Friday, May 25, 2012

A Memorial to Bad Urbanism on Derech Beit Lechem

Derech Beit Lechem, or Bethlehem Road, is a long street that runs through Jerusalem's Baka and Talpiot neighborhoods, parallel to the thunderous traffic artery of Derech Hevron. Derech Beit Lechem, though itself a busy thoroughfare in parts, would not normally be called "thunderous" (a car word) but rather "bustling" (a people word). When one talks about Derech Beit Lechem one tends to draw on a lexicon of chicness and boutiques, cafes and gentrification.

This vocabulary mainly describes the section of Derech Beit Lechem that extends between Rivka Street (near "Tsomet HaBankim") and Yiftah Street. There is considerable urbanist consciousness in that part of town; Baka activists have garnered media attention by protesting planned changes in traffic patterns that would, in the words of architect and Baka resident David Guggenheim, "have destroyed the delicate urban fabric" of Derech Beit Lechem.

There is, however, another Derech Beit Lechem -- one whose urban fabric is not so delicate: the Talpiot Industrial Area end of the street, between HaTenufa and Derech Baram. On this stretch of Derech Beit Lechem, one side of the street features old industrial buildings ...

... flanking a forlorn, vacant lot where the infamous Versailles wedding hall disaster occurred eleven years ago yesterday, on May 24, 2001. No one, apparently, wants to build something new here:

Site where the Versailles wedding hall once stood, now offering a direct view of the ubiquitous Holyland project.

The opposite side of the street, on this stretch of Derech Beit Lechem, houses some of Jerusalem's poorer residents, in a compound of decrepit shikun buildings (1950s-era mass housing for immigrants) currently slated for urban renewal:

And it is on this side of the street, directly across from the now-desolate space where the Versailles disaster occurred, that a "memorial garden" has been created in honor of the disaster's victims:

Is it just me, or does this "garden" seem wholly inappropriate, whether as a memorial to the casualties of a collapsed dance floor, or as a feature of a street where, after all, human beings continue to live and go about their business? Well, I guess if I thought it was just me, I wouldn't be writing this post, would I?

Here's what I think is wrong with the Versailles memorial site:

1) It has a distinctly military-cemetery feel, as though the designer (architect David Guggenheim -- the Baka activist mentioned above) thought the site was meant to commemorate a battle where heroic warriors fell, rather than a civil disaster. Those tall, straight-arrow cypress trees standing at attention under the brutal midday Mediterranean sun, surrounded by a stark grey concrete wall bearing the names of the fallen ... This military ambience is all wrong, given the civil nature of the incident.

2) The site is unsuited to an area where, as I noted above, people live, play, work, and pursue everyday activities. Basically, a large chunk of public space was hijacked and turned into something that no one can use. This isn't a cemetery, it's a street. Would David Guggenheim want something like this on his end of Derech Beit Lechem?

To be more specific about why the memorial is unsuited to an area where people live and "do stuff" (as opposed to a military cemetery or some kind of national battlefield park):

-- The "garden" is shadeless, meaning that no one can spend time there during normal daytime hours. Wouldn't it have been more meaningful, a more fitting remembrance of the departed, to have planted some shade trees, and arranged them in an inviting way, with some benches under them, creating what we refer to in Hebrew as a pinat hemed -- a "cosy corner" that would have elicited gratitude from local residents and passersby, and, perhaps, have stimulated actual contemplation of the names of the disaster victims -- rather than concealing them?

-- The overall layout is such that one can't be in the site; one is forced to
walk around it. As I said: a hijacking of public space. One can speculate that Guggenheim intended something deep by this: perhaps the set-up of trees-mounted-on-a-platform, upon which we gaze as outside observers, was meant to evoke the moment just before the dance floor collapsed beneath the wedding revellers -- a moment that was captured for posterity on video, and viewed by many thousands of people.

Whatever visual metaphor Guggenheim had in mind, it does not, in my view, justify the removal of a public space from public use. The local residents didn't cause the disaster. Why should they not have the use of their street in its entirety, and in aesthetically pleasing form?

And if the site of the catastrophe itself -- directly across the street from where the memorial "garden" was installed -- has lain desolate for the past decade, wouldn't that have been the logical venue for a monument of some kind?

-- Also, what's with the grey, blank wall on the outside of the memorial? 

Not that it was necessary or desirable to have this grey starkness on the interior walls, either -- but how can one justify putting a blank wall directly across from what is, essentially, a nice, modest, pleasantly dense and human-scaled stretch of multifamily dwellings:

The Versailles disaster, in which 23 people perished and 350 or more were injured due to "quick and dirty" construction methods and owner negligence, demonstrated one kind of price that society pays when the needs of actual human beings are treated with cavalier disregard by those responsible for our built environment.

The Versailles disaster "memorial garden" demonstrates another cost that we incur, as a society, when those responsible for our built environment disregard the needs of actual human beings. No, no deaths are likely to be directly caused by an ugly and unusable memorial garden. But I would argue that negative urban features such as these have a cumulative effect. They make it seem okay to do inappropriate things with the street; to design and build inappropriately. They alienate us from the street, with devastating effects on our quality of life and long-term health. Twenty-three fatalities in one shot is indeed a terrible tragedy. But when, as a society, we adhere to a lifestyle in which the street is a place to be avoided, we suffer health consequences that, though more insidious, reach much farther.


Anonymous said...

How can I find out if a close friend of mine was amongst the victims of this disaster?

Julie@walkablejlm said...

Here is a link to an article in Hebrew that lists the 23 people who died in the disaster, with photos and additional information:,7340,L-1252,00.html

Here is the same page in English, via Google Translate:,7340,L-1252,00.html

Brenda said...

Horrible, what was the Government stand after Versailles disaster. Urban landscaping is essential but not in the way it harm people.


Anonymous said...

There was a building there before the disaster, so people always had to walk around.
I agree that a "cozy corner" might have been more aesthetically appealing and a better tribute.
One person's austere and "military", is another person's "attempt at striking a serious and commemorative" effect.