Colored lights hung around the stage in south Tel Aviv’s rundown Neve Sha’anan neighborhood at the corner of Bnei Brak and Eiger streets. Residents and visitors huddled around a fire and drank tea across the street, while the Yatana Band, Eritreans from the neighborhood, did a soundcheck before their performance.
The show was part of the city’s third annual Nightlight Festival. The event, held on Thursday and Saturday, aims to brighten the impoverished neighborhood and bring residents of more affluent areas of Tel Aviv to Neve Sha’anan to visit, and ultimately to improve the area’s reputation.
The neighborhood’s original street grid was meant to resemble a menorah, and Saturday night’s festivities fell on the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve.
“It uses art and music to bring people together on the urban plan of the neighborhood, the menorah plan. The neighborhood was planned as an eight-candle candelabra, in this shape, but only four of the streets were built. We’re basically doing a site specific art festival on these streets,” said Yasha Rozov, a resident of the area who organized the festival with partner Ivry Baumgarten.
The neighborhood was established by Jews from Jaffa in the 1920s, but began to deteriorate with the construction of the city’s Central Bus Station. The hulking concrete structure, infamous in Israel, hindered the development of the neighborhood and brought traffic, noise and pollution. The area is ringed by busy roads and the residents, most of whom are migrant workers and asylum-seekers, are cut off from the city center both socially and geographically.
“There are a lot of different forces in motion here. Life is not easy here, but on the other hand there is a lot of variety, cultural variety, richness,” Rozov said. “You’ve got people from 30 different countries. Sixty percent Eritrean refugees, Sudanese people, Nepalese people, Chinese, a lot of the migrant workers coming to work here.”
The streets are lined with Sudanese and Eritrean eateries, Chinese, Filipino and Indian grocery stores and other small businesses. Despite the vibrant cultural scene, the infrastructure is collapsing, and prostitution, drug use and crime are rampant, said Baumgarten, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years.
“The idea of this event and the events that we’re doing is to bring people from the other parts of the city here, especially at nighttime,” Baumgarten said. “To give them a reason to come and revisit this neighborhood and maybe have a different opinion about how it could be normalized, in a way, with the different nationalities.”
Neighborhood kids in the area lack a community center and afternoon activities, for example, but the festival’s ceramics classes gave them something to do, and a chance to meet children from the city center, Baumgarten said.
“At the fire place, people from the north of Tel Aviv and south of Tel Aviv are sitting together, not just to talk about the conflict but to just coexist, simple, on the human level,” Baumgarten said.
Not all residents of the area supported the festival. On Thursday night, the Movement to Free South Tel Aviv, an anti-immigrant group, staged a disruptive protest during a music performance. The demonstrators, waving red, black and white flags and under police escort, blew whistles, flashed lights and argued with neighborhood residents.
“They’re trying to kick out the foreign workers but we’re trying to make an event for everyone and they don’t like it because we normalize a situation they find unacceptable,” Baumgarten said.
It is an explosive area, Baumgarten said, rife with sectarian and political tensions. Some of the Mizrahi, long-time residents of the neighborhood object to the organizers’ activities because they are Ashkenazi and were not born in the neighborhood. They reject the festival’s ties to the municipality, which provided about sixty percent of the funding for the events, because they feel the city has neglected them.
The musicians kept playing through the protest, and the crowd mostly ignored the demonstration.
This year, the organizers partnered with Lama Kova, a nonprofit that supports street performers in Israel, to organize performances by local musicians at the festival.
Above: Gal Paloma performs at the Nightlight Festival.
“We took musicians that live in the neighborhood that play traditional music, people that came from Eritrea, that are coming from the Philippines, Indians,” said Gal Paloma, a musician from Lama Kova who helped organize the event. “They’re doing their music, it’s really rooted in them. Some have other jobs and not really an easy life but they are still really professional and really eager to do their music.”
Street musicians usually work alone, Paloma said. Lama Kova helps them get permits, gigs and equipment, and makes connections with other musicians in Israel.
Paloma said she found a warm welcome when she went to the neighborhood to find the musicians, although organizers faced a significant language barrier in the area.
“They’re doing concerts but usually what they play is staying in their communities. It doesn’t come out. So this is also what we want to create,” Paloma said, “to make something that can connect also outside.”
The members of the Yatana Band were celebrating Christmas at the festival during Saturday night’s performance, said lead singer Bereket Tekle. The band has played together for almost four years, and played at the festival last year, Tekle said.
“There are a lot of musicians, Moroccan, Yemeni, Israeli, American, Ethiopian, a lot of people, and this is the best thing,” said guitarist Mahari Ablel Girmai, who has lived in the neighborhood for four years. “There’s no barrier in the language all the time, you can tell people what you want. I saw this in Israel, at the festival.”
In addition to music, light-based art installations dotted the neighborhood. Attendees could draw bright, colored patterns on the side of a building in an interactive exhibit called Luminous. A film depicting scenes from Neve Sha’anan was projected onto a building next to the derelict Old Central Bus Station.
In the three years they have hosted the festival, the organizers have seen their efforts pay off. In addition to funding, the municipality has improved infrastructure ahead of the holidays, Rozov said. Local businesses, including a lighting company and a real estate outfit, also contributed funding in an effort to improve the area. Many of the residents also feel the effects.
“They have a sense of pride in this event because now they’re seeing the ‘normal’ people from Tel Aviv and the whole country are coming here,” Baumgarten said.
Ephraim, a 26-year-old from Darfur, moved into an apartment with two other Sudanese workers adjacent to the festival a month ago. Many of the buildings in the area are old and not in great shape, but he moved there because of the low prices, he said. He was attending the events for the first time.
“It feels like everyone is together. It’s the first time I’ve seen it,” said Ephraim, who works at a hotel in the city center. “It feels like a different place, really.”