On any given day of the week the long lines at Turkish, a falafel joint on Yehoshafat Street in Acre, are a hopeful metaphor of Arab-Israeli coexistence.
As Abed deftly shapes falafel balls with a spoon, dropping them into the deep fryer, customers wait patiently on line. There is the Arab policeman, an Israeli Jewish mother with two teenage girls, a couple of delivery guys — one Arab, one Jewish — and a pack of high school boys.
“Acre is known for its hummus and its falafel,” says Shlomi, the Jewish owner, as he smears hummus on the bottom of a pita before filling it with falafel and chopped salad. “And for the fact that Arabs and Jews live here together in peace, now and always.”
Although far smaller than Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Jerusalem or Haifa — other Israeli cities with sizeable Arab and Jewish populations — the northern port city of Acre has become an unwitting example of what a mixed city in Israel could look like.
Physically divided into two halves along the curved shoreline of the Mediterranean, there is “new” Acre, with your typical apartment buildings, schools and shopping malls. It is old Acre, however — the part of the city that dates back to Byzantine times, with a hefty dose of Crusader-era history followed by the more elegant touches of the Turkish Ottoman period — that draws most of the tourists and visitors.
Acre’s location on the coast of the Mediterranean, with a rare, natural harbor, helped its formation as one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back some 4,000 years to the Middle Bronze Age. As a historic city, it has earned bragging rights, and in 2001 the UN’s cultural agency, UNESCO, recognized it as a World Heritage Site for its collection of Ottoman architecture and Crusader ruins.
But it wasn’t until recently that the rest of the city was able to draw visitors for longer stays and nights out on the town. Today, Acre hosts an opera festival each summer, as well as an alternative theater festival in the fall.
Those kinds of events are due to efforts made by Mayor Shimon Lankri, who has been in the role for the past 13 years. He says that when he won his first election, he was given a city with the worst schools, neighborhoods and reputation.
“We came in from the lowest place possible,” says Lankri, who has been working hard to reverse that trend.
A changing neighborhood
Acre’s 46,000 residents are two-thirds Jewish and one-third Arab, and include Christians, Baha’i, Jews and Muslims. The Old City is made up mostly of Arab residents living along the narrow alleyways of this ancient neighborhood. But, compared with Jewish areas, this part of town is poorer with many buildings in disrepair.
There have been accusations from Arab Knesset members that the Jewish-led municipality is trying to change the character of the city, trying to turn Acre into the next Jaffa — Tel Aviv’s partner city with a heavily Arab population, many of whom have ended up leaving because of skyrocketing real estate prices since Israeli Jews began snatching up cheap real estate.
But not all of the changes in Acre are so simply characterized.
One of the reasons for the Old City’s revitalization has been thanks to local proprietors like Uri Jeremias, says Lankri, referring to the owner of Uri Buri, the famed seafood restaurant situated in the port.
Jeremias is the white-bearded owner of his eponymously named Acre restaurant, known for its rich, European-influenced fish dishes served on white-clothed tables overlooking the sea.
It was 22 years ago that Jeremias decided to move his restaurant from his hometown of Nahariya to downtrodden Acre.
“I got the keys on Friday and by Sunday all the windows were broken and a radio was stolen,” Jeremias recalls.
The restaurateur, who is now 72, wasn’t cowed. Over carmelized tilapia, he told about going to each neighbor to introduce himself, letting them know he was opening up a restaurant that wouldn’t be open too late and wouldn’t play loud music like the previous owners.
Today, Jeremias is considered one of the kings of Israeli cuisine, and customers travel to Acre from all over the country in order to dine on his seafood delicacies. They can also stop by his ice cream parlor, Endomela, just down the block from Uri Buri, where the delicate flavors offer a great antidote on hot Acre afternoons.
All these years later Jeremias feels certain that he helped change things in this challenging city. “When you open a business and it succeeds, it gives courage to others,” he says.
Mayor Lankri is also lauded by Acre residents and the press for making significant improvements to the city, particularly in tourism, where new hotels and international festivals are brining in more visitors.
“We do it all in order to brand the city,” Lankri says. “To show that Acre is a place of attractions and history — we’re creating possibilities.”
Some of those possibilities include expanding accommodations, from Israeli-style B&Bs — known as tzimmers — to a luxury hotel.
Jeremias was one of the first locals to realize the potential of Acre accommodations, and in 2007 he bought two former Ottoman villas and spent the next seven years having them painstakingly renovated, floor by floor, from the Byzantine and Crusader-era basement to the Muslim period on the next level, up to the carefully restored and painted ceilings dating to the Turkish era.
The two buildings were eventually joined by a marble-floored hallway and now comprise the Efendi Hotel, Jeremias’s 12-room boutique hotel, complete with a Byzantine-era wine cellar, an original Turkish hammam and a glorious roof deck overlooking the sea.
