Spilling down a steep hill overlooking the cerulean Mediterranean Sea below, the northern city of Haifa — sometimes called the “San Francisco of Israel” — has waxed and waned in popularity going back to at least the 3rd century, when it was mentioned in the Talmud as a small fishing village.
While the Carmel neighborhood on top of the slope has long been the center of the city’s activity, many are now flocking down below to what was once a shadier part of town — the “lower city,” the area closest to the port, where former shipping warehouses are making way for hip cafés, bars, galleries and restaurants.
There’s Hanamal 24, a French-Mediterranean bistro situated in an old grain storage building, serving savory leek cream-filled macarons and white chocolate bonbons stuffed with paté. The neighboring Chang Ba makes authentically spicy Thai curries and fresh papaya salad, and down the block is Mediterranean-inspired Morel World Tapas and Wine.
There are also original cocktails and tangy herring served up at Venya Bistro, and robust homemade sausages and craft beers at Libira Brew Pub. (None of the restaurants listed above are kosher.) Across the street, in what’s known as the historic Turkish Market neighborhood, are more bars and local joints, including the popular Falafel Mishel as well as a handful of locally owned boutiques — including one or two that moved to Haifa from Tel Aviv. One of the newer additions to the neighborhood is the 1926 Designed Apartments Hotel with small kitchenettes in each of the brightly appointed rooms.
The area has tremendous potential, said Iris Arie, the director of Ir Tahtit, the city’s organization for revitalizing downtown Haifa.
“Some people in Haifa still think that going downtown is dangerous and risky,” said Arie, who moved from Jerusalem to Haifa to run Ir Tahtit. “My neighbors ask me if I’m afraid.”
That fear of the unknown has been one of the challenges in developing this part of Haifa, once known as a crime-ridden area that locals have long avoided.
The downtown area — situated by the medieval-era port dating back to the 11th century — was first established under Ottoman rule and then became a major commercial hub by the British during the Mandate period after World War I. When Israel was later declared a state, the center of life and activity in Haifa moved up the hill to the Carmel area, where the more posh residential neighborhoods are found, along with the University of Haifa, hotels, museums and other cultural institutions. Meanwhile, the downtown area fell dormant, particularly during the evening hours.
The city’s Ir Tahtit movement is trying to bring it back.
“We want this to be a place that will be going 24/7,” said Arie. “It’ll be the place where people go out, where they’re walking around. People aren’t really living here yet and that’s our main goal, to get the younger Haifa population to live here.”
Today, downtown Haifa is home to about 3,000 residents, mostly artists and some students. That’s not nearly enough of a local population, pointed out Arie, whose organization is trying to draw Haifa’s younger generation to the urban center, encouraging them to open shops and move into apartments being slowly refurbished.
She’s hoping that the opportunity to try something new will attract more residents.
“You can work, party and live here,” she said. “It’s the only place like that in Haifa. It’s more interesting for young people, and that’s what we’re trying to promote.”
There are some locals who get what’s happening. There are the chefs, like Hanamal’s Ran Rosh, who owned his own restaurant in Paris and trained in a Michelin two-star eateries before heading to Haifa. At Morel, Liraz Krispin relocated to Haifa from the rural Abirim community in the upper Galilee, aiming to be part of what is taking place in Haifa.
Jessica Halfin, a 34-year-old American who immigrated to Israel from New Hampshire and ended up settling in Haifa with her Israeli husband — and now three small children — is a self-discovered foodie who’s found her workplace in this part of town running Haifa Street Food Tours and showing off the city’s newfound culinary scene to local and foreign visitors.
Halfin has been here long enough to witness the transformation of these formerly dark alleys and hardware stores, where local eateries still butt up against the more traditional businesses.
What she sees in her adopted hometown is so much untapped potential, and the innate friendliness of the city’s residents who are fans of Haifa’s familiar and simple charms.
“Haifa is so much more than just the Baha’i Gardens,” she said, referring to the carefully manicured expanse of greenery owned and cared for by the Baha’i World Center, a major tourist stop for many visiting Haifa.
