TEL AVIV (JTA) – When the artisanal restaurant Suzanna opened here in 1995, it faced a eucalyptus grove and an abandoned building.
Suzanna is located near the end of Shabazi Street, the central thoroughfare of Tel Aviv’s first neighborhood, Neve Tzedek. At the time of the restaurant’s launch, the neighborhood was dilapidated, its narrow streets a haven for the homeless and the drug addicted. At its western end was an old train station that hadn’t served the public since 1948.
“There were dirty streets,” recalled Ilan Derdichevsky, Suzanna’s manager. “It was a bit of a slum. A lot of the residents, you wouldn’t call them rich.”
Nearly two decades later, Neve Tzedek, rated as one of the world’s top tourist destinations, is one of Tel Aviv’s most luxurious neighborhoods, its narrow streets and old buildings mostly renovated and crowded with visitors. Cafés, restaurants and craft shops fill the once-abandoned streets, while a cultural center offers plays and dance performances next to a shaded park.
The abandoned train station is now a broad plaza and the pedestrian mall is popular with tourists and Tel Avivis looking for a night out.
“There’s a magic in the architecture of the buildings from the beginning of the century,” Derdichevsky said. “The narrow streets, the cultural establishments. It gives a feeling of freedom.”
Sunbathers relax on white-sand beaches. Cyclists cruise on 60 miles of bicycle trails. Tourists and locals mingle at outdoor cafés or on the streets of old Jaffa. A booming party scene beckons young visitors.
“We took the things that were unique to the city, packaged them and marketed them to the world,” said Hila Oren, CEO of the Tel Aviv municipality’s Global City Administration. “It’s a flat city with a coast. It’s easy to walk. The people here are very open.”
Israelis have always called Tel Aviv the “nonstop city,” but efforts to market that image internationally picked up steam after Mayor Ron Huldai took office in 1998. Huldai began improving basic infrastructure, which Oren called “not a popular agenda.” But the improvements made the city friendlier to business – a precondition, Oren said, for transforming Tel Aviv into a tourist hot spot.
“There’s no business center that’s not a tourist center,” she said. “When someone comes to do business in the morning, he has money in the evening.”
In 2003, UNESCO, the cultural body of the United Nations, declared Tel Aviv a world heritage site. Since then, the city has had a facelift.
In 2005, renovations began on the old Train Station District next to Neve Tzedek, which opened to the public in 2010.
In 2011, the Tel Aviv Art Museum opened a new wing with a theater and opera house. The same year, Tel Aviv opened Tel-O-Fun, a public bicycle-sharing program.
And starting in June, the municipality will offer free WiFi Internet access throughout the city.
The city also invested about $250 million in the past two years renovating Jaffa, the ancient port city just to the south.
The city’s renewal does have its drawbacks. Tel Aviv’s poorer southern neighborhoods are largely devoid of the cafés, clubs and boulevards that draw tourists. Even in the center of the city, many buildings remain dirty, dilapidated or even abandoned.
Meanwhile, rising housing prices have made it more difficult for young people to remain. In 2011, frustration about the cost of living led to massive street protests that lasted throughout the summer. Protests resumed recently after the government proposed a new budget that hikes taxes and cuts benefits.
“Southern Tel Aviv does not need to be Tel Aviv’s backyard, or the backyard of the whole State of Israel,” said Nitzan Horovitz, who is challenging Huldai for the mayoralty; if elected, Horovitz would be Israel’s first openly gay mayor.
“Through partnership with the residents … we can change the face of all of southern Tel Aviv.”
Rothschild Boulevard – the trendy thoroughfare of cafés and restaurants that was the site of the 2011 protests – symbolizes the tensions in Tel Aviv.
At one end is Israel’s national theater, Habima, which sits in front of a large plaza with a pool of water. Grass and trees flank a pedestrian walkway with a bicycle path. At the other end of the boulevard, Neve Tzedek begins.
“Today, tourists and businessmen who come to Tel Aviv want to know the real city, not the tourist center,” said Alon Levy, manager of The Rothschild 71, a boutique hotel built in the Bauhaus style. “They want to know what it is like to be Tel Avivi. Tel Aviv is a diverse city, and the boulevard is diverse.”
Hotels like The Rothschild 71, Oren said, characterize what attracts tourists to Tel Aviv, a city that provides a dramatic reprieve from one of the tensest regions in the world. It’s one reason Israelis playfully – and sometimes derisively – refer to the city as “The State of Tel Aviv.”
“When you say Israel, people think conflict. But when you say Tel Aviv, they don’t connect it to conflict,” Oren said. “When people talk about vacationing, they say Barcelona and Berlin, not Spain and Germany. I’m going away for a weekend in Tel Aviv, not Israel.”