired, way. Note the shrubbery in front of these buildings, and the human-scaled entrance area -- features that recent Jerusalem residential architecture has done away with in favor of the almighty garage entrance.

Directly across the street from the park entrance, at #25 Lifschitz, one enters a footpath

that turns into what must be one of Jerusalem's narrowest walkways:

This little passageway yields some picturesque sights:

The rather bucolic little footpath brings you out to busy Rivka Street. Note the Domino's Pizza located in an old stone house stranded in the middle of a parking lot.

Back on Lifschitz, at #12 (right next to the park entrance), is the synagogue building of Kehillat Yedidya, completed in 2003. According to Kehillat Yedidya's website, the structure resembles an "unfurling scroll."

Up the street is is a more traditionally-designed shul building:

Photo credit:
Hadar Mall via Wikimedia Commons