Every city has its white elephants. In Tel Aviv, the most obvious would definitely be Kikar Atarim. Completed in 1975, and planned as a combination parking lot and shopping mall right on the beach, the project turned out to be a disaster. Architecturally, it belongs to the “School of Brutalism,” and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why. Indeed, former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat is often quoted as saying that during the Gulf War he hoped that a Scud rocket would fall on Kikar Atarim — and that the whole enterprise would collapse.
True, in the beginning, nearly 200 shops and restaurants opened up in the four-storied complex, and suddenly there was parking galore for the hotels that appeared along the beach. But after “criminal elements” took over, and honest citizens stopped frequenting the area, Kikar Atarim was abandoned. Even after the inauguration of the Coliseum Night Club, things didn’t really improve. And although every once in a while someone holds an event in the former Coliseum, Kikar Atarim remains a sad, and empty, and not very clean sight. Or, as the internet site Wikimapia succinctly reports: Kikar Atarim “used to be a well-known hangout spot for foreign tourists in summer. Now mostly empty.”
There is one bright star on the horizon, however. The Marina Hotel, which was constructed as part of the complex, recently underwent major renovations. And the result is astonishing, for not only is the little boutique hotel now both elegant and charming, but it has also become a mini art museum that encourages people to view over 600 original paintings. Indeed, soon there will be gallery talks about the different pieces of art and the men and women who created them.
It’s fun to stroll along HaYarkon Street, so include it in your itinerary on a return trip to Israel. And if you live here, enjoy the walk along a byway named for the river that runs into the sea at its northern end. The jaunt, which also follows the Shlomo Lahat beachside promenade, includes historic buildings, unusual and touching monuments, and even a voice from the not-so-distant past.
You might start with the Marina Hotel, to enjoy the wonderful art on display. While you can’t view the artwork inside the hotel rooms, you can wander the halls. On every floor the walls are artistically covered with beautifully framed pieces. Because of the hotel’s unusual design, with long rectangular halls and a empty space in the middle, you can’t help but feel like you are browsing an actual gallery. Additional paintings are on view on the landings, and in the dining room.
Then exit the hotel, turn left and walk down to the beach. On your right, you will see a cliff made of kurkar (sea limestone). On the first anniversary of Israel’s independence, in 1949, trees were planted on top of this cliff for what would become lovely Independence Park three years later.
As you head south, you will pass Gordon Pool, which was a Tel Aviv landmark for over half a century. Just about everyone who grew up in Tel Aviv enjoyed the pool, which opened in 1956 and was filled with salt water dug up from underground springs. Older residents swam there daily, even in the roughest of winter weather. Indeed, many of them appeared before dawn, refreshing themselves afterwards with hot coffee and a game of backgammon.
There was talk of demolishing the pool when the beach promenade was slated for expansion but, instead, it closed for renovations in 2006. Three years ago it reopened as a rather expensive municipal pool, and work is underway on a spa that will replace the original wardrobes and restrooms.
Hundreds of sailing craft are anchored at the Tel Aviv Marina. You can get a good look as you stroll along the Shlomo Lahat Promenade, which reaches all the way to Jaffa. No matter what time of day you take this walk you will find people on the beach people playing volleyball, working out on hydraulic exercise equipment, or just hanging out on the sand.
Watch for a monument to the Altalena, a ship that anchored off this shore on June 21, 1948 with hundreds of passengers. Here you can read the sorry tale of a temporary Israeli government blowing up the ship and a large quantity of desperately needed weapons and ammunition. Even worse, the incident caused the death of three Israeli soldiers and 16 passengers, most of them European refugees who had come to join the war effort.
A plaque stuck to the wall further on to your left brings back other memories. It is inscribed with a sketch of a ship that anchored in international waters five kilometers from this beach. Press the button to hear the voice of former Israeli pilot Abie Natan, who broadcast a message of “peace, love and understanding” from 1973 to 1993 from the Voice of Peace radio station inside the ship.
Stop next to wander through London Park. The park was dedicated to the people of London by the Tel Aviv municipality in 1942, in a gesture of admiration for their heroic stand in the face of German bombs. Ironically, on this shore, ships filled with Holocaust survivors were turned back by those very British – at times returned to their European ports of departure and at others sent to detention camps in Cyprus or in Palestine.
As the decades went by, the park began to deteriorate. Fortunately, it was landscaped and renovated a few years ago to permit handicap access and underground parking. Also added was an unusual outdoor museum dedicated to the maapilim (Hebrew for the wannabee immigrants who bravely tried to make it through the British blockade). Read their stories on the ship-like sculptures, and their names on the wavy memorial to their heroism.
Fountains on the other side of the street grace Knesset Square, originally called Casino Square for the gambling operation located on the beach in the 1920’s. During the British Mandate, the name was changed to honor High Commissioner Herbert Samuel.
Take a good look at the building to the right of the fountain. Then examine the Opera Tower, on the other side of the square. Do you notice some similar designs? The Opera Tower replaced a historic structure identical to that on the right, and the architect attempted to reproduce many of its elements.
The original structure, built in 1945 as the Kesem Cinema, was appropriated in 1948 for use of the first Knesset of the brand new State of Israel. Knesset sessions were held in the cinema until the end of 1949, when the Israeli Parliament moved to Jerusalem. The Israeli Opera began performing in the auditorium nine years later, and the plaza, which had been renamed Knesset Square, then became known as Opera Square.
After the Opera vacated the building in 1982, it was replaced by today’s modern edifice. Cross the street and walk inside, heading for the far wall next to the little fountains to see an enlarged photo of Israel’s very first Knesset.
Further down the road, the restored Tel Aviv-Jaffa train station is also a wonderful to visit. And, if you have the strength, keep going all the way to the newly revamped Jaffa Port.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.