Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Working Class Borough is Something to Be

The deeper you dig, the closer you come to the bone. Cities will teach you that.

Haifa is a three tiered one: Atop Mt. Carmel are the posh quarters, complete with pretty parks and a cinematheque. Halfway down is Haddar, the city's first "modern hub", mixing urban grit with pleasent residential streets. All the way down is the "Lower City", and that's where the heart is, the rugged, blue collar heart.

Each time I visit this neglected bit of cityscape, I go through something dramatic. My first true venture here was for an article in the Hebrew edition of National Geographic. The editor sent me and Eddy the photographer to seek out the seamen haunts. Is Haifa still a port city in the days of nearly unmanned, mechanized ships, that linger in the harbor for no longer than a day or so? Did it still have taverns? prostitutes? Tattoed nights? We took the train up and descended at the shadow of cranes.

It took us a little while to come up with a positive answer. The bars are hidden, but when you're in them, there's no mistaking them. Old timer Israeli sailors drink arrack and eat salami at the "Habanera", American musclemen, fresh off a cargo ship, gozzled it down at "the anchor", and there was "the Godfather", where Eddy took the sexiest photo ever of a woman smoking. Haifa was drenched with salt water alright.

On my second sojourn here I came with a broken heart. a girl dumped me in Tel-Aviv and I escaped north to ease the pain. I took a bed at the "Port Inn", truly a sweet little hostel, but through an unfortunate fluke got stung by some mysterious insect and spent the night awake, scratching myself, walking the empty, shabby streets and trying to write a love poem that would bring her back.

All I ended up coming with was a blog post about another city and another girl. When morning came, I straddled into old fashioned cafe "Shani" on the main drag, and got served good coffee with the words "good morning" sprinkled on it in cocoa powder, through some kind of a friendly stencil. That made my day. I swore to love Haifa forever, more than any girl, ever!

This weekend, though, I came to Haifa with a girl, so I had to balance my effections out somehow. You see her here standing on the atypically elegant Ben-gurion avenue, with its old houses built by German evangelists in the 19th century.

Never worry. She herself has a romantic history with the city. She and her legendary ex-boyfriend used to frequent a Romanian restaurant called "The fountain of Beer" and feast on its "Kostitza": some sort of a smoked, garlicky concoction of pork that is simply too amazing to describe.

A band was playing old favorites, pleasing the multitude of non-kosher Haifa-ites who croud this place on a Friday.

Since I hummed along, I got to sing into the microphone. You'll notice that I am literally pregnant with the Kostitza. Please don't show this picture to anyone.

This was a great little kickoff to the weekend, and I forgave Itka her nostalgia to the ex-boyfriend, but the streets were beginning to empty and we got worrying that the lower city was not really that great a place in which to pass a shabbat.

I mean, these days even the golden dome of the Baha'i shrine, the ornament of the city, is undergoing renovations.

So we went into the Anchor bar to drink the afternoon away, and met the mayor. Seriously, this is Yona Yahav, the Mayor of Haifa, in a bar.

It's not that romantic actually. You know that I don't have money for vacations. The weekend in Haifa was a work trip, an invitation extended by the municipality in honor of a new play in Haifa's municipal theatre. Mr. Yahav came to greet the culture correspondants. He has an agenda to promote with the press and the Lower City is at the heart of this agenda. There has been a huge investment in trying to beautify this area and bring fresh blood - particularly students, to live here. Yahav showed us a newly paved area between the Anchor bar and the port, and led us into a bustling, if mild-mannered, street party.

It starred the mild-mannered yet legendary trio of Shem-tov Levi, Shlomo Yidov and Yitzhak Klepter.

Yahav's plans for the lower city, which include moving the commercial port east and planting a marina in the current basin, are likable. then again, he should be careful not to over-gentrify this very unique cityscape, which is, in its horizontal way, as multi-tiered as the city itself. It certainly isn't all grit. It's a lovely place to feast, working class style, of course.

It's full of creativity: the graduates' show at the Wizo design academy was mind blowing

and expressed healthy liberalism.

To top it all, relationships between Jews and Arabs here are, if not impeccable, at least better than elsewhere in the country. Haifa knew the pain of the Naqba, but was also always the hotbed of cooperation between the societies, with the internationalist values of the working class helping build bridges. This poster uses the smile of an Arab real estate agent as a "seller" to a Hebrew-reading public. Such things aren't to be taken for granted around these parts.

The Lower City, shyly identified as "Downtown" on the signs, has no reason to feel inferior to the other boroughs and to look up to them. It thrilled me when I sought a thrill, It lifted my spirit when I was down. It's as good as they come. Not every city can be the celestial Jerusalem. I like my terrestrial Haifas served with garlic sauce.

No comments: