In Beersheba, pioneering locals spearhead desert city’s urban renewal

The capital of the Negev is a fount of neighborly spirit, with locals, recent BGU grads, and immigrants gathering together to make a difference

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The oversized xylophone that was made and placed in a public space by Matan Saad, pictured here, along with other members of Beersheva's placemaking volunteers, and then broadened into a playground by the city, as part of the efforts to change the look and feel of the southern city (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The oversized xylophone that was made and placed in a public space by Matan Saad, pictured here, along with other members of Beersheva's placemaking volunteers, and then broadened into a playground by the city, as part of the efforts to change the look and feel of the southern city (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

BEERSHEBA — There’s a towering wall that separates this rundown neighborhood of dilapidated buildings and cracked sidewalks from the train tracks leading out of the city.

It’s the very definition of the wrong side of the tracks.

But beyond the broken sidewalks, and the garbage strewn along the path, is the quirky, inventive graffiti and stencils on this separation wall.

It includes a poem about Beersheba that Gabe Axler, a regular guide in this part of town, likes to point out to visitors, “University Train,” by Tehilla Hahimi:

On the big lawn
Of Ben Gurion University of the Negev
I heard someone say:
The best thing that happened in Beersheva
Is the train that comes straight into the campus
Without having to go through the city
I wanted to scream:
This city isn’t your slut, you maniac
But I kept quiet.

It’s an apt description of this place, said Axler, a Chicago native who has settled in Beersheba with his wife and kids.

“There’s a lot of people who work in Beersheba and live in Tel Aviv,” said Axler, “but the idea is to live in Beersheba.”

Graffiti on the wall that separates Beersheba’s Shchuna Dalet from the Israel Railways tracks. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Axler and his wife, Ravit Greenberg (who runs Tamar Center Negev, a non-profit educational project for Bedouin), live in a house in Beersheba’s Old City with their three young children.

Axler likes to say he’s living out his personal decisions in his professional life by running Pnima, a social tourism venture that is part of Eretz Ir (Country, City), another non-profit that encourages local entrepreneurship in periphery cities and towns.

Beersheba is still officially considered a periphery city for its location in the south, as much as for the makeup of its population. In the 1950s, the government settled new immigrants from Morocco and Yemen here. Later on, in the ’80s and ’90s, they added Russian immigrants and then newcomers from Ethiopia. The city struggled.

It was only granted municipal status in 1977, although it’s now considered the seventh-largest city in Israel in terms of population, with about 215,000 residents.

Two major institutions in the city are Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka Hospital, although those institutions haven’t changed the city as much as they could have. Many staff members don’t live in Beersheba but rather commute from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem or live in the suburbs of Omer, Meitar or Lehavim.

That trend, however, is slowly and steadily changing, said Axler.

Beersheba now has a force of motivated citizens, some of whom have been living there for decades, while others are newer to the city, with a strong desire to change its face and character.

A typical building in Shchuna Dalet, one of the older Beersheba neighborhoods, although this one has a strip of food joints, owned and frequented by locals. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

There are people like Axler and his wife, who very deliberately moved to this desert town, hoping to accomplish in Beersheba what is more of a stretch in places like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

“When you move to Beersheba,” said Axler, “you come here to create, to make something new.”

Axler founded Pnima to provide local and foreign tourists with a meaningful experience and fuller understanding of periphery cities, their diverse populations, and their social challenges. He offers tours around places like the Shchuna Dalet train tracks with local activists, doing the same in a handful of periphery cities up north and farther south.

Gabe Axler, founder of social tourism project Pnima, a Chicago native who lives in Beersheba with his family. (Courtesy Gabe Axler)

“Bringing people to this part of town tells the story of how Beersheba was created by immigrants from Eastern countries, who were plopped down here,” he said. “It was placement of the undesirables, and it sets the stage for what happened here.”

Pnima partners with the Negev Development Authority, and also benefits from its association with Eretz Ir.

“What’s unique about us is that we work bottom up and top down,” said Bella Alexandrov, a community social worker who is the CEO of Eretz Ir. “It really goes in both directions.”

Alexandrov’s specialty is creating community, giving groups power to influence their way of life.

The organization currently has 35 entrepreneurs and 19 communities in its web of activity, out of a total of 50 communities and 50 entrepreneurs.

