Interview: Inequality and gentrification: Urban Borders in Tel Aviv-Jaffa

interview radio fro

Austrian architect, artist and radio-maker Margit Greinöcker visited me in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and we did an interview on the issues of inequality, gentrification and borders I´ve been working on in the course of my fieldwork. The interview has been broadcast on Austrian Radio FRO. Here is a link to listen (German); please find an english transcript below.

SA: The reason why I’m here is my PhD-thesis, which is about borders and the premise that they are not only found around nation-states but, in fact, everywhere, particularly in urban spaces. My fieldwork is taking place here in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and in Amman, and I’m looking at border-zones in these two cities. It is very much about cross-scale. If we, for instance, talk about a Global South/Global North division, it is quite obvious that zones, fitting into both categories, can easily also be found here within these cities.

An overarching topic is certainly the so called ‘Middle East conflict’, although I do not explicitly address and work with it. My hypothesis, if you will, is that national borders are important, especially in the context of this region here, but that there are also other borders, and that a more precise view at these other borders might help us to better understand or anatomise the conflictual geopolitical situation.

MG: How do you research these borders? National borders seem quite clear; but which borders do you discover and how difficult is it to research them?

SA: On the theoretical side, I am using the concept of ‘borderland’, addressed for instance by Etienne Balibar. This concept claims, what I said before, that borders are not only state-borders but everywhere. I more and more find out that this border-topic is exiting because if one looks closer and thinks there finally is a border, at whatever scale, it starts to blur. All of a sudden, identities or groups that have been seen as neatly defined and divided start to flow into each other or overlap. This is what interests me and this is what I am looking at.

In Tel Aviv there is an apparent ‘border’ between north Tel Aviv and south Tel Aviv. For instance, many migrants, working migrants, asylum seekers or refugees from Africa live in south Tel Aviv.

MG: Do people speak about a border or a decline?

SA: Decline is not really used in this context. Speaking about class- or group thinking it would be a very obvious decline though. That even extends beyond the city, as in the northern suburbs there are the super-rich and this is gradually declining towards the south. What is interesting in terms of this north-south decline, as you put it, or this north-south division: I have met many people in south Tel Aviv who are Jewish, but who are Mizrahi or Sephardi, meaning Jews not of European descent but from the Maghreb, North Africa, or from the Middle East, from Iraq, or from Yemen, for instance. And it is easy to read in the urban fabric that there are not only migrants from Africa and socio-economically weak migrants from Eastern Europe in the south of Tel Aviv, but also especially non-European Jews. There are some organisations and NGOs who approach the subject, and it is them who particularly emphasise shared concerns and a critical stance against the municipality and the state of Israel; as Jews, which is highlighted. They are fighting for equal rights for all people who are here. And that includes themselves, the Mizrahi Jews, but also African migrants, or Palestinians. Some of these initiatives are furthermore strongly feminist, which constitutes another layer in this borderland, or the folding and overlapping spaces. All this constitutes an intriguing situation. These organisations and individuals heavily criticise that the municipality and the state are run and dominated by the Ashkenazi or European Jews and that all other people and groups cannot participate or have their say. The critique is also about how financial support is organised. There is money but it again goes to Ashkenazi NGOs and they go to the south of Tel Aviv to do something. But the claim from the people there is: give us the money; we know what we need, we know what we want and we can do the things ourselves. In this respect, we are talking about another colonial project, shrunk to a city or a small urban space.

MG: Can you describe the architecture or the architectural zones in Tel Aviv?

SA: Relating back to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is interesting to remind ourselves of the difference between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the old Arab-Muslim city. While Tel Aviv grew out of Jaffa originally, the relation turned around and the city of Tel Aviv incorporated the city of Jaffa, establishing one municipality. With regard to that fact we can see that a modern, European attitude encounters a Middle Eastern way of living and building. This is quite obvious when it comes to the so called ‘White City’, the white city of Tel Aviv. When many Austrian and German architects once emigrated to Israel, or rather Palestine back then, they brought with them a modern way of planning and building, the so-called ‘Bauhaus’ style. This, hence, is a very clear distinction. Jaffa, although much smaller than Tel Aviv, representing this small scale, heterogeneous, narrow, seemingly unplanned, ‘oriental’ style; and the modern, ordered layout on the side of Tel Aviv.

With regard to the White City there are quite critical voices. Of course, it is politically used and for the purpose of promoting tourism. The critiques speak of a myth that is captured and manipulated. For instance that some of the buildings have nothing to do with Bauhaus but are rather an Israeli or Mediterranean adaptation of Bauhaus. A banal but obvious observation would be that most of the buildings are not white at all but have a darker colour. It, furthermore, has to be said that the management and maintenance of some of the buildings is anything but thorough. There are additions and extensions that are not carefully done.

If we look at the built environment in Tel Aviv and Jaffa besides the White City-story, then there is again the picture of – I spoke about the northern suburbs before – quite homogenous middle class/upper middle class living in the north, with a white, exclusively Jewish population, in larger residential blocks and modern apartments. The further we go south and reaching the city centre it gets more heterogeneous. Here, one finds older, but already Jewish quarters that have been there before Tel Aviv was even founded. In these areas an `oriental´, Arab influence can still be recognised; again, smaller scale, more narrow streets, and so forth. And then there is the transition to Jaffa, where it is clear that this used to be an Arab city, even if a small one. Meanwhile it is more or less a Jewish city. As in many other places, gentrification contributed to the displacement of people who could no longer afford living there. In the case of Israel, or in the case of Tel Aviv, this means that Jewish people, who are basically socio-economically stronger, now live there and run shops and artist workshops and the Arab population had to leave.

