Monday, October 14, 2013

Mall and sprawl at the Israel Museum

This past summer vacation I happened to visit the Israel Museum for the first time since, perhaps, 2008. Because my recreational activities tend to be child-centered, and because my older boys would react with grimaces and groans in recent years whenever I suggested a Museum visit, I never got a first-hand look at the Museum’s highly-touted "renewal" until a few weeks ago, when I ventured there with my youngest child. All I could think was: they closed large portions of the Israel Museum for an extended period, and spent $100 million ...  and they couldn't plant a few trees?

It's a daunting task to criticize the Israel Museum, whose collections I'm always a little ashamed of not knowing better, and whose temporary exhibitions I'm often sorry I don't to get see (the "not getting to" is one of the main problems, see below). I'm certainly not qualified to judge the professional-curatorial aspects of the recent renovation. I'm perfectly willing to accept the consensus view that the organization of the displays is now more logical and user-friendly than it was before. In point of fact I have little basis for comparison, since my visits to the Museum, from the early 1990s up until the time the renovations started, were sporadic and, from the late 1990s on, conducted in a young-family context. I never expected to see more than a little bit of the art and archaeology stuff at a time, and was often restricted to the Youth Wing sandbox and the dim tunnel of the Shrine of the Book, which my kids, like everybody else's, related to as a kind of amusement-park funhouse.

What I find hard to grasp is that so considerable a sum of money was spent on refurbishing the Museum without addressing its inner-sprawl problem in a more meaningful way. The issue of the Museum's location -- sprawl in "macrocosm" -- is theoretically going to be addressed by urbanization plans for the surrounding area, which I discuss briefly below. But what about the grounds of the Museum "campus"  itself -- sprawl in "microcosm?"

Kiryat HaLe'om

The drawbacks of the Museum’s setting are no news to anyone. Its various structures are dispersed within a self-contained compound -- generally referred to as a "campus" -- in the city’s Givat Ram-Kiryat HaLe’om (“National Precinct”) area; the campus itself is surrounded by a sea of parking and separated from its nearest neighbors -- the Knesset, the Bloomfield Science Museum and the Hebrew University -- by a forbidding network of multi-lane roads. This setting has obvious implications for the Israel Museum’s ability to function as a public/urban amenity. You can't catch an exciting new exhibition in the course of a downtown shopping trip; you can't stop at the Museum after a stressful day at the office to decompress while contemplating a favorite painting.  It's not situated at a comfortable walking distance from anyone's place of employment. Were it more conveniently located, even a harried parent might have a shot at the occasional lunchtime gallery talk. But the Museum’s location precludes any chance at spontaneity: it's like a grand personage whom one can see only by appointment. You have to plan in advance and make an effort if you want to go to the Israel Museum.

Of course, the renovation was not meant to address the Museum’s location. Nobody thought of moving it to a part of town where it might be part of an interesting mix of uses, or be easily reached by people pursuing their everyday activities. No one wants to acknowledge that putting a major cultural institution on an isolated hilltop was a dumb idea. One could argue that moving the Museum would be impracticable at this point; yet one can’t help lamenting the single-use mindset that keeps us from arranging things effectively. The prevailing view in these parts seems to be that major museums need to be segregated in a specific of town, as with the planned removal of Jerusalem’s Natural History Museum from its longtime home in the German Colony -- near the shopping and eatery hub of Emek Refaim -- to  Kiryat HaLe’om. We also seem to think that a national museum has to be located in a national “precinct,” in deference to the Washingtonian model (and in contrast to, for instance, the Parisian model). There are indeed hopes of transforming Kiryat HaLe’om into something more than it now is. Anything would be an improvement -- even the current plans for  a local equivalent of Washington D.C.'s National Mall will surely produce something friendlier and more attractive than what currently exists. But will this be enough to bring the Israel Museum into the "city" -- to turn it into a destination for short, spontaneous visits as well as extended, pre-planned ones? That seems unlikely.

The original, American, National Mall is not generally thought of as a successful urban space. A lively debate is still going on about how to improve it; at the same time, no one appears to think the area can be turned into an exemplar of Jane Jacobs-style mixed-used urbanism. The best that seems to be hoped for is that specific portions of the Mall will be fixed up to make them more hospitable. So how optimistic can one be regarding Jerusalem's Kiryat HaLe'om? About a year ago I shared my concerns about how removing all government offices from Jerusalem's "historic downtown" would affect that part of the city -- turning it into a tourist-oriented Disneyland whose traditional, human-scale architecture houses pubs and cafes but little else of substance. The flip side of that is Kiryat HaLe'om -- a government-institution and national-monument enclave whose hypertrophic buildings are separated by lots of what Nathan Lewis would call Green Space. The public request for proposals that was issued in 2010 for the transformation of Jerusalem's Kiryat HaLe'om into a "central place in the life of the city" appears, on the surface, to encompass and link quite a few disparate elements ("culture, sports, leisure and recreation, tourist attractions, and events of a ceremonial, official, social and political character"). But does this really amount to a healthy mix of uses? Where's the (affordable) housing? Where's the (affordable, non-elitist) shopping?

I'm no urban fortune-teller; my crystal ball doesn't give me an entirely clear view of how the Municipality's visions of a lively pedestrian-oriented urban boulevard on Derech Ruppin will play out with Kiryat HaLe'om's existing and future iconic, monumental structures. But the plan for a new Museum of Natural History building, to be situated near the Bloomfield Science Museum, gives us more than a hint. In a Haaretz article, architect Gabi Schwartz, one of the winners of the Museum's planning competition, essentially ridicules the Jerusalem Municipality's hopes for urban vibrancy in Kiryat HaLe'om, remarking that the area is altogether chaotic and that the buildings in the vicinity do not "relate" to each other: "We felt that the battle here had already pretty much been lost, and we decided it was more important to preserve the site's green character." Haaretz reporter Noam Dvir goes on to note that the proposed building "presents no meaningful frontage to the surrounding streets, but rather retreats inward and entrenches itself underground. The main entrance from the Museum Boulevard is relatively obscure and situated in the shadow of one of the galleries."

