Letters From Tel Aviv

Julie Blackmon, Olive & Market Street, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.

Getting By on Allenby Street

For the middle-class residents of Tel Aviv, housing is either too expensive or difficult to find. On one city street, apartments are plentiful but—for more than one reason—not the kind you’d like to see.

A year ago, as the world reeled from the fallout of the Arab Spring, nobody much was paying attention to the price of cottage cheese in Israel. If they had, they would have noticed it was creeping slowly upward. Of course, even if they had noticed, they probably wouldn’t have expected it to prompt more than a quarter of a million people to take to the streets by the end of the summer. But a Facebook-organized protest against rising costs for cottage cheese joined forces with a Hooverville-style campout against high rents and produced the largest social protests Israel had ever seen. I watched most of the action from my friend’s balcony, a beer in hand, as I tried to decipher the protesters’ Hebrew signs and translate their rapid-fire chants.

In retrospect, Israel was as much a powder keg for social unrest as Tunisia or Egypt. Israel has one of the highest rates of poverty in the developed world and one of the largest gaps between rich and poor. Salaries are low but prices are high—and, in terms of real estate, climbing ever higher. Before I arrived in Israel, I expected it to look like a suburb of Sacramento or maybe Atlanta: well-fed, well-off, normal by American standards. Instead, from Tel Aviv on down, it really is a socio-economic mess.

Tel Aviv is a rundown city. The usual explanation is that its residents have so much else to think of—life and love and war and kite-surfing and designing Android apps—that they don’t have the time to care how their city looks. But couldn’t the same be said of any city? I think the problem all started with Bauhaus and then the Russians. Much of Tel Aviv’s original architecture is in the Bauhaus style—simple, white, multi-story plaster boxes—which is all well and good until one year when cash is a little tight, so you skip touching up the paint. Next year, cottage cheese is taking up far too much of your budget, so you let the sagging balcony sag. Suddenly, what once looked chipper and modern looks like it belongs in Beirut circa 1982. Add to that a mid-1990s influx of Russian immigrants who came from a land where Brutalism is a legitimate architectural style and where Eurotrash is aspirational fashion. I do not hold out much hope for improvement, absent vast migration of a previously undiscovered group of wealthy Swedish Jews holding degrees in design.

In Tel Aviv, a reasonable amount of rent will get you an apartment in a decent neighborhood far away from the city center or an apartment in my centrally located building, which is a four-story, originally white/currently gray, semi-Bauhaus walk-up monument to boringness. Just two blocks up is a neighborhood park where abandoned syringes and dog poop litter what grass isn’t covered by a stained mattress, and one block down is a public fountain that doubles as an outdoor shower for down-and-out locals.

There are money-changing outfits that also provide payday loans, a business called “Massage—Ring Bell,” bars you wouldn’t take your mother to, and bars you wouldn’t take the women from “Massage—Ring Bell” to.

My finances relegate me to—no, permit me to live on—Allenby Street, named after Edmund Allenby, a Brit who led the Egyptian Expeditionary Force to capture Palestine from the Ottomans during World War I. The street stretches one mile from the center of Tel Aviv to the southeast, where it fizzles off into the city’s outer ring of high-rises and faceless apartment buildings. At no point in its length does anything on the street rise above the level of slightly trashy. And in my precise neighborhood, you can lop the “slightly” right off. Somehow the street attracts all that is weird and odd and gross in Tel Aviv. Head out from my building and turn left off Allenby onto Ben Yehuda Street; suddenly you are in nice, normal Tel Aviv. The same if you turn right: well-maintained apartments, a Russian cultural center, used bookstores, and a public kindergarten. But follow Allenby, and it’s a long vein of nasty, starting with my neighbor: a beige, run-down, three-story building with a phone number and the notice, “Rooms for rent by the hour, week, month,” spray-painted across its width, the owners too cheap for a proper sign.

Rooms, apartments, even whole buildings on Allenby certainly are cheap. When protesters took to the streets last summer over housing prices, many were complaining that high rents pushed young couples to the outskirts of the city or into suburbs beyond. And while they could sacrifice most of their paycheck to live in a ritzy neighborhood in the heart of the city, Allenby was never proposed as an alternate solution. That’s because, despite its price, Allenby is almost off the map when it comes to cheap Tel Aviv living. A look at the local conditions might start to explain why.

The few blocks of my neighborhood seem to cover most of the seven deadly sins. For those on a budget—which is most of Israel’s population—there are low-rent fast food joints selling terrible re-heated pizza, slimy hot dogs, and bargain basement falafel. There are also tourist kiosks, which deal mostly in cold drinks (alcoholic and soft), cigarettes, gray market drugs, and T-shirts that read “Secret Agent: Mossad” and “Don’t Worry America—Israel is Behind You!” There are money-changing outfits that also provide payday loans, the Go-Go Strip Club, a business called “Massage—Ring Bell,” bars you wouldn’t take your mother to, and bars you wouldn’t take the women from “Massage—Ring Bell” to.


