When we relocated from Haifa to Tel Aviv in 2006, over 11 years ago, we moved into an apartment on what was, theoretically, a quiet street in a quiet neighbourhood, Old North. I say “theoretically” somewhat tongue-in-cheek although compared to some other streets not too far away, the corner of Stricker and Shlomtzion Streets is fairly peaceful. However, if memory serves me correctly—and it’s not as reliable as it used to be—not long after we moved in, the street to the south us, which carries several bus routes and is less than 200m away, underwent extensive tree surgery along its entire length and (with the exception of the buses) our “quiet” street took most of the traffic for several weeks. It was noisy and as a certain Mr. Trump might have described it using one of his favourite words from his extensive and varied vocabulary, it was “bad, really bad”.
However, once that was over, we enjoyed a decade or so mostly of what we had expected. Here and there, there was some building activity but nothing that overly disturbed the peace. And then, just over a year ago, things began to change. The pace of construction activity quickened; several lots were sold; several houses were demolished and new buildings began to appear as if from nowhere. Initially, they were sufficiently dispersed so as not to become a nuisance but little by little, this has altered. Within a radius of 150m, there are now five separate projects underway and several others have had planning notices/warnings attached to gates and lampposts.
However, nothing compares with the laying of the new sewage, drainage and water systems under the street directly under the northern façade of the house. This is a project that with a bit of luck will take until the end of 2017 to complete and the neighbourhood is anything but quiet. To the contrary.
I began writing this blog on the summer solstice. Just to add to the daily chaos outside the house, it also rained; raining in late June might be a commonplace in some parts of the world but in Tel Aviv, it’s a rare occurrence. (This also made me think that it’s a “blessing in disguise” that the work is being done midsummer as otherwise in place of the dust which which we have to contend with at the moment, it would have been mud, which is infinitely worse.) And added to what has become normal chaos over the past month, one of our neighbours on the opposite side of the street perpendicular to the one that’s being excavated is adding a floor to an existing building, so we found posted to our gate a notice to say that during the following day, the street would have a visit from a crane and that, as a consequence, ingress to the street and egress from it would be impossible during the day. Trapped, I think is the word that might aptly have been used.
Meanwhile, back to the channel on the north side of the building. Having dug up our section of the street over the past four weeks and installed new sewage under where the street will once again hopefully be in a few weeks’ time, the small team of workers is getting down to the business end of things, with individual buildings being connected to the new sewage system. As far as I can ascertain, this entails digging up gardens and parking areas in front of the houses, excavating channels, and laying pipes, as they move eastwards across the street house by house.
Without noise-cancelling headphones, the din is pretty unbearable even with all windows firmly closed; the workers, in addition to being powerfully built physically also have strong voices to match, which they need to actually hear one another above the clangour provided by the machinery.
The racket was becoming so unbearable that I contacted a helpline that I had been provided with some years ago by an old friend who advised me at the time—in all seriousness—that I should use it in cases of extreme emergency or excessive exasperation. So finally after more than 12 years, I succumbed and logged in—not that it helped. I was even more irritated having listened to the instructions provided than I had been before. (You can click below and hear why. However for those of you whose ears are not attuned to the accent or who can’t catch the words of wisdom and advice in a single hearing, you may have to listen to it more than once!)
Anyway, back to business.
Not long after we moved to Tel Aviv, I concluded that the best way for me to learn the city, or at least that part of it in which were living, was through observation. As a geographer, you are taught that the everything starts with observation. So I set out on premise offered by the aphorism by Dorothea Lange, the American documentary photographer and photojournalist who won fame for her work for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. (Her photographs humanized its consequences, while exerting a great influence on the development of documentary photography in the process.)
Lange wrote: “A camera teaches you how to see without a camera” and having followed this hypothesis for a decade now I think it couldn’t be more apt. Not only does it teach you to see without a camera but it also has a contrary effect in that while you are observing with camera in hand, you become oblivious to scenes and situations that cannot be captured by the lens you currently have on the camera. On other words, if you walk around city streets with a wide-angle lens, you quickly learn to ignore things that that lens cannot capture, such as cat on a roof 50 meters away.
So starting with a borrowed camera, I began to walk the streets of the city and record my observations, examining the images to see what secrets they might yield. During the first two months of this exercise, I took a very basic course in digital photography, which I completed and it stimulated my enthusiasm to get out several days a week with camera on neck and in hand. It was actually the beginning of what has been an ongoing project although I didn’t realize it at the time.
At the outset, I made a conscious decision to read only some basic pieces on the theory of photography but not to read anything on the history of photography at least for a year . This was because I first wanted to see what I was doing and only then see whether it resembled, in some crude way, what had already been done by the professionals not to mention the greats. In retrospect, perhaps this decision hindered me and because I was curious, I met myself halfway and bought the BBC documentary series, The Genius of Photography, which in addition to being fascinating and enlightening was a stimulus to any photographic aspirations I possessed.
What has happened in the past 10 years is that I have been out and about most days — most mornings, in fact — walking the streets of North Tel Aviv (or to a lesser extent, Inner Northwest London), with camera, observing and shooting things that either interested me specifically or just caught my eye. “Out and about” is really a rather benign way of describing what I do and where I go. It’s a humdrum activity really, walking generally for 60 to 90 minutes, sometimes more, sometimes less.
