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September 24, 2013

Tel Aviv’s half-abandoned Central Bus Station is home to a bat cave and six underground theaters

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Ramp to the underworld

Today I learned that the little-known bottom half of Tel Aviv's gargantuan Central Bus Station is home to an abandoned arcade, six underground movie theaters, a bunker that can withstand nuclear holocaust and an unfinished bus tunnel so overtaken by bats that it has been declared a nature preserve.

Only in Israel.

I always knew there was something fishy about the Central Bus Station. It's the size of a freaking meteor (almost 11 acres), looks like an African refugee sweatshop to the untrained eye and contains such a dizzying maze of escalators and inclines that you feel as if you've wandered into an M.C. Escher drawing. No one stays at the station longer than they have to: Grab your $5 clubwear from one of dozens of hot-frecha stores or navigate the three stories to/from your bus terminal, and you're out. Linger any longer, and you start to believe you've been swallowed by a black hole, never again to see the light of Levinsky Street.

But it took over six months of living within a few blocks of the station (its hulkish, post-apocalyptic silhouette fills a significant chunk of my bedroom window) to catch wind of the urban legends surrounding its decades-long downfall.

Turns out there's a whole cult of urban-planning nerds dedicated to studying and educating the public about the tragically beautiful failure that is the Central Bus Station.

Yonatan Mishal, a Chicago native who moved to northern Israel as a kid and down to the South Tel Aviv ghetto as a young adult, is one such obsessionado. He works as an art-school instructor by day, but has made a nifty side-business of playing tour guide to the musty, cavernous nether regions of the Central Bus Station. He and a few associates run tours through their company, CTLV. (Architecture students Elad Horn and Talia Davidi run a similar operation of their own, with more of a focus on the building design behind the beast. They've even printed a soft-cover textbook on it.) 

Only a few members of the Central Bus Station cult are granted access to its mostly deserted bottom half, Mishal included. So he kindly gave me a personal English-language tour of the station earlier today — and instead of a black hole, I realized I had fallen into haunted-mansion heaven.

Below are the 10 most incredible things I learned about the enigmatic Tel Aviv Central Bus Station on our two-hour urban hike this afternoon.

10. The station's architect, Ram Karmi, was the same controversial fellow behind the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem and Terminal 3 at Ben Gurion airport. His signature mid-20th-century style of architecture has been labeled "Brutalism," and is described by Wikipedia as "very linear, fortresslike and blockish, often with a predominance of concrete construction." Which explains so, so much.

9. The New Central Bus Station was designed to replace the equally terrible Old Central Bus Station a few blocks north, which today is a wide concrete yard with a one dinky psycho-ward-looking structure and sparse graffiti. The stench of urine is so strong that even the Tel Aviv street cats seem to avoid it. However, Mishal said that a local art college is planning to de-blight the historic old plot by incorporating an extension of the school into what's left of the station. This will hopefully gentrify the area a little bit. "People always think that if you bring the artists in, they'll do wonders," he said.

8. Architect Karmi and two initial investors had an ambitious vision for the New Central Bus Station when they broke ground in the late 1960s: They saw it as a thriving seven-story bus-tropolis where 1 to 2 million travelers per day would lounge in myriad waiting areas and browse hundreds of shops while waiting for their bus to leave. (As if an Israeli would ever arrive two hours early to anything.) The station, as planned, had all the grand stature and skinny Jetways of an international airport — and would make history as the largest bus station in the world. However, as funds dwindled and construction lagged due to various setbacks, their vision was butchered in a drawn-out public lynching that stretched over about three decades, until the station's "completion" in 1993.

Today, only the top four-ish floors of the Central Bus Station are functional. Mishal estimated that around 100,000 people pass through per day.

