The slow yet steady gentrification of Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood is hardly news around here.
Florentin, a Los Feliz-sized patch of warehouses, workshops, bakeries and bars — bravely holding its ground between Tel Aviv's ritzy Neve Tzedek quarter and the incorporated Arab port town of Jaffa, to the south — has been shifting from working-class to artist-class for at least a decade now. In fact, 200 Florentin hipsters just rolled their eyes at the thought of some FOBby Californian blogging about their hood's incredible up-and-comingness — because I am so un-fashionably late to this party.
Hell, three years ago, one urban planner in France wrote an entire 13-pager on Florentin as "a key-space where to observe and decipher how globalization impacts on the daily-life scale and banal forms of identification and territorial appropriation." Yikes.
All of which made it difficult for this recovering snarky news blogger to resist tagging along on one of local Hebrew teacher Guy Sharett's "Florentin Urban Culture & Graffiti" tours last month. To quickly and discretely educate myself on the basics, yes, but also maybe in hopes of joining the Florentines in their inside joke on geeky tour folks drooling over street culture. Hey, if the New York Times had liked it so much, it must be gleefully out-of-touch, right?
No such luck. Sharett, our tour guide, had an Israeli fisherman's village upbringing any hipster would die for, and knew his way around Florentin like the Little Mermaid around a quirky shipwreck.
In short: I had a lot to learn. Below are the top 10 things I'm glad I now know about Florentin that I didn't know before.
10. According to Sharett, the Tel Aviv municipal government requires half the text on every business sign to be in Hebrew. Businesses are not entirely happy about this, because "if it's written in Hebrew, it's provincial and bad, and if it's in English, it's cool," said Sharett. Not to worry — if we know anything about hip gentrification spots, it's that the native, ultra-local shit is what ultimately turns gold.
9. The street I live on — Chlenov, which is really closer to the urine cloud that is the Central Bus Station than to Florentin, but I like to pretend it's borderline — was instantly identified by Sharett as "the prostitute street." This perhaps explains why, on the walk home, I get so many creepers rolling down their windows and asking me "How much?" in Russian.
8. Graffiti and other forms of street art are technically considered illegal in Tel Aviv, but unless you whip out your spray can in broad daylight when the cops are driving by, you'll be fine.
One survivor, according to Sharett, was Nitzan Mintz, a local street artist who regularly stencils Hebrew poems onto telephone poles and other outdoor surfaces. Sharett said that she was once caught in the act by some policemen, who then proceeded to live debate over whether her half-finished poem would be considered art or vandalism. As the story goes, they decided it wasn't, yet still wouldn't let her finish the piece — so she had to come back in the shadows of night to top off her poem.
Still better than we can say for in Los Angeles, where anything aside from a blank wall is a crime. Where top sheriff's detectives spend their time tracking certain monikers and styles through a creepy countywide photo database, and prosecutors use the evidence to put graffiti artists away for felony crimes. But we digress.
7. Anita Falali (or אניטה פללי in Hebrew), an Israeli singer and former underwear model who in her prime was known as "the ass of the country," has become one of Florentin's finest local characters. She walked by with her little dog during the tour, giving a coy ex-model wave to our guide as he explained the nuances of a manhole cover inscription at our feet. It was all very... Venice Beach.
6. Florentin is home to a delicious-smelling bakery that specializes in homemade pastries called "burekasim," which is a funny double-plural word that mixes Hebrew with the old Jewish-Latino language of "Ladino." Which exists.
5. The rundown maze of warehouses and artist workshops, and even a longboard factory, on the west end of Florentin — known widely as the "workshop area," or "that cool part of Tel Aviv with all the graffiti" — is scheduled to be torn down and replaced with modern buildings in the next few years, according to Sharett. This helps graffiti artists feel more free to scrawl as they please, but is obviously depressing because, R.I.P. everything awesome in Tel Aviv that isn't a skyscraper.
4. The street artist who paints the body parts and Band-Aids is Dede; the one who does the gangster eggplants is Eggplant Kid (EPK); the one who draws the tiny box people is Adi Sened. Burning questions put to rest.
3. There are at least three dozen hot hipster chicks with big furry dogs living in Florentin, all of whom choose to walk their big furry dogs as the sun sets on Shabbat. Nouveau Judaism at its most chic.
2. There used to be a neighborhood shoemaker in Florentin who worked out of a closet-sized shop at the bottom of the stairs for the Florentin 28 apartments. He also happened to be the neighborhood psychologist. "We would come to fix our shoes and talk about life," said Sharett. Tragically, though, the shoemaker recently died, and all that's left of his practice is a tattered paper obituary taped over the door.
1. There is such a concept as the "archaeology of graffiti," and Sharett would love to tell you about it. Worth the 50-shekel tour fee in itself, even if I feel a little geekier for knowing it.
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