The area I focus on in the course of my PhD is called Neve Sha’anan, a neighbourhood also in south Tel Aviv, and it is home to many working migrants and refugees from Africa. Compared to north Tel Aviv, there is actually a strong contrast and one feels shifted to a different world. Now, the situation is that the native population there is rather poor, mainly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe or Russia. This, of course, causes considerable tension, because it became very heterogeneous and many different groups and identities encounter each other there. Plus, there is also pressure in terms of gentrification. There is a wave of gentrification rolling in from the sea; from the west. First, there is the neighbourhood of Neve Tsedek, which is fully gentrified and represents a rich area in the south of Tel Aviv. Then there is Florentin, the following neighbourhood, which is just about to be gentrified. And finally, in the eastern part of south Tel Aviv there is Neve Sha’anan, where most of the migrants live. I just talked to an Israeli girl, who said it is ugly there. So, the prevailing opinion is that it is not nice, not clean, not orderly. A fact is there are many different people in a very small space, and this causes tension and problems.

With regard to gentrification there are critical voices from the architecture and urban planning scene that the area is deliberately held in this condition in order to keep the prices for land and real estate low for buying them up and invest. At a closer look, it is evident that the gentrification-process already started. There are about a dozen projects, large housing blocks, and there is also a jump in scale visible. Until now there were mainly three or four storey buildings, mixed use, with the upper floors used for housing and the ground floors for shops or stores. The new buildings all have seven floors and are packed with flats and apartments in modern ways, following the current lifestyle. There are already people living there, which again fits the before mentioned picture of spatial overlaps. One can see large cars in front of, or inside the car parks, which is a stark contrast to the rest of Neve Sha’anan, where landlords subdivide their flats into tiny rooms in order to rent them out to as many people as possible and make large amounts of money with this practice. These spaces collide or fold into each other there and this is why this area is intriguing for my work.

MG: Do you know how the status of ownership is in this area?

SA: Most of the land and real estate is privately owned, which means the leverage of the state or the municipality is limited. Insofar, conflict also arises among the Jewish population, because those Jewish Israelis who also have to rent their place accuse the ones who own property that they are responsible for the situation because they are jamming people in their buildings in order to make profits. And they are right. If we calculate square meter prices, rents are partly higher than in high-priced north Tel Aviv. There are 5-6 square meter rooms which accommodate 3-4 people and the landlords charge per person which results in extremely high square meter prices.

MG: These are building that have not been renovated in the last decade and are therefore squeezed out!?

SA: Yes, exactly! No buildings in this area are being renovated. Some are in poor conditions and the only agenda is to get as much money out of them as possible. And at some point, when the situation is ‘ripe’, they build a new one. Then there is even more profit, because the value increases if the zoning allows three more storeys.

MG: A phenomenon we know from many other cities; from Linz to Tel Aviv.

SA: It should probably be mentioned that the idea of making profit with real estate was present from the beginning of the city. When the first Jewish people left Jaffa and founded Tel Aviv, which was called Ahuzat Bayit back then, one aspect was that of investment. And this continues until today. Not only with regard to the built environment. Business and making money is the basic premise, and aesthetic or social matters are definitely of second order. Hence, there is a whole field of tension.

And how I perceive Tel Aviv besides my immediate work is also reflected by such a sphere of tension. On the one hand, one comes here and finds a Mediterranean city, a beach, the sea, that suggest a more or less a permanent holiday feeling. Especially the zones along the beach: a nice esplanade; well maintained beaches that are all publicly accessible; old harbour-facilities, which are kept well, particularly for tourism, but not too snobbish. People go out and have a nice meal in a pleasant atmosphere and seem to feel quite well there. On the other hand, despite this enjoyable scenery and range of leisure activities, there permanently resonates a certain tension. There is an awareness in which part of the world one actually is; that the West Bank is not far away; that the Gaza Strip is not far away; the current crisis in Syria; the again upcoming unrest in Egypt. This all is present, and I have the feeling not only for me but also for the Israelis. Even though it is said that Tel Aviv is the city of celebrations and going out – and I can only confirm that -, there is a permanent tension. One doesn’t know what will be in an hour, in a day, or in a week. This feeling is very present and dampens the mood a bit.

Nevertheless, when I leave the country and come back, the first thing I do is to take a walk to the beach and I then I think how happy I am to be here. It is a very special atmosphere. Having the city directly at the sea is an incredible quality. It feels like holiday and summer over ten months of the year with the sea at the city’s doorstep. But the sea might be particularly attractive for us as a `mountain tribe´ … it is, after all, a sublime affair, standing there and looking out there. One is reminded of how small and insignificant one, as a human being, actually is; or how small and irrelevant constructs like states are, as compared to nature or such grand things like the sea.


I would like to thank Margit Greinöcker and Tobias Hagleitner for their visit and inspiring conversations!

© All rights reserved – Sigi Atteneder, 2013