April 9, 2009
Tel Aviv Then and Now
Tel Aviv: From Hebrew City to International Destination
When a few dozen families gathered April 11, 1909 on the sand dunes of the beach outside Jaffa to allocate land for a new settlement, they took the first critical step toward establishing what is today Israel’s commercial and cultural capital.
These families — Tel Aviv’s first — couldn’t decide how to assign the plots, so they held a lottery.
Akiva Arieh Weiss, chairman of the lottery committee, collected 60 gray seashells and 60 white seashells, writing the names of the families on the white and land plot numbers on the gray. Pairing the shells, Weiss assigned each family a plot.
Thus, Tel Aviv was born.
As immigrants poured into the Holy Land in what became known as the Second Aliyah, the ancient Mediterranean port city of Jaffa became increasingly crowded. The newcomers included many Europeans of middle-class origin who sought to reconstruct in the Levant some of the world they had left behind. They turned from old Jaffa and began to build Tel Aviv.
What began as a suburb of Jaffa emerged quickly from the sand dunes. By 1921, following severe clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, the British mandate government granted Tel Aviv formal self-governance. The local council named the new suburb Tel Aviv.
At the time there were just a few streets surrounded by piles of deep sand and citrus groves, but the Tel Aviv population grew rapidly as Jews fleeing violent interethnic riots in nearby Jaffa looked for new digs and immigrants from Poland and Russia arrived on the Mediterranean shores.
The head of the local council, Meir Dizengoff, realized he needed a program for expanding Tel Aviv, so he hired the Scottish urban planner Sir Patrick Geddes, who presented his concept to the municipality in 1925.
In his plan, Tel Aviv was to be a garden city, as envisioned by its founders. Geddes called for a clear separation between main streets, residential streets and leafy pedestrian boulevards. An important element, reflecting the social climate of the time, was the creation of shared public spaces in the form of parks and squares, as well as within residential blocks.
Geddes placed small gardens filled with fruit trees and other trees in the center of each residential cluster to provide both a gathering spot and healthy fruit for Tel Aviv’s children.
His vision persists today. Tel Aviv’s tree-lined boulevards bustle with activity at all hours, and the city is filled with hidden parks and playgrounds.
Jews fleeing persecution in Europe began pouring into Tel Aviv en masse in the early 1930s, transforming a town of 42,000 in 1932 into a flourishing city of 130,000 by 1936. Tel Aviv officially became a city in 1934, with Dizengoff its first mayor.
It was during the 1930s that Tel Aviv became the Holy Land’s true economic, cultural and social center. The city became known for its modern cafes, hotels, concert halls, nightclubs, boutiques and theaters.
And in this new city, Hebrew was the lingua franca, making a language that had lain dormant for centuries the mother tongue of a new generation of Jews: the first Israelis.
At the start of the 1948 War of Independence, Tel Aviv became the focal point of the war between Jews and Arabs. The fight over Jaffa’s future started immediately after the United Nations’ decision in favor of partitioning Palestine in 1947. As in other areas where Jewish and Arab forces clashed in close quarters, the civilian populations in Tel Aviv and Jaffa suffered, and many fled. When the fighting was over, some of Jaffa’s original Arab residents found themselves on the other side of the new border, and they became refugees.
In 1949, Jaffa was formally merged with the Tel Aviv municipality, and the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa was established.
The next several decades were a time of growth and challenge for the builders of Tel Aviv. The city struggled with economic and social problems as it grew rapidly. Nearby suburbs cropped up, a university was founded and Tel Aviv became the anchor of an urban metropolis that by the city’s centennial was home to a majority of Israeli citizens.
There was a time, however, when Tel Aviv’s ascent was not assured. Throughout the 1970s, a lack of affordable housing prompted young people to leave the city in great numbers, and Tel Aviv was left with an aging population.
But by the 1980s Tel Aviv again had become the locus of young sophisticates, quickly solidifying its stature as Israel’s coolest city with a flurry of new development and renovation. Tel Aviv preserved the old and created the new, stretching northward with the establishment of new neighborhoods and suburbs along the Mediterranean and upward with the construction of new skyscrapers downtown.
In 2003, Tel Aviv was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the Bauhaus-style architecture that had become a hallmark of the city.
Today, Tel Aviv-Jaffa is both Israel’s commercial center and a seaside town. The ancient, cobblestone streets of Old Jaffa abut the artsy neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. The city has skyscrapers and hummus joints, embassies and all-night bars.
At 100, Israel’s first Hebrew city has become an international destination.
This story is a collaboration between the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Tel Aviv Centennial Authority.