“It’s a very special building,” says Jeremias. “There’re not many like it in the world. There are seven time periods represented there, built layer upon layer.”
With its plush surroundings and a mixed Arab-Jewish staff, the Efendi attracts both Israeli and foreign tourists — albeit mostly Israeli for now, explains Jeremias, given the vagaries of Israeli tourism, which is always affected by the headlines.
“You don’t build this to make money,” he chuckles. “We don’t sit and cry about it, either. You just pray you’ll earn it back.”
Jeremias did take on a silent partner during the hotel construction after he realized that he couldn’t refurbish the hotel to the level he wanted without financial help. The landmark building required the kind of expert, intensive reconstruction and restoration offered by outside firms, and he said he was lucky enough to find partners who “are excellent people. Most normal people won’t invest this kind of money.”
The hotel’s restoration was handled by Arco Planning, Preservation and Restoration Ltd., the Israeli firm that also did the extensive restoration work on the W Hotel in Jaffa, a much larger hotel where Crusader remains were also discovered during excavation.
But Jeremias, Lankri and others emphasize that whatever the similarities between Acre and Jaffa — their mixed population; location on the water; and ancient architecture — Acre will not become a “Jaffa of the north.”
“I don’t want to be a Jaffa,” says Lankri. “Acre will remain with its population. We don’t want too much money and investment coming in to ruin the traditions of this place. We don’t want chain stores, we worry about the landmarks, and not letting it become too new.”
Sharing the wealth
In addition to the one luxury hotel, a number of tzimmers have been popping up. One of the newest is Arabesque, a beautifully restored, three-room writers’ retreat owned by writer Evan Fallenberg and run by his son, Micha.
Fallenberg senior, an American who has been living in Israel for 30 years, was looking for a place to buy and found himself in Acre, a city he hadn’t thought about in some time. He fell in love with the Old City and found that he could afford something more unusual and meaningful.
Like all the dwellings in the Old City, Arabesque is entered from a narrow street, with neighbors on either side as well as above. The Fallenbergs became close with one particular family that has partnered with them in their endeavor, helping Micha with the cooking and upkeep.
The relationship with the neighbors is comfortable, says Micha Fallenberg, who now lives full-time in Acre. But he does worry that Israelis will recognize the real estate possibilities in Acre before the local Arab residents realize the opportunity they have in the gentrifying city, and take advantage of it.
“There are Israelis buying up real estate,” he explains. “And I’m not sure my Arab neighbors are thinking big enough.”
The architect for Arabesque, who is also involved with several other projects in the Old City, is Ella Iungman, an architect and Bezalel graduate who was born and raised in Jerusalem, but moved with her family to the Galilee and the small community of Mizpe Abirim several years ago.
A native Arabic speaker from her mother, Iungman began working on conservation projects in Acre about six years ago, as part of the effort to use tourism to help offset the difficult financial situation.
“The main issue is to convince Old City residents not to sell their real estate,” says Iungman. “We want them to understand the value and to get them to open their own tzimmers.”
In the last few years, Iungman has helped tzimmer owners open their own businesses. Not all have lasted, and some owners have switched ownership already, but there is the sense that this kind of cottage industry is possible.
Acre, says Iungman, is still not the easiest place to invest in a project. There is still an active criminal element and drug addicts roaming certain streets.
Someone like Fallenberg, says Iungman, can bring an audience that would never otherwise come to Acre. For Mayor Lankri, he’d like more projects like Arabesque and for Iungman’s client base to increase.
“I received a city that needs to be landmarked,” the mayor says. “Not every place is like Arabesque or Efendi, most have maybe have one or two bedrooms, but they have a business plan.”
Acre, he adds, is turning into a city for tourists, with some two dozen fish restaurants, dozens of artisanal hummus places and the Turkish Market, a refurbished part of the shuk that is still mostly unrented but does boast a falafel crab cake stand, an espresso bar and a smattering of other stands.
There’s also the boardwalk that will eventually extend the length of the harbor, connecting new and old Acre for two-and-a-half kilometers (1.5 miles), similar to what was done along the stretch from Tel Aviv to Jaffa.
Not everyone agrees with Lankri as to his tourism plans. Jeremias points out that the city has one of the most authentic Turkish baths and the municipality invested NIS 8 million shekels ($2.1 million) to turn it into a light show “where kids sit and pay NIS 10 ($2.6) to watch a show that most of them don’t remember.”
“If you made it into an authentic Turkish bath, in a place like Acre, it would become an attraction,” Jeremias says. “Same thing with the Crusader Halls. At least there’s no pizza, sushi or hamburger joints in Acre. I’m sure we’ll get those too, but for now we’re pretty authentic with our fishermen still standing at the port.”