The leading players in the social protests that ran throughout last summer were working students and middle-class families who do their best but still can’t manage to cover their bills. Wages in Israel are lower than in the rest of the Western world but prices for goods are much the same; compounding that is the fact that housing and food prices, long kept in check by the government, have been drifting up, up, up for a few years now. With memories of Tahrir Square fresh in her mind in the summer of 2011, just one original protester who was angry about rent increases convinced hundreds of thousands of people to join her in the streets. The protests swelled in July and August, but died down in September, when the weather got cooler, the students returned to classes, and enthusiasm started to flag. 

As the weather turned warm again this spring, the protests were reignited, albeit with significantly reduced ranks. It wasn’t clear which direction things were headed until a dramatic event took place: Moshe Silman, a disabled, broke, near-homeless veteran set himself on fire at a protest, dying of his injuries a week later. If ever a case has a rallying cry, this was it but… nothing. Or at least not much. The summer has come and gone, Moshe’s death is fading from memory, and nothing resembling the protests of 2011 ever emerged.

If the middle-class families represented one group disappointed with the current state of affairs, Moshe Silman represented another. And in my neighborhood, the Moshe Silmans greatly outnumber the stroller-pushing moms.

My closest neighbors are a pair of sidewalk drinking cafes, or so I have termed them. These businesses mostly serve booze, but also enough food to keep their clientele vertical. There is only seating for ten or so inside, so dozens of tables line the broad sidewalk out front. To call the patrons regular is an understatement; the same cast has been sitting in these plastic chairs since I arrived in Israel more than a year ago, and I expect they will be sitting in them long after I’m gone. No doubt, these are all middle-aged alcoholics of not even the functional kind. They drink and smoke and mumble with increasing incoherence from early in the morning until late, late at night. Around 7 each evening, one of the customers starts singing very loud opera, which continues on for exactly 20 minutes until he passes out.

The drinking cafe clients are some of the more functional individuals in my neighborhood. There is also a solid contingent of homeless men (and one woman) who haunt the block. All of them are alcoholic and only a few of them seem to be visibly mentally ill. Almost in parody, they sleep on benches in midday, recycle bottles for cash, and keep a trusty dog close at hand. It’s funny, in a way, to see Jewish bums, coming as I do from a country where Jews are a model minority, occupying professional jobs and pushing their kids into summertime robotics courses, not into the bottle. These are the people most let down by the government, but the least empowered to do anything about it, other than drink and occasionally bathe in public.

The situation along Allenby sums up the social situation in Israel pretty well: surviving, thriving in a weird way, but certainly not normal or good.

My neighborhood’s cast of business characters, meanwhile, is large and diverse: the Chinese family that owns the “Long Sang” restaurant, a Filipina dwarf prostitute who holds court in Joey’s Bar, the American owner of the English Pub, who once confessed to me in the grocery store line that he can’t return home because of “you know, the drug things.” None of us is under any delusion about which side of the rich vs. poor divide our neighborhood falls on. 

No matter how grungy my Allenby is, please don’t let my description convince you that my neighborhood is any less safe than small-town America during the local police convention. Israel, contrary to the thoughts of my mother, NBC Nightly News, and major insurance providers, is a remarkably safe country. Remove acts of terrorism and war, and there is almost no significant crime in the country. I’ve never before lived in a city where I’ve felt safe enough to walk any street at any time, with friends or by myself. Maybe it’s the vigilance about terrorism or the fact there’s a relatively armed populace, but I’ve never so much as heard of random violent crime in Tel Aviv. Allenby draws its fair share of police attention, but it’s arrests for public disturbances and prostitution, welfare checks, and the occasional bar fight.

The situation along Allenby sums up the social situation in Israel pretty well: surviving, thriving in a weird way, but certainly not normal or good. Last year’s major demonstrations—drawing 150,000 to 300,000 people, almost the population of Tel Aviv—took place far to the north in the city. The rich families from the suburbs never come down to my neck of the woods, but neither do most of the middle-class protesters, either. Which is a bit of a shame. At first, living in the neighborhood abhorred me. What had I done, moving to a place where sidewalk vomit is a daily sight and none of the local restaurants have more than squeaked by their health inspection? Over time, though, I’ve developed a strange kind of affection for Allenby. I have a passing acquaintance with the men who bide their time outside the kiosk/gambling parlor/taxi dispatch center and also with the children of the family that owns the Ethiopian restaurant next door. I hope the government gives these guys a fair break. They might not have the time or energy or even wherewithal to make pretty signs or take to the streets, but they do their best to make do and get buy. Maybe more than anyone, Allenby has earned its cottage cheese.