Tuesday 31 January 2017

Garden City, Tel Aviv

Between December 2016 and January 2017 I visited Tel Aviv for a long stay that culminated in the opening of my first big solo art exhibit outside Turkey.

During my stay I was greatly interested in architectural details and the abundance of sub-tropical flora in this city, and took every opportunity to get lost in its streets. I photographed the strange and beautiful interplay plants and buildings: Bauhaus apartments slowly decaying among tucked-in gardens of palms; Dracenas; feral agaves; rampant, erotic boughs of self-penetrating figs; strange figurines on old dusty storefronts; cozy-looking balconies; brief glimpses of living rooms packed with books; and so on.

I came up with pictures which may seem normal to a resident of Tel Aviv, but to an outsider; or at least in my humble view; manage to capture parts of the city's unique and unnoticed character. I usually write a lot of commentary with photo-blog entries, but this time I'll keep explanations to a minimum and let the images do the talking. Dive in and enjoy Tel Aviv - Israel's "garden city."

Painted tiles in an old building near Allenby Street.

Above and below, eclectic frescoes adorning the side and the entranceway of an apartment building from the 1970s.

A verdant apartment entrance with many potted plants.

My visit coincided with Hanukkah season. I saw many electric menorahs on which "candles," now lightbulbs, were lit on successive nights of the festival.

Not a sex shop, as one may expect, but a shop selling sportswear and lingerie.

Brutalist buildings in the Tel Aviv University campus, surrounded by lush palm trees and wide green spaces.

A nice garden of potted cacti and succulent plants on a balcony.

The entranceways of many apartments built before the age of air conditioning had deep, shady overhangs, sheltering a lush assortment of sub-tropical garden plants.

A sure sign of winter in Tel Aviv was the ubiquitous discarded electric heater box. Due to the mild climate, most homes in the city lacked central heating. Ergo, electric heaters were people's best friends in the cold months.

Platform-game-like arrangement of walkway tiles from the Righteous Among the Nations Park near the centre of town. 

To my naive outlook, Tel Aviv seemed like a laid-back city without many concerns. This, of course was far the truth. The city was a liberal island in a sea of centre-to-far-right majority, and Israeli politics were polarised around the personality and decisions of Benjamin Netanyahu.

One of my favourite details were these recliner chairs everyone was free to use in Tel Aviv's central Rabin square. In many other cities, they would have been stolen, or vandalised.

There were many cats, but they appeared skinnier and more skittish than the cats I was used to in Istanbul.

A movers' sign and a bottle of "orphan plants" put up for adoption.

The backyards of some apartment blocks were veritable botanic gardens.
I counted five kinds of trees in this small space alone.

A city pigeon, Columba livia domestica, accompanied by a wily myna, Acridotheres tristis, as it searches for food.

Mynas are smart opportunists that are rapidly adapting to urban environments around the world. I had previously encountered them all the way in Sydney, Australia.

Strange wood-cut busts of a woman and an ape in an old storefront.

Just imagine... A childhood spent in magical forests tucked away among apartment blocks like this would be full of discovery and adventure.

A customer waits for humus at the Humus Hakarmel restaurant, converted from a disused synagogue at the Carmel Market district.

Rampant mother-of-thousands plants, Bryophyllum sp., growing wild around an air conditioner on an old office block.

Driven by rising real-estate prices, a large spurt of new construction and urban renewal had impacted Tel Aviv, and more was on the way. I felt that many of the old details I had captured during my visit would not exist in a decade or so.

Faded lingerie posters in old store displays.

One of the many "sell-anything" shops in Southern Tel Aviv.

Above and below, details from the entranceway of the Irgun Museum.

A cheerful little balcony behind an old apartment. Real estate prices and rents in Tel Aviv were through the roof; professionals, students and young people from all around Israel were flocking here for a breath of its non-religious, liberal atmosphere.

The beautiful, attenuated cone of a cycad plant.

Some sort of Monstera plant, spilling out of its pot and on to the sidewalks. Many "indoor" plants grew rampant and reached enormous sizes in Tel Aviv's hot and humid climate.

A storm had blown apart the slats of this old shutter in a deranged angle, no one had noticed because the window was walled-over.

Old houses left among developing skyscrapers near Allenby Street.

I kept seeing obscene shapes in the many fig (Ficus sp.) trees that lined important avenues.

This photo and the four pictures below show details from the Gan Ha'ir Shopping Mall in central Tel Aviv. In contrast to the modern, air-conditioned malls that were built in the last decade, the Gan Ha'ir had a homely, accessible and nostalgic atmosphere.