That so major a project could have been awarded to an architect who publicly mocks the Municipality's hopes for urbanizing the area, speaks volumes about the future of Kiryat HaLe’om. The aforementioned Haaretz article notes that the planning competition's second- and third-place winners made more of an effort to relate to the urban fabric, meaning that the anti-urban choice must have been a deliberate one. One can't help but see parallels with the Israel Museum: a renewal plan by James Ingo Freed that (whatever its drawbacks) apparently encompassed a number of pro-urban and pro-human features was proposed in the late 1990s, only to be rejected following an outcry by Israel's architecture community -- which felt that it "dishonored" Alfred Mansfeld's original sprawling, user-hostile design. The renewal plan that was ultimately adopted -- the work of Efrat-Kowaski Architects and James Carpenter Design Associates -- both accommodates/reinforces the Museum's non-urban setting at the macro level and, at the micro level, perpetuates and sanctifies the campus' interior disunities and inhumanenesses.

The Israel Museum renewal

The renovation does seem to have pleased nearly all those charged with reviewing it in the media (with the exception of Esther Zandberg who fearlessly declares the emperor to be naked). The New York Times liked it, the Jerusalem Post liked it, Haaretz liked it. It is noted with satisfaction in these and other venues that you can now get to the collection wings via a climate-controlled passageway rather than facing the elements above ground. But is this really a cause for celebration? What are we ultimately left with? I'll summarize (to some degree merely echoing Zandberg, though with some added observations):
  • There is a new “entrance compound” at the “front” of the Museum which does not welcome the visitor or signal to him in an orderly, unambiguous way that he has arrived at a major cultural venue; what one sees on one's approach are a couple of banal, boxy structures (resembling oversized utility cabinets) of unclear identity. The slightly larger box is the Museum shop or "retail pavilion", while the smaller one is the actual entrance pavilion, marked by a sign so unobtrusive that many visitors who arrive by bus surely turn toward the store before noticing their error. Visitors who arrive by car (presumably the vast majority) reach the store before they reach the entrance. Given the outcry provoked by the supposedly "mall-like" character of the earlier renewal plan's entrance area, it's hard to understand how so prominent a placement could have been accorded to the retail pavilion in the later plan. The Freed plan was also excoriated for the "grotesque," pseudo-Biblical character of its entrance pavilion, which apparently featured gilded cupolas and was dubbed "the Altar." Are the current entrance structures, which aimed for "modesty," preferable? I guess one person's utility closet is another's "modesty." Or is it?
  • The same old sun-baked surface parking lot is there -- hardly a beloved feature of the Museum in its pre-renewal state. Museum Director James Snyder found that it would be "not pleasant" to enter the Museum from an underground garage. I suppose he finds the above-ground parking lot pleasant.
  • The Museum proper is still linked to the entrance area by passageways that more compact and human-friendly design would have rendered unnecessary. Mansfeld's original tiered open-air path -- the Carter Promenade --  is as shadeless and unforgiving of human physical frailty as I remember it, while the below-grade "Route of Passage" is an over-long, under-activated, sterile space whose most engaging feature is the little green golf-cart that plies its way to and fro, awaiting people with certifiable mobility challenges to transport from one end of the passage to the next. Car dependency, anyone? There's not much on display in the passage, though it's hard to imagine this being due to a paucity of displayable items. I guess the stark greyness of the tunnel is meant to render the headache induced by Olafur Eliasson's psychadelic "rainbow" at the end of it all the more intense.
  • Weirder still is the claustrophobia-inducing corridor that runs parallel to the Route of Passage -- essentially, a partitioning of the available space. Much high-flown language has been devoted to James Carpenter's "reinterpretation" of "the sensuality of narrow alleys and sunken oases by creating a defined arrangement of spatial experiences animated by phenomenal light." Apparently this rather traumatizing little alleyway was created so that the Route of Passage could be "fed natural light through prismatic glass and waterfalls."
    If this space is an example of good design, I can hardly imagine what might be considered to be bad design. Since when do architects go out of their way to create spaces that are unutilizable by humans and/or frightening to them? 
  • Campus grounds that are exceptionally -- almost spitefully -- inhospitable . Here we reach the crux of the matter:

Grounds for outrage: 

I don't expect instant perfection or magic bullets. I'm willing to accept that the Israel Museum will remain an isolated, car-oriented compound for some time to come. What really bothers me -- what prompted this critical post -- is the failure of the Museum's $100 million renewal project to turn the actual grounds of the Museum "campus" into a site that would serve its users -- local residents, foreign tourists, regular and infrequent visitors, individuals and families -- in a humane and dignified way. If the surrounding area has little potential for mixed-use urbanism in the foreseeable future, the Museum campus itself could have been made to provide a greater mix of uses to its visitors.

By "mix of uses" I don't mean that a full-fledged shopping center ought to have been erected at the site or, for that matter, a housing complex. On the other hand, a small convenience store where tourists who, say, run out of diapers for their babies might pick up an overpriced package of Huggies, wouldn’t be a bad idea. The unthinkability of adding such a minor amenity – one that would acknowledge the facility's geographic isolation and the human needs of its visitors – to the venerable Israel Museum campus, is itself a big problem. But what really bothers me is that the renovation did not try in any way to make a virtue of necessity -- to leverage the “campus” concept itself in the form of attractive, welcoming grounds where Museum visitors might relax, picnic, take breaks during their tour of the Museum, and generally enjoy a more leisurely experience of the place -- given the effort they have to make to get there and the lack of any other resources in the surrounding area.

The renovation's deficiency in this regard  is most clearly exemplified by a near-total absence of shade -- whether in the form of trees or of man-made canopies -- on the campus' extensive grounds. The very word "campus" conjures up leafy images, but the term that might best describe the Israel Museum campus on a summer's day is "sun-scorched:"

Shadeless path at the Israel Museum -- note the
"ornamental" stunted-bonzai olive trees that line the path

Well-hydrated "shrine"

Seating without shade

There is no excuse for this. The campus' various water features -- the dreary little pool at the entrance with the abstract sculpture inside it, looking like some kind of deconstructed Facebook symbol; the gurgling man-made stream that runs along the tiered open-air passageway between the Museum proper and the entrance area; the jets that continuously spray the Shrine of the Book and the "moat" surrounding the Shrine -- all of these things seem to mock the human visitor with their hints at coolness and refreshment. Perhaps the architectural statement made by the white dome of the Shrine and the contrasting black wall -- the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness imagery -- is thought to be enhanced by the glare; to this visitor, at least, the uncomfortable conditions in which one is meant to view the architecture are simply insulting. Children in particular are fascinated by the water jets and will stand gazing at them under the harsh sun for long periods until dragged away kicking and screaming.

Why can't one view the truly impressive and fascinating scale model of Second-Temple era Jerusalem in comfort? Must the model be displayed in the open air? Surely some kind of transparent dome could be erected that would cover it in natural-light conditions? Even if the open-air display has some justification, I can't understand why those who come to see it must be exposed to the elements. There are a couple of small canopies, but they are at an awkward distance from the model (which is itself gated off with a kind of buffer area). In actuality, everyone comes right up to the barrier despite the lack of shade, because they want to see the details:

Then there's the Museum's famed Billy Rose Art Garden. Like "campus," the word "garden" tends to elicit an expectation of greenery. But what is this "garden" but a series of sun-baked gravel expanses, like an almost-empty parking lot. Apparently there was a lot of space to fill up on the sprawling "campus" and not a lot of money for landscaping, so they made a kind of sensory desert punctuated by the occasional nature band-aid that -- as usual -- offers no shade:

Basically, if there happens to be a shady spot you can't sit there because there's no bench and they've made sure to put some ground cover around the tree that would be uncomfortable for a person to rest upon:

Whereas if there happens to be a bench, you can be sure there is no shade:

Of course, one would hope that an "art" garden would have some actual art in it.

Why, in short, could I not find, on my recent visit, a comfortable spot where my little daughter and I could eat the sandwiches we'd brought with us? It's hard not to feel offended by the sight of a museum restaurant's shaded outdoor dining area while one is engaged in a fruitless search for shelter. I personally witnessed a guard shooing away a visitor who, attempting to drink his mineral water in relative comfort, took refuge from the sun in a crevice of this apple core sculpture near one of the Museum's canopied eateries ...

Not everyone can find what they need in a museum cafeteria; not everyone's kids will sit still at a restaurant table; it can be a great hardship to have to stand on a long line with young children in a cafeteria; people have health issues, money issues, kashrut issues, etc. -- you can't expect every museum visitor to patronize a museum restaurant. A compound as isolated and self-contained as the Israel Museum can and ought to provide shade and comfortable seating -- at no extra cost! -- to those who make the effort to get there.

I can understand wanting visitors to patronize the Museum restaurants and souvenir shops; I can't understand the use of mall psychology to force them to do so. The feeling one gets is that the Museum management wants to herd you through the collections, the restaurants and the stores without letting you linger on the grounds -- just as in a shopping mall where there is nowhere to sit except in the food court! 

Perhaps the sprawl mentality of the Museum's original planners has evolved into mall mentality, where every space must be exploited to serve a commercial purpose. That would seem to be a logical progression. Is it unfair to slap a "suburban sprawl developer" label on Alfred Mansfeld? The claim is that he was inspired by the traditional Arab village -- that his white Modernist cubes were meant to hug the hill like village dwellings and to offer inspiring views of the surrounding landscape. It all sounds very high-minded  -- a cultural institution planned, in Zandberg's words, "on the principle of organic growth in the spirit of structuralist and cybernetic linguistic theories, which penetrated the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. It is considered internationally a unique architectural experiment." But all I see is sprawl -- what many think of today as a failed experiment. A cultural institution that in its original state required visitors -- including disabled and elderly visitors -- to "climb a steep path under a strong summer sun or during chilly winter weather to get to the exhibition halls," and whose modular structures evolved into an unnavigable maze: did we really need it? Should we still be venerating it? Was all the effort and money spent on retaining the original idea worth it?

Jerusalem's Teflon Mayor

For a very long time I have felt that the media are so mesmerized by Nir Barkat that they simply will not cover any issue that might undermine their favored narrative of Barkat as the clean, civilized, altruistic, shekel-a-year mayor for whom Jerusalem is a “life’s mission.”

While I’m no supporter of Barkat’s adversary in the upcoming Jerusalem mayoral race – Moshe Lion – I don’t think democracy is particularly well served by an exclusive focus on simplistic narratives – haredi “hackdom” versus secular “sanity.” Nor do I think Barkat merits the accolades he has received from both the Israeli and the international media.

Here are some of the questions I think journalists ought to be asking Mayor Barkat, in no particular order:

Why are there so many public and semi-public spaces in Jerusalem’s peripheral neighborhoods for which the Municipality is unwilling to shoulder responsibility?

This is the question that isn’t being asked when journalists inquire about the city’s “cleanliness.” Framing the slum-like appearance of neighborhoods such as Har Homa and Gilo as a matter of “cleanliness” removes the issue from any plane of useful discussion. When the city’s less prestigious neighborhoods complain – rightly so – about dirt and neglect, they are really complaining about something entirely different from garbage pickup.

It's not that the places aren't cleaned, it's that the Municipality refuses to take responsibility for areas that the Construction Ministry has finished its role in developing and wants to hand over to the city. The Municipality will clean areas for which it is “officially” responsible. Unfortunately, it drags its feet -- for years on end -- about accepting official responsibility for large swathes of land that residents actually use, including playgrounds where the Construction Ministry has already installed play equipment. Thus you have situations where children grow up playing in areas that are (dangerously) full of weeds, garbage and construction refuse, and that lack landscaping, trees, garbage cans, working water fountains, and shade. At first glance the weeds and dirt look like straightforward jobs for the city parks department and trash collection services, but eventually the residents catch on that nothing’s going to happen, no matter how much they complain, because the Municipality “isn’t responsible for these areas.” You, Nir Barkat, have merely perpetuated the cynical municipal policy that existed before you took office -- as residents of such neighborhoods as Har Homa know only too well.