7. The first floor, buried deep underground, has the air and echo of a mega-mall parking lot — but with a series of heavy-duty red doors meant to seal in thousands of people, should Tel Aviv come under nuclear attack. Pipes the size of elephant thighs run overhead; they're capable of supplying enough gas, water and oxygen to sustain those in the shelter for up to three months, according to Mishal.

Today, however, shelter-seekers would be haunted by the faint chirping of thousands of bats on the other side of the wall — because there is now a full-blown, 200-meter bat cave stretching to the east. These spooky little dudes started squatting here when construction was halted on an underground bus tunnel some years ago. They've called it home ever since, and have thrown such a pretty little nature party that Israeli authorities recently deemed the tunnel a nature preserve, said Mishal. He claimed the bats are now protected under this designation — yet another obstacle in the rejuvenation of the decrepit Central Bus Station.

6. There is a service tunnel, studded with worker offices, on the same floor as the nuclear shelter. If you happen to wander back this far, you may or may not see a naked man lurking at the end of the tunnel. I did.

5. The station's super-creepy second story is the stuff of Stephen King. By the light of a smartphone, we shuffled through rooms full of gorgeous old pinball machines, torn-down signs (advertising such vintage joys as direct buses from Tel Aviv to Cairo) and piles of dusty stilettos from abandoned shoe stores. But they had nothing on story No. one-and-a-half — "Yes, they want you to get lost," confirmed Mishal — where a series of six movie theaters, collectively called "The Six Fantastics," have gone unused for 20 years. What's left of the lobby is kitschy Old Hollywood, made even kitschier by the fact that the occasional wild-eyed cat comes screeching out from behind a waterless fountain or fake plant. A central statue of Charlie Chaplin — which, to be honest, looks a lot more like Hitler in the dark — watches over the place, holding the hand of another small statue of Chaplin as a child. Death-of-cinema symbolism doesn't get much more tragic than this.

Mishal said he and his associates recently proposed that a horror-movie series be hosted in the deserted theaters, but Central Bus Station management refused. (Something about a fire hazard. Buzzkills.)

4. Things get a little more light-hearted on the middle floors, where a very alive-and-thriving Filipino market sells traditional foods alongside a branch of Israel's massive Fox clothes chain; a cheap-shoe bazaar rages in the shadow of a McDonalds sign; and other such beautiful paradoxes. Note to self: Come back for the Asian groceries, stay for the glittery coming-of-age dresses that apparently dropped from quinceañera heaven.

3. A quiet section of floor No. 5 has become an outpost for the artist community in nearby Florentin and Jaffa. It houses cheap art studios, a couple fringe theaters, wide-open walls for street art and event space for 'zines and the like. Next door is a Christian church, a preschool for the children of African migrants and a heartbreakingly cute Yiddish museum that houses over 40,000 books and other old-world odds-and-ends. (The little library-that-could even has an underdog story going for it: The museum in danger of closing, said Mishal, because the Tel Aviv municipality took back its utility discount a few years ago, and the museum can't afford to pay full price.)

2. Another not-so-quiet section of floor No. 4 serves as a gathering place for Tel Aviv's small yet determined hip-hop crowd, all centered around an urban clothing shop called Mad Man. "That store is run by the guy who brought hip-hop culture to Israel," said Mishal. Lost tourists have been known to report incredulous sightings of freestyle competitions and breakdancing battles after wandering too deep into floor No. 4.

1. Most importantly: HOW ON EARTH is all this allowed to exist in 2013?

The way Mishal tells it, the station's 1,000-plus storefront owners are entangled in a long and bitter war with the owners of the Central Bus Station, over both the shuttering of the bottom floors and the uncertainty of the top ones. (Don't blame 'em.) So until they can come to an agreement, the station can neither be sold nor torn down, and the temporary solution — as is so often the case in Israel — will stay permanent.

The city's urban-planning nerds wouldn't have it any other way.

[Update: CTLV has now added English-language night tours of the bus station to its Friday lineup. Highly recommended; you've got to see this monster to believe it.]

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