Anyone who has walked around the sun-drenched seventh floor of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station over the past two months may have been surprised to see rows of strawberries and lettuce next to the idling buses, or polyethylene pipes repurposed into vertical spice gardens. The work is due to a group of dedicated activists called the Onya Collective, who are slowly working to turn the massive, ugly concrete building into a blossoming center for urban ecology.
Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station is an obsolete, hulking monster nicknamed “the elephant.” The stats alone can swallow you hole: The complex stretches over 57 acres (230 dunam), while the station’s interior is 25 million square feet (230,000 square meters) — larger than all three of downtown Tel Aviv’s Azrieli skyscrapers and their parking garage combined.
There is space for 1,400 stores, with 15 entrances, four synagogues, three churches, a pet store, a tattoo parlor, a Yiddish library, a refugee advocacy organization, sex shops and Judaica stores, a trendy discotheque, a supermarket, two clinics, an abandoned movie theater, art studios, and an atomic bomb shelter.
Every day, 70,000 people and 5,000 buses pass through the depot and commercial center. Until 2010, it was the largest bus station in the world by size, but has since been surpassed by Delhi’s new bus station. But fewer than half of the stores are occupied; 40% of the building is completely abandoned.
A collective effort
The Onya collective has 17 core members and a few dozen volunteers who assist with specific projects. They have received support from the Central Bus Station management company, local green organizations like Living Wall, Urban Farming Roof Project, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and the Neve Shanan Community Greenhouse, and Dan Public Transport. The Tel Aviv municipality has assisted with publicity.
“The Central Bus Station creates a lot of problems in the neighborhood,” explained Yoav Shafranek, a member of the collective who is studying gardening therapy at the Kibbutz Seminary and works as a bartender in Tel Aviv.
“We’re not just talking about the air and noise pollution from the buses. In this part of the city there’s serious poverty, prostitution, drugs. And the Central Bus Station is this huge block that doesn’t allow you to pass through the neighborhood. It freezes the area so that it can’t develop naturally.”
The size of the building creates a vacuum of dead space around it, Shafranek added. But the complicated legal status of the building means that it isn’t going anywhere in the near future, and even renovations are an impossible dream.
“They don’t even know if it’s possible to destroy the building,” he said. “The municipality chooses not to deal with it, and there are so many things we don’t know because no one has checked it.”
So, if the “elephant” isn’t going anywhere, concerned citizens are hoping that reclaiming the concrete for gardens could eventually help the entire neighborhood blossom.
Shafranek said that the Onya Collective aims to use the Central Bus Station and the area around it to upend people’s understanding of nature as something you must leave the city to experience.
“We wanted to mix it up, to put nature in the city where you don’t expect to see it, to surprise people,” he said. “But we also want to make it functional, to make it serve the people so it has other uses.”
The Onya Collective, founded about a year ago, first started eyeing the Central Bus Station as a site for an Israeli exhibit of the WorldWide Storefront project, an international initiative that celebrated urban art in alternative locations, explained Avigail Roubini, a graphic designer and teacher at Jerusalem’s Betzalel art school who is a member of the collective.
For the exhibit, the Onya Collective designed an art path winding through the Central Bus Station, which starts outside at a community garden that members are building in what was previously a trash-filled pedestrian passageway. The path crisscrosses the confusing hallways of the bus station, where the collective commissioned 300 poems and whimsical urban nature photography to decorate abandoned ad space.
On the fifth floor there is a hydroponics stop in an old radio station where plants grow under special LED lights in nutrient-rich water and no soil. The last stop is the seventh floor, where there is a small garden, including strawberries and lettuce, and a free lending library with books in 12 languages, created in cooperation with the Levinsky Park Library.
The exhibit officially ran from November 20 to December 31, but the collective has now decided to keep most of the projects where they are, including the gardens, which are fed by drip irrigation provided by a massive water tank on the roof of the building that supplies the air conditioners through the entire bus station.
“People passing through here are really happy because it’s such a surprise,” added Roubini. “Why should there be plants and lettuce and strawberries next to the buses?”
Collective members have different opinions about what should be done with the bus station. Some think it should be completely knocked down; others want it to be divided into smaller buildings, allowing residents to pass through freely and the surrounding neighborhoods to develop.
“There are always tours of urban planners here because this building is an experiment that hasn’t ended,” said Roubini. But, she admits, most planners come to learn from the mistakes of the building.
The Tel Aviv Arts Council and CLTV offer a tour of the bus station, including of the seventh floor where artists have been decorating the walls with large murals and graffiti for the past few years.
Strawberry fields forever
On a sunny January day, the strawberries were still a few weeks away from ripening, though the purple lettuce fluttered in the breeze as Dan’s blue and white buses left for their routes.
“We don’t eat this produce,” Roubini explained. “It’s not very healthy, considering all of the pollution here. But it’s for people to see and think about why we can’t eat it, to think about the air pollution, and also to see what’s possible.”
The strawberries are especially promising for Onya’s urban gardeners because they require lots of bees for pollination, which means that there are enough bees in the area to support a small garden. Perhaps more bees will come as the garden grows.
“It shows there are processes that are possible,” said Roubini. “We thought these changes were impossible, but they weren’t.”
Standing on the balcony on a clear day, you can see the mountains outside of Jerusalem in one direction and the Mediterranean Sea in the other. Close your eyes and you can imagine the ugly gray concrete interior bursting with vines and rosemary plants.
Creating nature in the midst of this concrete feels possible and impossible, somewhat ridiculous but also a natural progression: taking ownership of urban blight and repurposing it into a corner bursting with greenery. It’s just one of the secret spots of beauty, surrounded by crumbling neglect, that is awaiting discovery in forgotten corners of the labyrinth of the Central Bus Station.