Friday, February 24, 2012

Gan HaAgvaniya (Tomato Park), Old Katamon -- a Jerusalem Playground Review

Name: This much-loved park has an irresistible name. Who wouldn't want to go to a park named after a tomato?  Although the place had been known to me for many years, I learned its name only when my oldest son started attending Chorev Elementary School, which stands across the street from the park and supplies a large proportion of its clientele. Apparently the name refers to the park's shape, which is thought to be tomato-like, with a slightly indented shrubbery area at its "crown":

On maps of Old Katamon that I have looked at, the tomato comparison seems a bit far-fetched.

Actually the park has another, official name, inscribed on two separate plaques:

John V. Lindsay, Mayor of New York City from 1966-1973 -- a.k.a. Mayor Linseed of Gotham City ...

I did a little digging online about Harvey Rothenberg, the park donor identified on the plaque in the above photo. A successful New York City businessman and active Zionist who helped found the Jerusalem Fund, he was also a good friend of John V. Lindsay and served on Lindsay's mayoral staff for a salary of $1 per year -- somewhat reminiscent of our current shekel-a-year Jerusalem mayor. Rothenberg reminisces about his interactions with such luminaries as Golda Meir, the Shah of Iran, and Teddy Kollek, here. For a fascinating article about John V. Lindsay and his conception of New York City as an "adventure playground," click here.

It may seem unfair that a "popular" playground name should trump the name intended for it by its donor; there may be something instructive in this, something to do with the primacy of physical features in the minds of children. I don't feel capable of bucking the trend and talking about "John V. Lindsay Park" in everyday conversation, but I do think it's worthwhile to trace the donor history of parks and to honor the philanthropists who help make Jerusalem a better place. So, I hope, where relevant, to keep including donor information as a feature of my Jerusalem Playground Reviews.

Location: Kovshei Katamon Street, at the Kaf-Tet BeNovember Street intersection (across from Chorev Elementary School), Old Katamon.

Transit/Parking: Bus line 24 (Kovshei Katamon St.); plentiful on-street parking on Kovshei Katamon during most daytime hours, except for school drop-off and pick-up times.

Shade: Gan HaAgvaniya has abundant shade. I can't vouch for the central play area during all daytime hours, but a large sandbox near the park entrance (which includes a couple of spring toys and tic-tac-toe installation) is shady throughout the day:

The park's large open area is bounded by a margin of shrubbery and lovely mature trees:

Benches are scattered along the park perimeter to take advantage of the shade.

Playground equipment and features:

Large climbing/slide structure, suitable for toddlers and young children, up to about ages 6-8:


Running barrel

Small see-saw

Spring toys

"Standing" see-saw

Large, relatively clean and shady sand box with tic-tac-toe installation and spring toys:

Cat statue (good for climbing, throwing sand at):

(Plenty of real felines, too ...)

Shrubbery areas that are accessible to children for mucking around and exploring:

Lots of climbable rocks and stepping-stones:

A circular path, part asphalt and part cobblestone, suitable for scootering, tricycling, etc.:

Age range:  Play equipment suitable for toddlers and younger children up to ages 6-8; for older children the park offers sufficient space to kick a ball around, dig for scorpions (if they're into that sort of thing), ride a scooter, or just hang out.

Snack factor: Unfortunately, there is no kiosk or grocery in the immediate vicinity (i.e., accessible without having to cross a street, or at least visible just across a street). However, there is a grocery around the corner on HaLamed-Heh Street, a fairly short walk away, as well as a bakery/cafe. A few blocks away, on HaPalmach St., there is a larger selection of stores and eateries (see the Beyond the park section below).

Schmooze factor: I use this park mainly in the afternoons, when I pick my kids up from the school across the street. The after-school hours are quite busy and fun here, with older Chorev kids stopping to play or cutting through the park on their way home ...

(somebody brought their hamster to school today)
 .. mothers picking up their younger schoolchildren and bringing preschool siblings and babies along for an outing ...

... or perhaps a picnic:

On school days you sometimes see classes of 30+ children from Chorev Elementary School charging into the park -- time off for good behavior ... On Friday mornings (a school morning, but also the start of the Israeli Friday-Shabbat weekend) the park is a popular spot for fathers with toddlers, giving their wives a break. On regular weekday mornings (Sunday through Thursday) the park usually gets some traffic -- the occasional mother-child or babysitter-child dyad, dog walkers, etc. However, Gan HaAgvaniya doesn't seem to especially attract metaplot (family-based childcare providers) with larger numbers of children in tow, perhaps because there is another, bigger park a couple of blocks down that also has swings, or possibly due to a problem with seating in the park's main play area, which I discuss below.

Seating: My one criticism of the park. Yes, there are plenty of benches along the tree-lined perimeter, and they provide delightfully shady seating on a hot summer's day. There is also a bench near the sandbox, and a funky seating area at the park's entrance:

In memory of Eliezer Karsani

The problem is that there are no benches near the park's central play area, where most of the equipment is located. 

The play area was renovated a couple of years ago. Formerly, it consisted of a small but sturdy and attractive wooden climbing/slide structure, a metal "car" installation with benches and steering wheels, and a spring toy or two. The equipment was situated within a sandbox, which itself was surrounded by a circular stone bench where mothers and other adults could sit and keep a close eye on the children playing there. When the play area was renovated (and I never could figure out why, as the previous set of equipment was perfectly adequate), the stone bench was removed and replaced with ... nothing that anyone, adult or child, could comfortably sit on.

Instead, the renovated play area was partly demarcated by a "decorative" but useless stone wall that is too high for a normal-sized adult woman to sit on in a dignified way:

You have to jump pretty high to get up on this thing, and then your legs dangle ...