Some of those projects have succeeded, said Alexandrov, and others have failed.

When a community or neighborhood invites Eretz Ir to work with them, the organization does a mapping to see what’s happening out there, offering the tools and help they have available, which includes a direct line to the municipality.

“There’s lots of co-work with City Hall,” she said. “It’s a partnership that’s all about the residents of this city.”

The concept, however, is to give these neighborhood groups the power to influence their lives, said Alexandrov. She mentors them in all kinds of ways, whether in raising money, marketing, coaching, or helping them figure out what it is they’re trying to do.

Still, she’s realistic about who is out there to help make a difference in Beersheba. Until three years ago, some 2% of BGU students decided to stay in Beersheba after they had graduated.

There’s been an effort by the city to see the graduates as potential residents, and the establishment of what they call the Reshet, or Network, so that graduates have ways of accessing jobs and methods of being meaningful and useful in the city, even after graduation.

“We made the Reshet so that graduates wouldn’t feel they had to leave, that they could remain here,” she said.

Matan Saad helped create a place-making network in Beersheba, in which BGU graduates help create new neighborhood spaces in the city. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

One of those BGU graduates who chose to stay in Beersheba is Matan Saad, a 31-year-old urban planner originally from Jerusalem, who spent eight years studying for his BA and master’s degrees at BGU, and now helps run a place-making organization that teaches woodworking skills to help fix and rejuvenate locations around the city.

Saad and his fellow volunteers make rounded tree benches and free-standing xylophones that they “place” in certain neighborhoods, creating creative public spaces. The previously-ignored spaces are then usually noticed by the municipality, which often adds a small playground, additional benches, or other facilities.

“We’re the makers of the space, and the locals do it themselves,” he said.

Saad first began running street festivals in Beersheba as a student, along with his friends, setting up Salon baRechov, a kind of temporary living room on the street, where participants would do yoga workshops or learn how to fix furniture. As he and his friends settled into their adopted city, they expanded the festivals, offering workshops on how to get a mortgage, or build a coffee table. They found that 65% of the participants were newcomers, but a solid 35% were locals.

“Beersheba is so small that it’s easy for these things to happen,” said Axler.

Now the place-making crew hold workshops twice a month at The Workshop, a converted container set up in what they call The Backyard, the back-end of several stores and bars.

One of the other place-making volunteers, Martin, in The Backyard, a Beersheba space created by BGU graduates. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The container functions as a lending library of tools and other household goods. Set up around the container are tables that neatly fold up when not in use, which are used as workshop tables during the monthly gatherings.

The place-making volunteers also go door to door in certain neighborhoods, helping anyone who needs something fixed, and have built small stages near playgrounds and public areas, making it easier to hold their festivals and concerts.

“It’s a combination of altruism and egoism,” said Saad. “There’s something I need, but who else can benefit from it?”

In Saad’s post-student circles, which he reckoned comprises some 4,000 people, there are also three separate WhatsApp groups that are solely used for posting jobs in and around Beersheba.

“I wouldn’t live here without the Network,” he said.

Axler also commented that he and his family couldn’t live in Beersheba without the Network, which provides so much of what isn’t provided by the city.

“It’s the very idea of how a community in a city can work,” he said.

He brings the same concepts to Pnima, which is funded in equal thirds by the government, his fundraising, and profits from the social tourism programming that he runs in several cities.

The organization is housed with Eretz Ir in a restored Ottoman-era building in Beersheba’s Old City, whose renovation was funded by philanthropist Ronald Lauder, who gives money to JNF USA, which chose Eretz Ir as their local partner to run an employment center together with the university.

Lauder also happens to be renovating a home for himself in the Old City, helping along the dream of full gentrification in this neighborhood of former Ottoman structures.

“The real estate market is going up, there are more opportunities, there’s all kinds of little markers that are happening,” said Axler. “But there’s also 60 or 70 years of baggage. You still have to deal with that.”

A new neighborhood in Beersheba, complete with high-rises and a branch of upscale coffee chain, Roasters. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Perhaps most significantly, there’s new residential construction in the city, along with a branch of Roasters, a Jerusalem-based specialty coffee chain on Yaakov Cohen Street, which is full of customers swigging their espressos while staring at their laptops.

“It’s starting to look like a real city,” said Cohen.

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