Monday, February 14, 2011

The Paradox: Haaretz article on Rehavia

In my last post, I criticized the Jerusalem Post for its failure to cover Jerusalem's peripheral neighborhoods in depth -- despite admitting that I turn to the JP regularly for my local Israeli/Jerusalem English-language news.

There are, of course, other options. There is the Hebrew press -- for me, that generally means Makor Rishon. Regarding other English options, the natural choice for someone seeking a New York Times imitation would be Haaretz. However, I try to avoid reading Haaretz, as I find the paper problematic from a Zionist point of view. I will turn to it only if referred there for an article particularly relevant to my areas of interest.

Recently I did follow such a link. The Ginot Ha'Ir (greater Rehavia community council) website referred its readers to a Haaretz article dealing with Rehavia planning and architectural issues.

Rehavia is an upscale central-Jerusalem neighborhood with a large activist population -- people knowledgable about environmental and urbanist issues who are willing to make a fuss when things are not to their liking. Not only does the Rehavia community council have a nuanced understanding of urban design, but it also possesses the ability to mobilize neighborhood residents and to generate publicity for its efforts vis-a-vis the planning authorities.

Although it is frustrating to see yet another newspaper article devoted to a part of town whose architectural and planning features are already receiving a great deal of media attention, I have to admit that the Haaretz article itself is absolutely terrific, and could serve as a model for the kind of writing that is desperately needed for other Jerusalem neighborhoods.

The article, for which an English translation does not appear to exist, was written by Nir Hasson and published about a month and a half ago, on 24 December 2010. It is entitled, רחביה נאבקת למען הנוף האהוב - עצים במקום אבן -- "Rehavia Fighting for Its Beloved Landscape -- Trees Instead of Stone."

The article has several features that I have rarely seen in an Israeli newspaper article dealing with the physical character of a specific neighborhood.

-- The article juxtaposes two photos in a way that is highly edifying for the reader. One photo shows the high stone wall surrounding a new residential project; an adult human is walking along the sidewalk outside the wall and is dwarfed by it. The other photo shows the low wall surrounding a classic old-style Rehavia building, with the residents' common green area fully visible to passers-by. This kind of "urbanist" photo-journalism gives the reader a basis for comparison and a sense of perspective. One might contrast this with the simulated images used by local real estate developers to market their projects -- an issue that I have taken up in a previous post.

-- The article quotes, at length, people who are both knowledgeable and passionate about urban planning. For example, Hasson quotes Ginot Ha'Ir neighborhood planner Zeev Arad about the all-important "tavech" (תווך) -- the semi-public spaces between buildings that make the Rehavia landscape what it is. It is clear that Arad has strong feelings about the ideal of "semi-public space," and that these feelings are rooted in his professional ethic as an architect.

-- The article deals in specifics. Where a Jerusalem Post article about Rehavia, its master plan, and the struggle to preserve the neighborhood's traditional character would have talked vaguely about greenery and old houses, the Haaretz article presents an in-depth analysis of what really makes Rehavia "green." It points out that a per-capita breakdown of Rehavia's actual park space (less than one sq.m. per resident, a tenth of the national standard) actually makes it one of Jerusalem's least green neighborhoods; it then goes on to explain -- or rather to let the expert, Arad, explain -- that the neighborhood's green image is actually due to the "intermediate" -- semi-public -- gardens that surround its old-style buildings.

-- The article relates architectural style and urban design features to community values. Arad is quoted at length about the modest lifestyle led by Rehavia's original residents -- pre- and post-state Zionist leaders and Hebrew University professors. This was a population that attached importance to public spaces. The apartments were small, but the shared spaces were developed with love and care -- belying the area's "elitist" reputation. These shared spaces, which were demarcated from each other and from the street by trees and low walls that permitted both visibility and passability, made up for the lack of planned park space, and gave the neighborhood's children an "infinite" number of semi-public green areas in which to play.

I loved this article, and was deeply frustrated by it.

1) Why do I have to go to a left-leaning Israeli newspaper, one of whose recent editors-in-chief publicly exhorted the US to "rape" Israel , in order to read about how Zionist and communal values may be embodied in the urban sphere? Where is Makor Rishon (a newspaper that has never, to my knowledge, addressed issues of this kind)? Where is the Jerusalem Post (a paper with strong Zionist credentials and both a nominal and physical connection to Jerusalem)?

2) Why is this kind of intelligent, in-depth reporting being applied only to Jerusalem's elite and established neighborhoods? Why do the Israeli media, Hebrew and English, systematically ignore the way in which the city's newer neighborhoods are being built? It is the newer, more affordable parts of town that constitute Jerusalem's future. These are the places that are attracting -- or failing to attract -- young families, working people, olim.

This article has several other features that I hope, G-d willing, to take up in future posts.

Photo credit: Adiel lo (Wikipedia)

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