Another, related, problem is that of the “semi-public” spaces between and around apartment buildings in neighborhoods such as Gilo and Ramot – spaces that belong to no-one and everyone and for which the Municipality, again, does not claim responsibility.  The spaces, untended, fill up with weeds and garbage and impart a ma’abara-like appearance to the neighborhoods.  This is a matter that was recently raised in the context of Gilo’s master plan (as noted in a recent issue of Gilaton, the community council bulletin – apparently available only in hardcopy), and it was noted that there is no chance the Municipality will take over these areas as it lacks the funds to landscape and maintain them. Now, the Municipality isn’t to blame for the incompetent way in which these neighborhoods were planned – wasteful sprawl rather than compact efficiency; that is the Construction Ministry’s fault. However, the Municipality does have a responsibility to acknowledge the problem and work to solve it. If money is lacking – get some from the central government (whose faulty planning caused the problem), or actively seek other funding sources. Discuss the issue openly, rather than sweeping it under the rug. Ultimately the solution must lie in effective redevelopment, but that will take a lot of time. In the meanwhile, there’s no excuse for leaving citizens with garbage dumps for neighborhoods.

What is the exact nature of all the new jobs you claim to have added to the city during your term in office?

Chambermaid jobs? Burger-flipping jobs? You claimed you were going to make Jerusalem a biotech hub. Have you? If you had, wouldn’t you be schvitzing about it by now? I often wonder whether the jobs added to the city during your term aren’t simply construction jobs related to your much-vaunted mega-projects -- the Arena, etc. -- whose actual benefit to the city has yet to be demonstrated.

Does your “branding” vision for Jerusalem really accord with the city’s religious and cultural character?

Does a 3,000 year old city sacred to three faiths really need great branding “for people who love cars?" Why must Jerusalem become the sports capital of Israel? Does that suit the basic character of the city? Or does it just suit Nir Barkat, who likes sports and loves racing cars? Is that really building on the city’s existing strengths? Or is it just advancing an agenda of secularizing the city?

What were the exact measures your administration implemented in order to achieve the 4% increase in bagrut (matriculation) eligibility among Jerusalem’s “Zionist” (i.e., non-haredi) school populations, for which you so readily take credit?

Doesn’t that figure merely reflect a recently-publicized national trend toward higher matriculation rates? In the glossy campaign brochure that was recently distributed to households in my area, you also take credit for a 5.6% increase in the number of pupils in the state- and state-religious school systems during your term; but is this increase really attributable to anything you did? Are you the factor behind, say, the influx of young religious and secular families into so unglamorous and neglected a part of town as Har Homa, which now has nearly 20,000 residents? Frankly, I doubt it: that influx might just as well be attributed to societal trends that have nothing to do with you. Worldwide, there is a growing appreciation of the advantages of urban living and an awareness of the downsides of suburban life. Gas prices keep going up, right? It could just be that “Zionist-sector” families are choosing apartment life in Jerusalem’s neglected, underdeveloped peripheral neighborhoods over large private homes in the yishuvim of Judea and Samaria because they prefer greater proximity to jobs (i.e., shorter commutes) and don’t want to be utterly and completely car dependent. Bus service from Jerusalem’s ring neighborhoods into town may not be as frequent as it should, but at least it exists. At least the teenagers who reside in those areas can move around town independently by bus or light rail, rather than needing Mom and Dad to drive them everywhere, or hitchhike.  I know that’s why I’m here – not because Jerusalem now has a zillion more cultural events than it did before you took office.

The Jerusalem Arena: how did you get the media to ignore the highly critical City Comptroller’s report on the Arena’s outrageous cost overruns (twice the original price!) and organizational/administrative deficits?

The Comptroller’s report is of course available on the Municipality website. But it’s a lengthy and complicated document; not many people will read it. Most people get their information from the media. How is it that the only place on the Internet where one can find coverage of the Comptroller’s report is an Israeli sports website?

We all know that mega-projects are generally plagued by cost overruns, but NIS 240 million rather than NIS 120 million is a little ridiculous, no?  You may not have been responsible for problems rooted in the Arena’s original plan, which predated your mayoralty, but you surely bear responsibility for “fast-tracking” a project riddled with problems.

The Comptroller’s report only touches on fiscal and administrative issues; it has nothing to say about the urban vision, or lack thereof, embodied in the Arena project itself.

Is it really wise to put a quasi-Olympic village in Malha? Malha isn’t some outlying area where one might have been able to justify the construction of a self-contained compound, in the style of an office park; it’s a relatively central part of the city (just look at a map!) and might, perhaps, have been developed as a mixed-use neighborhood with an actual street grid (rather than “access roads”), and a range of elements such as housing (maybe even of the affordable variety), community services, street-level retail (including a most desirable “pedestrianization” of the Malha Mall) – the works.

As it is, what are we going to be left with? The Arena is meant to be an all-encompassing sports and entertainment center whose premises visitors will have little temptation to leave on any given occasion. Some kind of retail “power center” is apparently planned for the site. Does anyone expect event-goers to expand their horizons beyond the Arena and explore other parts of the city, shop and dine elsewhere? Will they even bother going to the nearby Malha Mall?

How many mega-projects can one city have going at a time without mucking at least some of them up?

Won’t Cinema City compete with the Sherover Center for Culture that is also meant to serve as a multiplex cinema? And what’s the good old Jerusalem Cinematheque supposed to do? Curl up and die?

How many movie screens does this town need? Even secular Jerusalemites eager for entertainment options that are open on Shabbat can’t possibly go to that many films. Don’t they all have giant plasma screens in their living rooms?

What’s with the fixation on single-use compounds and districts?