One of the more memorable trees in Tel Aviv, the olive tree planted in memory of Yitzhak Rabin.

I couldn't help guessing what the interior of this gaudy, plant-and-fake-flamingo-riddled doorway concealed.

An old door near the Carmel Market neighbourhood.

Above and below: Elegant, if unkempt apartments from the 1960s.

These lit-up address signs were as characteristic of Tel Aviv as painted doorway signs were of Istanbul.

An old one-storey Bauhaus home, possibly slated for demolition.

In evenings, living rooms full of well-stocked libraries glowed from windows around well-off streets. I really admired the local custom of openly displaying the insides of homes to the street. Tightly-shut curtains always invoked in me images of homes full of cowards, prudes with stupid privacy taboos, a lack of the rule of law, or a combination of them all. 

Me and a friend saw this small apartment with Israeli and Turkish flags hanging side-by-side in the hip, young (and gentrified and overpriced) neighbourhood of Florentin. The lights were on, there seemed to be a party going on inside. I was happy to see the flags of both countries together after Turkey's period of animosity towards Israel. We guessed the house may have belonged to a Turkish Jew, or a student from Turkey. We tried to get the attention of the house's occupants by singing the Turkish National Anthem on the street below, but no one came out to greet us.

The entranceway of an old apartment preserved these beautiful hand-painted floor tiles. Years of shuffling visitors had eroded a path through the colourful patterns.

Above and below, two more details from the Florentin area.

A detail from the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv.

This humanoid coffee-bean was the strangest, and most vomit-inducing storefront figure I saw in Tel Aviv.

Truth be told, most mascots and cartoon characters designed in Israel seemed to be a bit creepy. Another example was a pair of rotund cretins that featured on the ad displayed atop this juice booth.

More tantric fig trees near Rothschild Boulevard.

The half-shuttered windows and protruding balcony on this building made it resemble a cartoon character.

A beautiful, robust agave plant, (Agave americana) among trees and prickly-pear cacti (Opuntia sp.)

Some homes, with cozy gardens and parked-in bikes on their curbs, seemed almost idyllic. Here was an embodiment of the casual and healthy, green-yet-urban lifestyle many people yearned for in cities around the world. Of course, all lives seemed more desirable than ours when glimpsed briefly from the outside.

One of Tel Aviv's innumerable cafes, sheltering under a burly palm tree. Food, drinks and cafes were a big industry in Tel Aviv.

Another "millenial dream home" with parked bikes, a cozy balcony shaded by a pretty, striped awning and an almost coquettishly-revealed glimpsed of a library inside.

Detail from an insane, fractal, hand-made window grill.

There were dozens of species of palms all around Tel Aviv, and I lacked the botanical wherewithal to identify them. The most magnificent was this blue hesper palm, Brahea armata, which I saw only in the garden plot of an old, small, one-story home.

One of Tel Aviv's second-hand bookstores, a bibliophile's treasure-cave.

Cabalistic graffiti on a maintenance building at a park.

A rare, hand-painted apartment sign.

View of Rabin Square with the laissez-faire recliner chairs I'd shown before.

Above and below, the enduring affinity between flower pots and cats. The cats each lived near the door of a particular apartment. They jealously guarded their territories from their con-specifics.

The sawn-off palm tree was a common sight in front of many old apartments. The palm trees grew rapidly and in a decade or two threatened power lines, which was when they were cut down.

The seven pictures above and below are glimpses from Jaffa, a separate city in the past, but now practically a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Thus ended my strange tour of Tel Aviv. I hope this post has given you a new perspective, not just on Tel Aviv, but to all pedestrian cities with old buildings and mouldering gardens. Looking at such strange details; the bizarre and exotic hiding in the obscure and banal, gives one a new appreciation of their surroundings. Last but not least, the science enthusiast in me was perked by the biological and evolutionary prospects of urban micro-environments. Who knows what potentially speciative acts of hybridisation and adaptation are going on in such undisturbed garden plots? Are the genes of one type of, say, agave plant from one end of Tel Aviv, really the same as one from another quarter? How about those from another city? How many varieties of each "common" plant are there in each city and town, and how diverse are they? (Geneticist friends, if you are looking for a research project, here is your cue. )

As always, more questions, and more side-paths to adventure, than answers.


PS: Here are two neat articles on urban speciation: 

by Philip Hunter 

by Marina Albertia, Cristian Correab, et al.

PS2: I took all my pictures here, close-ups and wide landscapes, with a CanonG1X camera. I'm not much of a camera-geek, I just carry a camera with me on all times, take pictures of everything and anything, and pick the good ones to display.