Jerusalem’s had work done. Well, not the Old City, which changes little from day t— er, century to century. In the Old City, it can take 500 years for a new layer of architecture and culture to pile itself atop a previous one: Hebrews to Romans to Byzantines and Crusaders to the hodge-podge that prevails today.
It’s the areas around Jerusalem’s original precincts that are getting The Treatment. Take the formerly gritty and non-descript Mamilla neighborhood that faces the Old City’s Yafo Gate entrance. Less than five years ago, you needed the courage of a Maccabee to cross the dusty Yafo Road raceway to reach the gate. Two years ago, street traffic was diverted to a tunnel below but the area was still a mess. Passing too many times to count through the gaseous new tunnel over several days in August ’06, we wondered what could possibly be happening in the massive, scaffolding-shrouded construction sites above and around.
Now, we know: Nip/Tuck.
“Mamilla, dahling” I’m tempted to coo, “you look sooo goooood!” Never mind that behind her back I’m muttering that doesn’t her skin look a little too tight? And where does she think she’s going in that Versace get-up? This is Old Jerusalem, after all.
But Mamilla, you see, is now home to Jerusalem’s, and maybe Israel’s, sexiest open-air shopping mall, all gleaming Jerusalem stone and designer brand names like Versace, Nautica, North Face, Tommy Hilfiger and Rolex. Oh, and excellent iced coffee from attractive bilingual baristas at Castro. In nearby David’s Village (designed, like the mall, by Moshe Safdie), luxury residences at prices ranging from $1.1 million to $13 million remain empty most of the time, since their foreign owners keep multiple homes.
Towering over luxury condos and the Old City’s mammary domes alike, cranes still punctuate the skyline. (Also a lot of diggers, which has proven to be dangerous.) “The Palace” residences and a new Ritz-Carlton are typical projects, proudly moving in around the corner from the famed King David Hotel and the storied, Art-Deco-meets-T.E. Lawrence YMCA.
From these or any of the new luxury hotels in the area (half of which seem to have “David” in the name, the way all of central Jersey is called “Princeton-something”), to reach Yafo Gate now, you can just go shopping. Or if you’re disciplined, just stroll past the gorgeously shined windows, under the trellis-like awnings where vines are just beginning to grow, and down a few steps straight into the one-time City of David. It takes about 5 minutes and you needn’t cross even a bike lane. Eventually, the walkways is supposed to extend several more blocks to enter Independence Park, currently (and for at least two years now) surrounded with ugly corrugated-metal walls.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Mamilla facelift is that you can still see the surgeon’s “cut here” markings: Every single stone along one section of the mall’s breezeway is numbered. The numbered stones compose one side of a historic building that was dismantled from a nearby location and rebuilt within the mall, presumably to give the complex character. The building in question, Stern House, merited preservation for having briefly sheltered Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. Herzl visited Palestine in 1898 to meet there with the also-visiting Kaiser Wilhelm II. His plan — to present the kaiser with a petition for a Jewish homeland — was foiled by censors, who reduced Herzl’s importunings to a bland “seasons greetings”-type message.
What else lay here before the glitzy shopping center? Rubble, actually – just rubble. After the Jews lost the Old City and much of the new to Jordan in 1948, several acres of building debris and barbed wire were left in an official no-man’s land. After Israel took back the territory in 1967, much of Mamilla continued to lie fallow while the city debated its future.
Now, if you hope to build anything new or even turn over an old stone in Jerusalem, the local Antiquities Authority requires extensive archaeological excavations. I don’t know what museum-quality finds turned up in the digs for Mamilla Mall, but I do know this about the one-time no-man’s land: When it was cleared out, a thousand lost soccer balls were found in the debris.