Sunday is Tisha b'Av, the day when Jews mourn a lot of things. The destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Expulsion from Spain, Hitler's Final Solution was promulgated--it is an all-round National Catastrophe Day. There are those of us who feel that Holocaust Day is redundant, and should be remembered, in its historical context, along with all the other disasters Jews have suffered throughout the ages.
This year is especially poignant if you live in Jerusalem. In the name of "urban renewal" and "improved mass transit" our Gracious City Fathers seem bent on finishing what the Romans started in AD 70. (A note for the finicky: the actual destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans actually began on the 17th of Tamuz, in the Hebrew calendar, three weeks before Tisha b'Av, when the first breach in the walls of what is now the Old City occurred. But I'm allowed some literary license)
Well over a decade ago a decision was taken to create a network of above-ground light rail lines that would connect some of Jerusalem's more distant neighborhoods with the city center. Jerusalem is a rather odd city. The population is about 700,000, but it is spread over a very large area. Further, as it sits on top of a bunch of mountains, neighborhoods are often defined and separated by deep valleys. There was never any attempt at city planning, indeed, the topography dictates where streets will run, and in the older parts of the city, the streets are narrow and often not straight. Here is a rough city map from 1993; and here is a better one, but you will have to zoom in for the detail. The commercial center is largely defined by the triangle formed by King George Street, Ben Yehuda Street, and Jaffa (Yafo) Road. But it is Jaffa Road that is the real lifeline of the city, running from the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway at the city entrance (where the Central Bus Station is) to the Old City.
Jaffa Road isn't a particularly splendid piece of "high street". In fact, considerable bits of it look pretty much as they did in the years of the British Mandate, and even the Ottoman period, tarted up with neon signs and sporting shop windows selling everything from sports shoes to tourist twat and religious articles. Most of the shops are "key money", a kind of protected tenancy whereby the owner sells a leasehold to the purchaser for a one-time price. The purchaser cannot be evicted, but any improvements he puts into the property are at his own expense but are owned by the owner. So there's little incentive to make any real improvement to the property. Consequently a lot of the shops are quite delapidated.
Ben Yehuda Street is a pedestrian mall, and many of the small streets off Jaffa Road have been so converted also, but both Jaffa Road and King George Street are extremely busy thoroughfares, with about 20 bus lines traversing the city's two axes -- from entrance to Old City, from the neighborhood of Gilo to Mt. Scopus. (It was at the intersection of King George and Jaffa that the suicide bomber struck the Sbarro Pizza outlet with such devastating effect). A little farther from the city center is the Machaneh Yehuda open-air market, which has also seen its share of terror attacks, as it is usually crowded with shoppers, especially in the run-up to Shabbat. It is a much-beloved Jerusalem institution.
The light railway was supposed to have its first line open in 2006. To no one's surprise, the date is now some time in 2010, and the cost has escalated exponentially. Not only did all the streets using it have to be dug up in order to put down the necessary infrastructure for the electrical cables, etc., they now have to be dug up a second time to lay the tracks. Further, the railway lane will be slightly raised, except at intersections, so that cars cannot drive on the tracks and impede the progress of the trains. The construction has been inching forward at a pace that would put a snail to shame, largely because the track-laying machines, which were supposed to do everything at once, have turned out to be an untested technology (from France) which is a great disappointment.
This week the City closed the entire length of Jaffa Road from near the Central Bus Station to almost the Old City, except for one lane barely wide enough for a bus, traveling in one direction only, instead of doing it in bits. All the bus lines have had to be rerouted, at least partially, onto narrow streets that were already jam-packed with vehicular traffic. All parking on these streets has had to be prohibited. People have to walk long distances from the nearest bus stop to where they want to go; and since a great many of the usual patrons of the downtown shops are the elderly who don't drive (and thus don't go to the shopping malls on the city periphery), this is quite a hardship. They can't do their shopping, and hail a taxi because taxis can't use the now-restricted bus lanes--they have to retrace their steps, shlepping all their packages, to a bus stop on a street on which traffic backs up for blocks every time a bus comes to a halt. And the current "timetable" for the work allows two years for its completion. More like six, the way things have been going so far.
Forget terrorists: if someone has a heart attack in downtown Jerusalem now, no ambulance, rescue vehicle, or paramedic on a motorcycle can get around the blockages caused by back-to-back buses. The buses themselves cannot keep to any schedule. It normally takes me between 20 minutes and half an hour to get to work; since Jaffa Road has been closed it takes me an hour and a half. Each way. And my son-in-law the policeman has noted that, should a grave, or even a bone, or anything of archeological interest be turned up during the street's excavation, all construction comes to an indefinite halt. By law, all archeological finds must be thoroughly excavated, and the ultra-Orthodox go on a rampage every time they decide some rock or geological formation is a "grave" (because the assumption is it is the grave of a Jew). The opening of the Begin highway was held up for three years because the ultra-Orthodox decided a boulder was a grave (in spite of all evidence to the contrary), and the road had to be rerouted, a section torn up and resited so the "grave" is now in a median strip)
My SIL has told me the police have met with City officials and told them frankly that they cannot guarantee the safety of the city center with the entire length of Jaffa Road affected the way it is currently. The merchants have met with City officials and told them that nearly all of them will be bankrupt within 6 months; I've noticed some "For Sale" signs appearing already on some of the smaller shops. Eventually we'll have rapid transit to the downtown area but the downtown area will be a ghost town.
The cynic in me says that is exactly what the City is hoping for. As tenants abandon their "key money" premises, the owners can be tempted to sell to developers who will knock down every vestige of old "modern" Jerusalem and put up tower blocks for commercial and residential purposes. Currently Jerusalem is enjoying something of a luxury apartment building boom (there are those who say it has not only peaked but the newest construction sites will never even be completed) for the "two months a year residents", a great many of whom are French, and wealthy. When life is good in France, they'll stay there, but they want a foothold in Israel should the Moslems in France go on a rampage (many were pied noirs in North Africa; came to Israel penniless in the Fifties, decamped to France only a few years later because of the austerity conditions here then, leaving some relatives here, so they are not entirely strangers to the country)
I fear an essential part of the city is being undermined. Jerusalem already, because of its uniqueness, suffers from high housing costs, and has been losing residents to the satellite towns halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (it's a half hour/45 minute commute to Tel Aviv from Modi'in, for example, and maybe half an hour into Jerusalem). The downtown triangle, while it certainly could use a bit of fixing-up, has a very special atmosphere that has managed to survive nearly a century. It would be a tragedy if it went, and the Jerusalem city center looked like a hundred other places.
The whole light railway is a fiasco. Washington DC put in a trolley system that barely 5 years after its inception took out of service, when I was a child, and Washington is a town with broad boulevards, not two-lane streets that suddenly have kinks and curves. If a car that travels on rails breaks down, nothing can go around it. This weakness has had my SIL's unit, an elite one like a SWAT team, practicing various scenarios for several years already, but nothing is simpler than a terrorist suddenly driving onto the rail lane (in spite of it being slightly elevated, a car could drive onto it easily), blocking trains in both directions, and either he or a couple of confederates simply hurling a few grenades into the train compartments. This week the dangers of the raised lane were highlighted when it was shown that a bus lane in Haifa, 7 cm above the street level, but hardly noticeable in dim light, had caused several fatal accidents already, as motorcyclists fell off the edge into oncoming traffic. Since the Jaffa Road construction is now going 24 hours a day, there has been a need for a lot many more construction workers--it's not by accident that the two "bulldozer terrorist" incidents have happened right now. And the traffic rerouting, etc. demands a huge police presence (at a time of year when families schedule vacations). SIL gloomily predicts that once it rains in October or thereabouts, everything will go into abeyance until the spring: roadwork can't be done in wet conditions, and the City has lost about three months of dry weather this year.
We've got the Calatrava "string" bridge now, and it is very inspiring, there at the entrance to the city. So inspiring, in fact, that all the buildings around it look really dull and uninspired. I guess they'll have to be demolished at some point, and rebuilt in a grander style. Despite the removal of the scaffolding, etc. traffic at the entrance of the city still hasn't gone back to normal. It appears that the construction company that won the tender for track-laying has finally figured out how to lay the tracks. Apparently a couple of the cars have arrived from France and more are on the way.
All that the citizens of the city ask is that the work on the main street of the city be done in chunks so the rest of the length of Jaffa Road can function, or there's going to be a really nice rail system going into a deserted city center. I really don't know if the Jerusalem I know can survive this "urban renewal".
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