Defending a Jerusalem oasis

Jerusalem Post, Gil Troy’s Center Field, August 10, 2008

The battle to save Baka and the German Colony is a skirmish in a long -overdue struggle. Center Field

Jerusalem’s German Colony is an architectural jewel a magnificent urban oasis offering historic houses soothing visual harmony intimate settings and even the sound of birds chirping amid the hurly burly of Israel’s capital. Neighboring Baka while less sculpted is also delightful offering an equally alluring sense of community. While the Emek Refaim cafes serving both neighborhoods attract crowds Baka and German Colony residents are also blessed by a friendly not-yet-overdone shopping strip along Derech Beit Lehem

Alas – surprisingly tragically foolishly – the delicate urban ecology of the German Colony Baka and Beit Lehem shops is now endangered. And the threat comes from civil servants who should be committed to preserving such urban gems.

In launching the light rail system Jerusalem’s bureaucrats plan to divert as many as 1 0 cars an hour from Derech Hebron to Derech Beit Lehem. Private cars will be banned from Remez Street near the old train station so huge buses can whisk commuters downtown from the outlying neighborhoods. But independent traffic engineers have confirmed what any intelligent person can see – this well- intentioned but poorly thought out automotive invasion will turn Beit Lehem into what one resident calls “the autostrada and bring urban blight to these lovely neighborhoods. The result will be traffic snarls, constant noise, polluted air, impossible parking, ruined shops, plummeting property values and, most disturbing, hundreds of pupils walking to the areas’ schools every weekday morning and afternoon

HAVING HAD the privilege of living in the German Colony since last July, and having regularly escorted my children back and forth to their schools, I have watched in horror as this fiasco develops. I have seen the work crews install the infrastructure for traffic lights and turning lanes, despite the municipality’s promise last year to freeze the plan. I have seen a small, noble group of concerned citizens try to alert their neighbors, while others flail about trying to get heard by someone in the vast urban bureaucracy. Last March, launching my own test of Jerusalem’s supposedly responsive bureaucracy, I contacted the authorities regarding this dumb plan. Identifying myself as an occasional columnist, I sought an official comment. I’m still waiting.

Fortunately, there are enough engaged residents to launch a grassroots campaign. Recently, some locals led by Itay Fishendler and Jonathan Kalman started raising money and awareness to save their community. They understand that to fight an indifferent city hall they will need a comprehensive campaign of public protest, attracting supportive media coverage. This is especially necessary because the bureaucrats are surprisingly gung-ho about this project despite the feared fallout. This campaign has been fully co-ordinated with the local community center and the head of the community council. These urban heroes can be contacted at bakaa.s.o.s@gmail.com

IF MORE neighbors weighed the pending threat to their quality of life and property values against what many of them spend on renovations, they would flood the activists with cash.

Frankly, residents have yet to respond as generously as they should with their time, passion, and money. Still, in other neighborhoods threatened by equally ridiculous plans the locals do not even have the resources to fight.

This debacle-in-the-making reveals a deeper problem. The legendary American politician Tip” O’Neill famously said “all politics is local.” O’Neill understood that although citizens in a democracy judge their government on the big things such as defending the country and managing the economy the little things also loom large. Unfortunately in Israel the national issues are overwhelming the entire political system is too centralized. The residents of the German Colony and Baka – along with Israelis from Metulla to the Negev – miss the local representation that makes so many other democracies function. If city councils and the Knesset had some locally selected district-based representatives at least one national politician and one local politician could represent grievances effectively passionately independently. In this case two leaders – each beholden to the people – would wake up every day wondering how to preserve protect and defend Baka and the German Colony.

TRUE A locally based system risks people shouting Not In My Back Yard and ignoring broader community concerns. But in a functional democracy the local and the national balance each other in an ultimately constructive dance. All too often in Israel the big overwhelms the small. We see this when traffic engineers arrogantly impose harmful plans on neighborhoods. We see this when educational bureaucrats prevent parents from raising money in a particular school to lower student-teacher ratios or block principals from doing what is best for their students.

The battle to save Baka the German Colony and the Beit Lehem shopping district is then a small skirmish in a long-overdue struggle. Israel desperately needs a more responsive political system along with more responsive responsible officials at all levels. These public servants would understand that democracies – like the threatened neighborhoods – are delicate ecosystems requiring thoughtful tending.

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