Jerusalem has a renovated the Old City’s New Gate, in an attempt to turn the ancient portal into a more central entrance to the heritage site.
According to local merchants, however, the NIS 11 million (just over $3 million) investment won’t make much of a difference.
“Sometimes I stand outside the gate just to look around, and I see Israelis, they don’t even know what the New Gate is,” said George Sandroni, who owns part of his Armenian family’s historic ceramic business. “I tell them it’s a hole in the wall between Jaffa Gate and Damascus Gate.”
The New Gate is indeed the newest gate in the Old City, built 130 years ago in 1889 to provide better access between the Christian Quarter and the neighborhoods then being built outside the Old City. The gate brings visitors directly into the Christian Quarter, which includes the famed Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Morristan Compound and other historic sites.
“We saw great importance in upgrading the public space and traffic arteries in the area, and the development plans required great sensitivity and adaptation to the various needs,” said Eyal Haimovsky, Director General of the Jerusalem Development Authority. “Creating accessibility to people with disabilities is a complex process in ancient sites such as the Old City of Jerusalem.”
The New Gate compound project is part of a multi-year plan for the development of the Old City, which includes the development of infrastructure, improving accessibility and easing congestion.
The Jerusalem Development Authority, the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, the Ministry of Tourism, the Jerusalem Municipality, and the National Insurance Institute all participated in the investment for the upgrade to the Gate.
The New Gate offers a far quieter entrance to the Old City than the nearby Jaffa or Damascus Gates. Now, following the renovation, it’s a more pristine entrance as well, with wide, flat pedestrian streets that have been leveled for better accessibility, and an electric gate that blocks all cars from entering the neighborhood.
The exteriors of nearby storefronts have been upgraded with matching gray metal facades, some of which were still being put in place on a recent Tuesday afternoon. The renovated location seems to cater more to cafes serving cake and coffee, rather than pitas and hummus or semolina cakes.
The two years of renovations took their toll on local merchants.
“We really suffered from it, we didn’t make any money in those two years,” said Sandroni, one of three brothers with a portion of the family’s Armenian ceramics business, who relocated to the corner store near the New Gate in 2010, after the brothers divided the business.
According to Sandroni during the renovation there was only a meter-wide portion of the sidewalk available for walking, and the rest “was a dig,” with cockroaches, mice and rats emerging from the exposed underground.
“It was a pile of garbage,” he said.
The work included replacing underground piping, a process that included a lengthy work stoppage due to antiquities found underground.
“It was a nightmare, those two years for us,” said Sandroni. “Of course, it’s very beautiful now. At Christmas, with all the lights up, it looked like Europe.”
Ramy Ganin, who owns a hair salon right near the gate, said he hasn’t had customers for years.
“I haven’t had any work at all, it’s been very difficult,” said Ganin, who pays $2,000 a month in rent. “We’re waiting for people to come. This place isn’t like Ben Yehuda or Mamilla. People just don’t come here, Israelis are scared to come here.”
There have been a number of deadly terrorist attacks at Damascus Gate, the nearby Old City entrance that leads into the market and Muslim Quarter, but none at New Gate.
Ganin said most of his customers are locals from the Christian Quarter, although he’d like to have more Israeli Jewish customers (tourists, he noted, don’t usually get haircuts while on vacation).
It’s not just the renovation that’s to blame for the limited patronage, said Sandroni, but the near invisibility of the gate, which is a smaller, less obvious entrance into the Old City.
Sandroni pointed to a lack of clear signage outside the gate that signals to visitors what is available inside the New Gate.
“There has to be clear signage that you can get anywhere from here in the Old City, that it’s accessible for people with special needs,” he said. “They need to know that you can get to places in the Old City from here, not just Jaffa or Zion Gates.”
After spending so much money on the renovation, it would make sense for the municipality to add other elements that drive pedestrian traffic to the gate, continued Sandroni.
“It will lower pressure in the other gates, the other gates are sometimes like a zoo,” he said. “Let people know there is a beautiful gate, it looks like a street in Europe.”
Sandroni would also like a parking lot for tourist buses that would allow buses to stop and unload people, like those that are available for the other gates.
“What happens is, they either go right or left, to Jaffa or Damascus Gate,” said Sandroni. “Not here.”