In Tel Aviv, my most usual route takes me into the Yarqon Park about 200m from the house and sees me walking west to the sea, southward along the promenade known locally as Tel Aviv Port and then choosing a return route (not that the choice is all that broad). Occasionally I do it in reverse. It’s about 5-6 km all told. Now and then, I vary the route. I might walk eastward through the park or south towards the city. Usually the walk is fairly brisk in between the stops to take photographs; at other times, it’s little more than a rambling amble or an ambling ramble. I follow a similar pattern in London. Turn right and head for Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park; turn left and head for Hampstead and the Heath.
As I’ve noticed and noted and photographed many different activities, I suppose that this sort of makes me a street photographer — except for the fact that I don’t really think of myself as a photographer at all. But as Susan Sonntag, another American writer and critic on photography, put it 40 years ago, the street photographer is a sort of flâneur. “… an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’” The armour to which Sonntag referred, of course, is the camera. So I suppose that what I have become is a sort of photographic flâneur, capturing the bigger picture that is the city in small individual frames, sometimes related, sometimes less so — but which when examined together provide a wider picture of an active urban landscape.
Having written this, I can honestly only say that after 50 years as a geographer, I’m not sure what geographers are really supposed to observe. Perhaps physical geographers have an easier time than the kind I am or used to be with subject matters such as rivers and mountains, erosion and sedimentation, coastlines and waves, wind and rain, soils and vegetation, things are directly parts of the physical environment and are eminently visible. Consequently, when they take photographs of things that interest them, it’s pretty clear what images they should capture.
Human geographers are in more of a predicament. Looking at the professional literature, geographers are supposed to take an interest in buildings and other structures, so that when they photograph you might expect lots of images of dwellings and commercial buildings as well as physical structures such as bridges, freeways or parking lots. Political geographers are interested in boundaries and borders, so you might presume that you’d see crossing points, barriers or flags as examples of their academic interests and pursuits. Rural landscapes — farmhouses, fields, field patterns and hedgerows and such things —might also figure in the human geography photo album. However, in recent times, human geography seems to place less emphasis on edifices and more on people and what they’re doing.
Looking through my pictures, there are relatively few buildings or barriers, bridges or freeways. There are many of urban streets and municipal parks but the emphasis in these pictures is less on the physical look of the street or the park and more on what people are doing there. I seem to have been attracted to people performing all sorts of activities in the urban environments through which I have sauntered. Does this say something about my predilections or that human geographers are really more interested in people than they often profess to be? I don’t really know and, frankly, the answer interests me less than it used to do, for reasons that are clearly obvious.
At any rate, enough of this introspection and time for a few recent flâneurial musings.
Summer has well and truly come to Tel Aviv. I feel for those people in the UK who suffered five consecutive days of Tel Aviv weather last week and took my hat off (yes, I wear one when I go out into the Tel Aviv summer) to the schoolboys in Exeter who, refused permission by the school Principal to exchange their long trousers for shorts because short trousers are not part of the school uniform, turned up the following day in skirts.
Nevertheless, we have now reached the stage of no return in T-A; that’s it until October/November unless something really very unusual happens. Four to five months of 30ºC+ and humidity to accompany it, as the song—and the singer—would have it.
I’ve made an effort recently to escape the worst of the day’s heat by getting out and about by 06.30 but even then, the temperature is already pushing the mid-20s. The saving grace at that hour is that the shadows are longer and thus you have greater opportunity to walk in the shade. Oh — and at that hour, the cafés and restaurants are, for the most part, not yet open so you get to see things as they are prior to business hours.
The heat affects people and other living things in different ways. Some people cover themselves almost in their entirety; others, less so.
For a start, heat exacerbates aggression but bellicosity has its plusses and its minuses. You might well lose an ear or an eye when the weather becomes unbearable.
Patience, they say, is a virtue but the mynahs don’t have much of it, even when it comes to their relationships with one another (they cannibalise; at least the ones in Tel Aviv do) and in the heat, their aggressive nature is amplified.
And the heat can lead to intense hallucinations, too, with the mynah seeing itself as a bird it had always emulated!
The emu, meanwhile, is similarly afflicted.
The heat really does strange things to the mind! Hallucination takes all shapes and forms.
Yes. Strange things. Are these people at prayer or are they doing something more worthwhile?
And who knows? Perhaps that’s what they really do in there every morning under the guise of something else?!
And you might as well start young. This young man, it seems, reckoned that even at 8 in the morning, it was too hot for school. So he parked himself at the bottom of the ramp leading to the upper level car park at Dizengoff Centre in downtown Tel Aviv. It’s obvious that he’s unconcerned that his parents might be at all concerned. After all, his smartphone is turned on and they can always contact him if they’ve been informed that he hasn’t arrived in school today.
And this is what happens to cars in T-A if there’s no covered parking available (that’s assuming, of course, that you can find on-street parking at all, a task that’s becoming increasingly unachievable) and you go away for a couple of weeks and leave the car parked on a tree-lined street.
I missed the Gay Pride parade in the city 10 days ago but there are reminders all over the place.
Finally, heat or no heat, you have to try and keep the city clean, this mobile stairwell cleaner believes!