We’ve got to have a “historic downtown” reserved for pubs, cafes and boutique hotels, a modernist high-rise central business district (because you can’t do business amidst attractive traditional architecture), a government precinct consisting of superblocks and architectural “icons” that don’t interface with the street, the sports thing in Malha … you guys have a single-use fetish. All over the world urban planners are turning on to the idea of mixing housing, retail, culture, office space and other uses in the same area. Only in Jerusalem are uses still being aggressively separated. Get with it, guys – start reading The Atlantic Cities and other mainstream publications and websites devoted to cities and good urbanism – and start mixing things up!

How did you manage not to take any flak for the Begin Expressway extension?

I’ve noted elsewhere that the Begin extension has been wrongly framed by the media as an Arab-Israeli issue, rather than as a good-urbanism issue. Cities around the world are tearing down their urban freeways, which are now understood to do great damage to the fabric of urban life, and whose existence does not accord with larger societal trends toward reduced automobile dependency. Surely the huge amount of money and engineering knowhow that have been invested in the Begin highway extension could have been used to “fast-track” (no pun intended!) the light rail lines that have been planned for south Jerusalem, and/or greatly increase bus service to that area. Whether one looks at the Begin extension (wrongly) as a national-ethnic affair or (rightly) as an urbanist one, you, Mayor Barkat, have been given a “free ride” (no pun intended!) by the media. How did you manage it?

Why did you chuck Naomi Tsur off your (realistic) list, and why aren’t the media interested?

So far as I could tell she wasn’t very effective, but neither was she very contentious – kind of a yes-woman, right? So her new Ometz Lev party is really a sort of extension of your own party. She siphons off some of the votes that might otherwise have gone to Yerushalmim/Rachel Azaria, and doesn’t hurt you. The media paid a lot of attention to the formation of Ometz Lev, and none to the question of why Tsur and you parted ways. Why wouldn’t the media care?

Why is your Yerushalayim Tatzliach list so singularly undistinguished?

With all the ridicule being showered on the “man from Givatayim,” why isn’t anyone interested in the fact that your list includes a recent immigrant from France who has been in Israel for only 5 years? What qualifications does she have other than being successful in the real estate sphere? And the soccer player – very impressive.

If you build it, will they necessarily come? And if they don’t, will the media remember that you were involved?

Monday, August 19, 2013

A contrarian view of Jerusalem's Mayor Barkat

I express my opinion of the city's wildly popular mayor here at the Times of Israel:

I point out that Nir Barkat has done nothing for the average resident/citizen, and that normal municipal services have become "favors" that the opposition has to beg for. I also point out that the existing dichotomy between the mega-project/economic growth/tourism-chasing approach versus the resident-services approach has undesirable gender-conflict overtones.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

An urbanist response to the recent tragedies

I respond to the recent cases of Forgotten Baby Syndrome in this piece for the Times of Israel.

It’s unfortunate that the recent, unbearably tragic, incidents of children being forgotten in cars and dying of heat stroke have not been linked to the social phenomenon of car dependence. This linkage needs to become a regular feature of public discourse regarding the place of the automobile in our lives and in our environment [...]


חבל מאוד שאת המקרים החוזרים והנשנים – המצמררים והטרגיים מנשוא – של מוות תינוקות כתוצאה מהישארות באוטו, לא קושרים באופן ישיר אל התופעה החברתית הקרוייה "תלות ברכב הפרטי". רצוי מאוד שהקשר הזה יהפוך חלק מהשיח הציבורי על המכונית ועל מקומה בחיינו ובסביבתינו.

אין כל כוונה כאן להאשים את ההורים השכולים או להטיל ספק בכשירותם כהורים או באהבתם לילדיהם. ברור שכל אחד מאיתנו יכול לטועת באותו האופן, תחת נסיבות דומות, כפי שצויין ע"י פרשנים רבים, כאן וכאן, למשל. כל שאני מבקשת לעשות בשורות אלו זה להדגיש כיצד גישות שולטות המתעדפות את המכונית מעל כל אמצעי תחבורה אחר,  קובעות לנו נורמות בעניין שימושי הקרקע ודורשות מאיתנו התנהגויות בינאישיות שהינן, בסופו של דבר, 
מסוכנות ואנטי-חברתיות.

באשר  לנורמות בעניין שימושי הקרקע, הכוונה היא  לאופן שבו הסביבה הבנוייה שלנו מאורגנת, וההשלכות של אופן האירגון הזה לפעילותינו היומיומית.

שאלה שאף אחד לא מעלה על דעתו לשאול אותה: מדוע כל-כך הרבה תינוקות ופעוטות מוסעים אל המטפלות והמעונות שלהם מדי בוקר במכוניות פרטיות? התשובה, כנראה, הינה שאין מטפלות ומעונות במרחק הליכה נוחה מהבתים שלהם. אם אתה מתגורר בשכונה/עיירה קומפקטית וידידותית להולכי-רגל, סביר להניח שתוכל לפזר את ילדיכם על הבוקר ללא צורך במנוע בעירה פנימית. אפילו עם יש לך מספר ילדים לפזר, בגילאים שונים, לפני שתצא אל מקום העבודה -- בשכונה שתוכננה כראוי היית צריך להיות מסוגל לעשות זאת ברגל.

המציאות, לדאבוננו, אינה כזאת. רבים מאתנו -- אולי רובינו -- גרים בישובים ושכונות המשתערים על שטחים נרחבים מדי ("sprawl"), ובהם שום דבר אינו קרוב לשום דבר אחר, וצריך להיכנס למכונית כדי לערוך את הסידורים הכי בסיסיים. אנחנו נוטים שלא להתייחס למצב זה כאל "בעייה" -- שכחנו, כנראה, שאפשר אחרת. אך ילדינו משלמים על כך מחיר.