If you look carefully, you can see that the wall is actually slanted in the wrong direction for anyone who might actually want to sit on it while facing the play area ... There are some benches not too far away, but the wall serves as a barrier between them and the play area, meaning that a mother/caregiver who wants to keep a close eye on children using the play equipment (and step in quickly to intervene where necessary) would not feel comfortable using the benches.

There is a problem in Jerusalem these days with excessive wall-building. I don't mean in a political sense (that's far beyond my purview), but in an urbanist sense. I point this out regarding another, brand-new playground that is effectively ruined by its surrounding wall, and regarding the city's newer residential construction. Just because it's made of Jerusalem stone doesn't mean it belongs there! There's more to urban design than putting up walls! 

Multiple uses within the park: Gan HaAgvaniya is definitely a mixed-use kind of place. It boasts:

Several different play areas that are distinct yet visible and easily accessible to each other (a plus for caregivers watching several children of varying ages);

Well-developed, multiple shrubbery areas where kids can interact with the natural world;

A circular path for scootering, etc.;

Some open lawn space:

Rocks and stones for climbing;

There is an adjacent empty lot (in Old Katamon! -- surely constituting some of the most valuable real estate on the planet) where more adventurous children can explore:

The park's immediate proximity to a school and a bus stop, and its relative proximity to some shopping areas, make it a pass-through place. Although it is bounded along much of the "tomato" perimeter by residential buildings, with a buffer of shrubbery and mature trees, this boundary is actually quite permeable. All the locals seem to know where the park border's unofficial "transit points" are, and utilize them as shortcuts.

Gan HaAgvaniya fits my mantra: a good park should be different things to different people, and different things to the same people on different occasions.

Beyond the park: Kovshei Katamon and HaLamed-Heh streets

Although I have reviewed three other playgrounds so far in the enchanted Old Katamon-German-Colony-Baka triangle, it is Gan HaAgvaniya and its surrounding streets that conjure up memories of my bitza past with a Proustian palpability. This is subjective, I know. I'm sure other Katamon refugees have their own involuntary-memory triggers.

As you leave Gan HaAgvaniya and head up Kovshei Katamon in the direction of HaLamed-Heh, you see some pretty typical Katamon architecture:

The above building is not an especially fancy one, just a normal stone-faced residential structure that exemplifies what life was like in Jerusalem before the current nightmare of minimum parking requirements. Note that there is indeed some parking space at ground level, under the building proper and directly in front of it. Note also, however, that the area in front of the building is left open, meaning that the structure's overall human scale remains intact. Yes, there's a car parked there, but there's also a bit of shrubbery; you can see the balconies and windows of the lower floors; if you pass by at night you have a reassuring sense of human activity in the area. This is in contrast to the snout houses that have become all the rage in Jerusalem over the last two decades -- buildings with large, enclosed garages that protrude from the building facades and create a sense of desolation at street level. A few of these devils appear a little farther up, when we turn the corner onto HaLamed-Heh Street. I will point them out to you, don't worry.

Another undistinguished, but human-scaled and therefore attractive apartment building:

The Kovshei-Katamon--HaLamed-Heh intersection:

The corner building is Yakar, the well-known synagogue and epicenter of my bitza memories. To point up the connection with Gan HaAgvaniya, I used to duck out from Yakar to the park on Yom Kippur for a catnap between mussaf and mincha -- the ten minutes or so that were left after the endlessly drawn-out (but beautifully harmonized!) davening. Now, I do like trees and shrubbery but I think they've gone a bit overboard. I'd like to see more building here.

Turning left onto HaLamed-Heh, one finds an interesting mixed-use street marked by attractive older architecture and, unfortunately, some terrible recent construction.

One lovely old building serves as a residence ...

... while its next-door neighbor houses a bank:

Kos Shel Bracha wine shop (I'll try to get another picture of the place sometime when it's open).

Below: the only store selling religious Jewish books on this side of town. Since they have a local monopoly, why do the proprietors of Havruta feel it's necessary to advertise themselves all over Jerusalem on those ugly municipal ad installations?

But it is a great store (though not very stroller-accessible), with a good children's section (including English books) and attractive Judaica:

Ah, here we come to it. The original Jerusalem snout houses, circa mid-1990s -- the start of a plague. The cavernous garage entrances, like giant yawns in the middle of an otherwise pleasant and human-scaled street:

The interesting and rather hopeful thing that characterizes this snout-house setup on HaLamed-Heh St. is that the garages alternate with commercial spaces: a minimarket and a branch of the Lechem Shel Tomer bakery/restaurant chain:

On the menu: "orange" soup, kumquat confiture (marmalade?), "outstanding" hamantaschen ...

Whether the minimarket and bakery/cafe occupy spaces that were originally planned for commercial use, or converted from garage spaces, I don't know. The minimarket guy hadn't been there long enough to tell me ... But the sight of this garage/commercial mix does give one hope that many of Jerusalem's snouthouses will someday be retrofitted for shops and restaurants, offices, small groundfloor apartments ... thereby creating viable streetscapes, rather than depressing garage-scapes.

Farther down the street there's another cafe and a greengrocer ... but the little one was getting impatient in her stroller. Also, she was filthy, having removed her shoes and socks (this in mid-February) for a more "feet-on" sandbox experience at Gan HaAgvaniya:

Bath time!

1 comment:

Tamar said...

I guessing the reason that the park is called "the Tomato park" is because it used to have a little merry-go-round in it that was red and shaped like a tomato. The cat was always there.

My bubu lived across the street and I spent many hours of my summers playing at that park.