What’s most startling about South Tel Aviv isn’t the poverty or the diversity – it’s the decrepitude. The area around the Central Bus Station is a study in urban decay. The streets themselves are, for the most part, clean. But the buildings are crumbling and coated in countless layers of grime. Behind rusted fences or chipping cement blocks are acres of jiffa – the Israeli word for the specific kind of rubble and trash that accumulates here. Down the side-streets and alleyways, everything looks old. The years of neglect age the buildings’ facades by a factor of at least two.
In South Tel Aviv, laws protect space instead of people. Consequently the daily struggles of the people living here are hidden behind a meticulously maintained mask, kept out of view of the rest of the city’s population. The streets, which are visible to everyone who travels in the city look almost manicured. Street cleaners prowl up and down the street corners nearly every other night. Municipal workers, typically contract workers from poorer nations in the global south, scour the sidewalks for stray pieces of garbage. In the most neglected part of the city, where nearly all other social services are absent, the municipality deems it somehow necessary to send in the sanitation department regularly.
The real state of the neighborhood can be found behind the gnarled metal gates and within the weathered buildings. The squalor and poverty collect in alleyways and side-yards, occasionally overflowing out of windows or from underneath front doors. Since three, linked events – the construction of the New Central Bus Station, the steady flow of migrant workers, and the arrival of refugees – whole segments of the neighborhoods have become outlets for the overflow of suffering and deprivation. The streets that run from the Central Bus Station to the beach wouldn’t look out of place in New York’s Lower East Side. But on the side-streets and in the neighborhoods that sit directly behind the bus station, in its shadow, the neglect and decrepitude once kept inside have been externalized.
From the main roadways or from the windows of buses passing by, it is hard to see the people asleep on the sidewalk, or the children in shoddy shoes kicking a ball back and forth amidst the ruins of what feels like a forgotten city. People cook on tiny gas stoves crammed onto dilapidated balconies or crumbling street corners to escape the tininess of their apartments. Parents bathe their children in jiffa-filled alleys.
South Tel Aviv is like a postcard sent back from a neoliberal future.
It’s a global city, hub for capital and labor-power, and a seemingly innovative and modern place. It is also home to a severely impoverished, intentionally neglected, and vulnerable population. It is a locale, like many others in the rapidly developing world, where those in power prioritize property over people, with terrible consequences. The people sleeping in Levinsky Park are the other side of start-up nation. In many ways, Israel’s most shameful policies pave the way for its proudest achievements.