Monday, October 14, 2013

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?


Robert Dobek said...

Mixed-use development seems inefficient to "big-commerce". They can't herd you in and out of places like human cattle.

Aryeh Freidson said...

Gosh, why are there so few voices like you?

A little comment about Har Homa residents: I'm no expert, but it seems to me that the residents there are ex Jerusalemites who seized an opportunity to upgrade their housing.
as prices in areas such as Katamonim or Armon Hanatziv are rising, residents are selling their apartments and buying larger and cheaper ones in Har Homa.
and of course, Hareidie Families.

Julie@walkablejlm said...

Aryeh Freidson: thank you for your ocmment.

Despite its geographic isolation, Har Homa is part of Jerusalem and its residents aren't "ex" Jerusalemites. It's true that the apartments in Har Homa are larger and cheaper than those in most other Jewish neighborhoods. The question is whether the inconvenience and car-dependency dictated by the isolation are actually offset by the spaciousness of the dwellings.

It's worth noting that Har Homa is probably some kind of test case for minimum parking requirements in Jerusalem -- an entire neighborhood where the residential projects were required to have a certain number of on-site parking spots per unit. The results are very problematic, to put it mildly.