מסתבר שעברנו שטיפת מוח והורגלנו לחשוב שזהו דבר טבעי ומובן מאליו להכניס תינוק על הבוקר לתוך מיכל מתכת ענקי, ממונע ומסוכן, לכבול אותו בתא מיועד, ולהציב את התא הזה במקום בו לא יכול להיות בין התינוק לבין המבוגר האחראי לו מגע פיזי או אפילו קשר עין. בדיוק כמו שהורגלנו לחשוב שמפלס הקרקע של כל בניין מגורים חייב להיות חניון, ושרחובותינו אמורים, למעשה, להיראות כמו אוסף של חניונים...

נוף של חניונים ברחוב מגורים בשכונה ירושלמית חדשה

 ... שאי-אפשר להגיע למכולת ולקנות כיכר לחם ללא רכב ...

מרכז מסחרי מוטה-רכב בשכונה ירושלמית חדשה

 ... שבית ספר זה מקום שמסיעים אליו ילדם -- שהרי אי-אפשר לצפות שיגיעו לאליו ברגל ...

בית ספר הממוקם בציר תנועה רב-נתיבתי, עם מפרדה מגודרת, בשכונה ירושלמית חדשה

... ושאין למעשה טעם לבנות בתי-ספר במקומות נגישים, או לתכנן רחובות ושכונות ידידותיים להולכי רגל. הרי אין יותר הולכי-רגל; יש רק נהגים ונוסעים.

הדמות של התינוק הכבול כמו חפץ בתוך מיכל-מתכת ענקית, זוהי דמות התואמת להפליא את הנוף שלנו – נוף של שטחי אספלט – כבישים רב-נתיבתיים שצריך לחצות אותם כדי להגיע למרכז המסחרי השכונתי העלוב, אוטוסטראדות פנים-שכונתיות שצריך לחצות אותם בדרך לגן, מגרשי-חנייה מפלצתיים מול חנויות BIG ובתוך "פארקי" משרדים, המנותקים מכל רקמה או הקשר אורבני.

הו, מגרשי החנייה! כמה מהמקרים של הרתחת-תינוקות, במיוחד בחו"ל, התרחשו במגרשי חנייה של Home Depot וכדומה? האם באמת צריך להפתיע אותנו שבכאלה מקומות בלתי-אנושיות  טרגדיות קורות? כשאנו, כחברה, מוותרים על סביבות מגורים, עבודה ומסחר במימדים אנושיים, ומרחיבים בהתמדה את המקום המוקדש למלך-מולך המכונית, אין פלא שהאדם עצמו מתגמד, ושבכי התינוק המורתח אינו נשמע.

ומה לגבי המישור ההתנהגותי-הבינאישישהזכרתי לעיל – כלומר, האופן שבו העולם מוטה-האוטו משפיע על הפרצפציות שלנו, ועל היחס שלנו אל הסביבה בה אנחנו חיים , ואל בני האדם החולקים את הסביבה הזאת עמנו? בואו נהרהר במה שקורה לנו כאשר אנחנו נכנסים לרכב. כולנו יודעים שכדי לנהוג עלינו לנתק את עצמינו מהסביבה ולמעשה לאמץ את נקודת הראות של המפלצת המתכתית העוטפת אותנו. ברגע שאנחנו מתיישבים מאחורי ההגה, אנחנו חדלים מלהתייחס אל העולם כבני אדם בעלי חושים ורגישויות, והופכים לאוטומטונים. אי-אפשר, הרי, לנהוג במצב של תשומת לב אל הדברים הקטנים – הצלילים, הריחות – שאדם המסתובב בחוץ (בלי ה- "אקסוסקלטון") שם לב אליהם באופן טבעי.  בזמן הנהיגה אסור לנו אפילו להפנות את הראש ולכוון את המבט אל מראה כלשהו – מרתק או מחריד ככל שיהיה – שאנחנו עוברים לידו. אין ביכולתינו לעצור לרגע כדי להתבונן במשהו – מיכלי-המתכת האחרים שבכביש יכעסו ויחצצרו את אי-הסכמתם לכל האטה בקצב.

אל לנו, כמובן, לחשוב יותר מדיי על מה שאנחנו עושים בזמן הנהיגה – לצאת ממצב של טייס אוטומטי זה מבלבל. עלינו פשוט לבצע את פעולות הנהיגה מתוך הרגל ובהסתמך על הזכרון המוטורי. לטייס האוטומטי יש, כמובן, מקום – אפילו מקום נכבד – בחיינו; אך הדיע הזמן להודות בכך שאורח חיים הדורש מאתנו, דרך קבע, להגיע מנקוה X אל נקודה Y בכזה מצב, תוך כדי להפעיל מכונה מסוכנת, אינו אופטימלי. אפילו בלי הסכנות לחיי אדם, הפגיעה באיכות החוויה שלנו כבני אדם הייתה עושה את התלות ברכב אסטרטגיית חיים הרסנית.

האוטומטון-הנהג מסתדר באופן מיטבי כאשר לא קורה שום דבר יוצא-דופן -- כפי שראינו במקרים שבהם תינוקות נשכחו דווקא על-ידי הורים שלא היו רגילים להסיע אותם.

השאיפה האולטימטיבית של הנהיגה הינה האחידות: להגיע מנקודה X אל נקודה Y ברכש צריך, כעקרון, להרגיש, להיראות, להישמע, ולהריח אותו דבר כל פעם. לעומת זאת, אדם שהולך ברגל – ולא משנה כמה פעמים הוא כבר צעד מנקודה X כדי להגיע אל נקודה Y, ועד כמה הוא מסוגל לעשות את כל הדרך בעיניים עצומות – לעולם לא יהיה מנותק מסביבתו כמו נהג, וכל טיול יהיה עבורו חוויה מובחנת. החושים שלו תמיד יתפקדו. שקוע ככל שיהיה במחשבותיו, הוא יגיב לגירויים פיזיים כגון צורת הלבוש של האדם הבא מולו, קול מוכר הקורא לו, הבוגנוויליה הפראית של השכן, חום של יד קטנה המשולבת בידו, קצב הליכה איטית ובלתי-עקבית של פעוט המלווה אותו, תחושת הסולידיות של ידית העגלה אותה הוא דוחף.  לשינויים קטנים ולפרטים קטנים הוא ישים לב. במובן מסויים, אין טיון רגלי "שגרתי."

