Sometimes you get to glimpse an urban neighborhood in the moments before its renewal. In Beersheba, the capital of the Negev, it appears to be happening — again — in the centrally located Old City.
“Everything’s going to change here,” said artist Haim Maor, one of the directors of HaBeer, a new, nonprofit exhibition space in the heart of the Old City and a professor at the Department of Arts at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “We’ve been waiting for this to happen.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that this quaint district of cobblestoned streets built by the Ottoman Turks was a hive of activity. Just 20 years ago, local shops and eateries drew customers during the day, while bars and restaurants brought in different crowds at night.
Yariv Eitani, the chef and owner of the well-regarded Ahuzat Smilansky, an excellent tapas bar on Smilansky Street in the Old City — which was named by Haaretz’s Michal Palti as one of the nine best gourmet restaurants outside of Tel Aviv — opened his establishment four years ago.
“People thought I was crazy, but they also want this kind of option in the city. They prefer it to the malls,” said Eitani, whose restaurant is packed in the evening, and gets a decent lunch crowd, even during a recent sandstorm.
There is support from the city for new businesses like Ahuzat Smilansky. Eitani gets discounts on property taxes from the municipality, and appreciates the programs that are being planned for the Old City, particularly during the summer.
His next-door neighbor, Shachar Udi, who owned the popular Gecko Cafe, told Tablet Magazine two years ago that drawing customers to the Old City is a struggle, even though Gecko was a popular hangout for visitors, students and professors from the university.
According to locals, what happened to Beersheba was a mistake in urban planning, with more than eight malls built in the last 20 years — most of them in the last decade — and clusters of suburbs that have drawn life away from the city center, rather than fostering any kind of urban growth.
Beersheba has already invested 40 million shekels, or $10.5 million, in the Old City in recent years for preservation purposes, including repaving streets, replacing street signs and adding new lamps and benches for the eventual tourist onslaught. At present, however, the streets are deserted.
On a windy winter afternoon, there’s a feeling that some tumbleweed could blow down the middle of the quiet streets and no one would notice. Yet there are signs of construction, as well as more than a few refurbished buildings on each street. The one-story Ottoman-era buildings, part of the town plan created by a Swiss-German architect toward the end of the 19th century, are slowly being purchased and renovated, including the HaBeer gallery, which boasts its own well (HaBeer, pronounced ha-beh’ehr, means “the well” in Hebrew) which Maor and his partner, artist Osvaldo Rumberg, plan on turning into a bar for the gallery.
“They’re going to come,” says Maor, pointing out the obvious attractions: Abraham’s Well, the ancient watering hole tradition says was dug by forefather Abraham in the center of the Old City; a planned museum row that will include a state-of-the-art science museum; and another work in progress, the Beersheba river park that shares a two-kilometer border with the Old City. Maor, who moved to the area ten years ago, foresees an onslaught of visitors who will come to Beersheba to stroll in the Old City, hang out in the park and compare the gentrified neighborhood to Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek.
The nearby river promenade, which already includes some landscaped areas and a restored Turkish bridge, will have a 12,000-seat ampitheater and a lake, as well as bicycle paths and acres of recreational parkland.
“It’s an urban generator,” said a spokesman for the city, who preferred not to be named. “As the park has evolved, we see more and more businesses in the Old City starting to open and face the river itself. Entrepreneurs are coming to see what’s going on here, and we feel the atmosphere changing. For those of us in the region, Beersheba is our big city.”