Halfin, through her tours, introduces visitors to the smaller, more intimate neighborhoods in the revitalized downtown area, starting with the Turkish Market neighborhood (between Atzmaut Street and Natanzon, leading to Paris Square), a residential and commercial area established in the 1930s by harbor workers hailing originally from Turkey.
She first shows off the anchors of the neighborhood along Atzmaut Boulevard, like the family-owned Shany (kosher), run by Ziv Abramowitz whose pastry chef father still makes the thick strips of poppy seed cake and creamy Hungarian specialties, as well as nut-filled hamantaschen and powdery, chocolate-filled rugalech.
Down the block is Burekas Bachar HaAgala (kosher), where Avi Alchades is the third generation of his Turkish family to prepare the thin strips of flaky filo dough on an olive oiled marble slab, spreading it with combinations of salty cheese, mushrooms and spinach and then baking it over a charcoal oven.
The development of downtown Haifa has been interesting enough to draw its young locals back to town, where they are clustered into what’s called Mitcham 21, the city’s name for this new grouping of artists and designers in the Turkish Market area.
The newcomers include Haifa-born artists like Danny Meler and Romi Eff, who run a cooperative of sorts at Street Rats Studio.
The two women sell Meler’s painted white ceramic plates, quirky tee-shirts and etchings of music and acting icons as well as Eff’s Agoraphobix line of customized bathing suits, mini-skirts and pocketbooks, many featuring pink roses with skull and bones prints.
Their inventory is inventive and edgy, but it’s been tough finding a customer base, Meler admitted. She feels that while the Lower City organization wants to encourage young entrepreneurs like herself, they haven’t done enough to help her succeed.
“People come in, but it’s more to buy the merchandise than the art,” she said. “It’s hard to sustain this.”
The Lower City needs to do more than hold just a few street festivals each year, said Meler. “They’re good at their own public relations,” she said. “But they don’t do enough for all of us.”
The Ir Tahtit organization, which is part of the Haifa Municipality, has had its own problems getting off the ground. The first director, Tzahi Turano, was convicted in 2010 for falsifying corporate documents while serving as campaign manager for Yona Yahav, the city’s mayor. He had to leave his City Hall spokesman job for a time, but was then brought back as the Ir Tahtit director before returning to City Hall in 2016 as head of communications.
Some proprietors didn’t think much of Turano.
“He really didn’t know what he was doing,” said one Israeli designer who had a store in the downtown Haifa area for a short period. “He didn’t help proprietors get their businesses going.”
There were other problems as well, said the designer, including the fact that Haifa residents from the Denya and Carmel neighborhoods uptown are “terribly snooty, with their noses in the air,” he said. “They would never shop in downtown Haifa. The only visitors are people from outside Haifa.”
It can be hard to find the right mix of businesses that draw visitors, said Arie. The cafés, bars and restaurants do relatively well, she said, but the stores have had a harder time making a go of it. “People come to eat and dine and to party, but not to shop,” she said.
Uri Unger makes trendy gold-filled jewelry for his LoveNaomi line, and shares his space with Lir Stern, a clothing designer. He moved back to Haifa, his hometown, from Tel Aviv, after feeling choked by the high rental rates.
“I’m glad I’m back here,” he said. “But yeah, days can go by without much business.”
Arie added that it’s hard to draw street traffic to city streets and boutiques throughout urban Israel. The Israeli trend is toward shopping in malls, not downtown streets, she said.
“Even Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv is having a hard time,” said Arie. “This is how urban renewal works — slowly.”
Halfin, Haifa’s culinary scene cheerleader, takes a different tack on the developments taking place, reveling — as only a newcomer can — in what her adopted city has to offer.
“It’s true, it isn’t like Tel Aviv, where people flock to visit,” she said. “But every time I walk around, there’s a new place that just opened, and that has to mean something.”
All the businesses and restaurants mentioned in the article are listed in the Ir Tahtit website, along with a walking map of how to get around the downtown Haifa area.