מדברים על פתרונות. מערכות התראה. מדבקות. צילצול מהגננת כשהילד לא מגיע לגן (לגננות אין מספיק עבודה). אלה פתרונות של כרית-אוויר – הם מפחיתים את הנזק מבלי לגעת בבעייה האמיתית – הנחת-היסוד הבלתי-מעורערת שלנו שהמכונית הפרטית הינה כלי התחבורה המועדף, בכל מצב ובכל מקום, ושעלינו להתאים את סביבתינו ואת אורח חיינו אל צרכיו. כל עוד נחשוב שלילדים שלנו לא מגיעה חוויה של חיבור בריא אל סביבתם – חיבור הבא לידי ביטוי באופן שבו הם מגיעים מנקודה X אל נקודה Y -- נמשיך לסכן אותם בתנאים פיזיים בלתי-אנושיים ובהתנהגויות של אטימות ואי-קשב לדברים החשובים.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Brooklyn nostalgia trip (not for hipsters) -- Part I

Let's take a Brooklyn break.
Brooklyn street box -- Kings Plaza mall
Let's take a break in southeast Brooklyn, where I grew up. A place where hipsters are apparently still few in number. No subway to take you directly to Manhattan; no sidewalk cafes. Some pretty awful, gentry-repellant features -- along with a surprising degree of compact walkability and urban amenity. The image at left might lead you to think the area is a wasteland, but the urbanism is there. The contrasts might possibly make the place more interesting than a Disneyland paradise of narrow streets.

The New York Times has characterized the non-gentrified parts of Brooklyn as either "rough-edged" or anachronistically suburban. Residents of the more  "suburban" areas are portrayed as reveling in an abundance of parking and as preferring "manicured lawns" to "reimagined 19th-century row houses." I'm by no means familiar with every part of Brooklyn -- gentrified or not -- but this suburban characterization of the borough's more outlying areas sounds inaccurate to me.

The neighborhoods that I want to focus on in this and a forthcoming companion post -- Old Mill Basin, Flatlands, Georgetown -- actually exhibit what I think is a rather unique mix of walk appeal and trashy sprawl, with the sprawl elements perhaps protecting the area as a whole from an undesirable socioeconomic "upgrade."

The residential construction in these parts -- dense without being overcrowded, consisting mainly of brick single-family and multifamily rowhouses and small wood frame homes on very modest plots -- could hardly be improved upon, as we'll see below. The commercial areas, by contrast, encompass everything from traditional shopping streets to hideous strip malls, to the windowless hulk of Kings Plaza. But however gargantuan their parking facilities may be, they are still easily accessible by public transit and get plenty of foot traffic from the locals living just across the "stroad."

What I want to convey in these posts are the contrasts and incongruities that make this part of Brooklyn liveable and loveable without being elitist. My "taking a break" idea reflects nostalgic promptings as well as an element of opportunism -- my brother happened to be in the area and took some nice photos, which I couldn't resist using (interspersed with a great many Google street views).  I'm also partly inspired here by the "traditional-city breaks" that form a part of Nathan Lewis' enlightening and entertaining Traditional City/Heroic Materialism archive. Now I know Lewis doesn't care much for Brooklyn, which he dismisses as a collection of 19th-century hypertrophic streets. He's certainly right about the excessive road widths; but my feeling, as someone who grew up in south southern Brooklyn and whose taste for walkable urbanism was formed there, is that you can, somehow, compartmentalize -- look past the hypertrophy and see an excellent housing stock, great connectivity, pleasant street environments, and, on the whole, superior conditions for car-free or car-lite living.

Maybe Kings Plaza and the strip malls lining Ralph Ave. should be filed under the rubric of "good enough urbanism." And maybe their very ugliness plays a role in ensuring that the area retains its heterogeneity!

I'm going to look at the housing styles of southeast Brooklyn in the present post, and (Gd willing) follow up with a discussion of the area's commercial development in a companion post. My idea, again, is that the housing in this part of the world fits the bill for compact-walkable urbanism; the shopping centers are car-oriented and vulgar; and yet the two formats somehow manage to work together.

Housing in Old Mill Basin and Flatlands

Brick rowhouses:

They may not date from the 19th century, they may not be brownstones, but they are rowhouses and they come in a variety of forms -- single-family, two- and three-family; equipped with rear alleys or front-loading garages (which, however, are relatively unobtrusive); presenting all sorts of variations on the front stoop/front porch/front patch of shrubbery theme (yet without over-large set-backs).

I'm going to display a few representative specmens, with comments to follow:

East 58th St. near Ave. J -- three-unit houses with front-loading garages
(Google street view)

E. 55th near Ave. O (Google street view)

Ave. T near E. 59th -- (attractive houses, over-wide road)

E. 52 near Ave. J -- rowhouses coexisting with other housing types  (Google street view)

E. 59th between O and T -- single-family rowhouses, no garages, rear alley for parking

E. 55th between J and K  (Google street view)
Avenue J near E. 51 -- The houses look tiny, but include small ground-floor rental units
(Google street view)

Here's what I like about the brick rowhouses:

1) Good enough density: I'm not interested in comparing the density delivered by this housing format with that of some mythical -- or real -- skyscraper city. What's nice about this part of Brooklyn is the implicit understanding, embodied in the built environment, that you have to quit while you're ahead. You have block after block here defined by solid walls of housing, with very little wasted space. You can fit a lot of people into this kind of housing, without making them too uncomfortable.

2) Heterogeneity: The fact that there is a mix of single- and multifamily dwellings means that people of widely-varying economic circumstances, age levels and personal/familial statuses can all live in the same neighborhood, and enjoy the same street environment, as well as the same local services, amenities and shopping facilities. The brick rowhouse is an especially democratic form of housing, in that its multifamily and single-family incarnations don't look too different from each other. Basically, it's all just the same wall of houses, plus or minus a storey, with small stylistic variations. The rowhouse is a great leveler: it blurs socioeconomic distinctions and provides less affluent people with living conditions that are almost identical to those of their better-off neighbors. The owner/landlord of a multifamily rowhouse gets to enjoy a small backyard and the convenience of a garage for his vehicle. The tenant, who might be living just upstairs from the landlord in virtually the same apartment, lacks a backyard and a designated parking spot; but he does get to enjoy residing on the same attractive and people-friendly street, in the same pleasant and safe neighborhood as his landlord, despite his inability to afford a home of his own. He might not need a parking spot because he might not own a car; in any case, he would certainly be able to get by without one in this transit- and shopping-rich area.

I'll illustrate the democratization point further by referring to my own personal experience: while I was growing up, my family (in various configurations) occupied no fewer than 4 of the houses pictured above. We owned a single-family rowhouse while my parents were married, then rented a series of apartments in multi-family rowhouses after they divorced -- first a small ground-level apartment (with entrance next to the garage) during the financially tight immediate post-divorce period, then a larger, upstairs apartment when things had stabilized. While all these upheavals were going on, I was able to attend the same school, keep all my friends, and still feel part of the same general neighborhood. That was a great advantage. Later on, as a young man in his twenties, working full-time and going to college part-time, my brother actually returned to this area and rented one of the small ground-floor apartments on his own. He just liked the neighborhood so much that it seemed natural to to him to return to it, even after the rest of the family had moved away.

2) No snouthouses! Note that many of these brick rowhouses come equipped with 1-car front-loading garages (as well as driveways that effectively provide additional private parking spaces). Note as well that these garages manage not to detract from the pleasantness of the building facades or kill the street atmosphere. The Old Urbanist blog has explored the question of whether townhouses and front-loading garages can work together -- here and here. I think these specimens hold their own alongside those featured in the Old Urbanist posts.

 Small single-family wooden frame houses:

These come  as fully detached houses or as semi-detached pairs, with small front yards, small back yards, and narrow paths (often used as driveways) between them. They are older than the brick rowhouses and, while I was growing up, were thought to be an inferior, less prestigious form of housing. Archie Bunker's house (in Queens) is of this type, reinforcing the blue-collar image. Not having spent much time in the area since the early 1990s, I'm not sure this class distinction still exists -- though the Google street views do show quite a few American flags (perhaps denoting military service or political affiliation?) on the porches of these houses, a sight that is uncommon on the brick rowhouse streets. 

I always had a regard for these dwellings and enjoyed walking along the streets lined with them, even when they were thought (by some) to be disreputable. They vary the scene by breaking up the blocks of brick rowhouses, and by displaying a certain diversity of color, facade, etc. I don't think this is the phony kind of diversity that you have in suburban tract housing. The idea is that the houses all work together to form a complete street environment (just as the brick rowhouses do). They are modest in size, the spaces between them are small, and they create the desired "outdoor room" or enclosure effect that is thought to be essential to the pedestrian experience.

Representative samples:

East 53rd near Ave. O (Google street view)
E. 57th near Ave. O -- jazzing things up with partial brick veneer ( Google street view)

E. 53rd near Ave. S -- co-existing with brick rowhouses ( Google street view)
E. 61st near Ave. T -- small stylistic variations (Google street view)

Mill Ave. and Ralph -- American flags

It's interesting to compare the street environment yielded by these single-family wooden frame houses of Old Mill Basin with the single-family homes that line the streets of "new" Mill Basin -- an enclave that, unlike Old Mill Basin, does fit the New York Times label of "suburbia:" 

E. 64th St. near Mayfair Drive South, suburban Mill Basin
(Google street view)

E. 66th St., suburban Mill Basin (Google street view)
The NYT article linked to above doesn't distinguish between Old and "new" Mill Basin, but when it talks about a "zone of lawn mowers" and a "country club’s worth of swimming pools," it's referring to the newer area that juts into Jamaica Bay and was "whipped up from scratch" by engineers -- not to nearby Old Mill Basin with its more traditional street grid and architectural style.

Why do these two latter photos from "new" Mill Basin scream Suburbia, while the preceding ones from Old Mill Basin don't (and I've deliberately steered clear of the McMansions that have recently replaced many of the original "new" Mill Basin houses)? These aren't huge houses, and the garages don't protrude for a snouthouse effect. The setbacks of the "new" Mill Basin houses aren't any larger than those of the classic Old Mill Basin houses, the spaces between them aren't much larger, and they display similar slight variations of color, window and porch style, etc. Why do these suburban-Mill Basin homes have such a solitary, every-man-for-himself feel? Why, taken together, do they produce monotony rather than harmony? Even as a teenager, visiting friends in "new" Mill Basin, I could tell the difference between this much more expensive/upscale area and the area where I lived, and preferred my own area.

Old Mill Basin/Flatlands housing styles -- subjective/emotional response:

Why do the unglamorous street scenes of Old Mill Basin and Flatlands tug at the heart? (And I believe they could tug at anyone's heart, not just the heart of someone who grew up there.)

Modesty. Simplicity. Staying within bounds. Small parts making up a whole that is greater than the sum. Being separate -- together. Everybody having their own bit of privacy and comfort, that do not come at anybody else's expense. 

These, in my subjective estimation, are the values embodied in the housing styles of Old Mill Basin and Flatlands, and are what give these neighborhoods their peculiar charm. Living within limits, when translated into architecture, apparently has aesthetic merit. Making the most of available space, "a place for everything, and everything in its place." 

Walking these streets -- or even looking at them via Google street view -- is at once restful and stimulating. Simplicity is pretty, and fun.

Charles Siegel's Politics of Simple Living connects traditional neighborhood design with precisely these values of simple living. 

I'll leave the reader with just one more Google street view that shows how these tranquil, walkable streets coexist with elements of autocentrism and sprawl, in anticipation of Brooklyn nostalgia trip -- Part II:

View of Kings Plaza Lowe's shopping mall, E. 55th St. intersection
(Google street view)