TEL AVIV The teeming blocks around this citys New Central Bus Station are anything but scenic. Packed with humanity at every hour of the day, they are dizzying monuments to urban blight: equal parts graffiti, chaotic traffic and bustling, black-market commerce.
So on a sunny Friday last month, just across the street from the labyrinth-like station a hulking seven-story monolith where entire floors lay abandoned it was a surprise to find the gates of a thriving urban garden thrown open.
Bongo drums, organic pastries and childrens art projects were all being shared there among the potted cacti, flowering eucalyptus and verdant vertical gardens built, using upcycled wooden pallets, into the walls of an under-passage.
This dilapidated neighborhood of South Tel Aviv has long been known for its grit, not its green spaces.
Its the place to find all varieties of Indian and Filipino spices; bands of African migrants strolling five or six abreast. Unless theyre catching an intercity bus or want to purchase some off-label electronics, most Tel Aviv residents steer clear of this part of town entirely.
South Tel Aviv has become home to the vast majority of Israels nearly 50,000 African migrants and refugees.
As the Israeli government vacillated on how to handle the influx, the neighborhoods Jewish residents cried out about a spike in crime that has come in tandem with the influx.
TODAY, SOUTH Tel Avivs shoulder-to-shoulder communities of migrants, legal foreign workers and Jewish-Israelis who share this cramped space all accuse the government of abandoning them.
But some grassroots organizations are seeking to nourish community life in this urban Israeli jungle.
City-funded social workers are helping low-income mothers find health services for their children. Volunteers from the African Refugee Development Center are trading their evenings to offer legal services to asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, activist gardeners are wielding strawberry patches and bell peppers amid the concrete, and feminist activists are forcing a dialogue between the areas partitioned racial groups.
The times along with the atmosphere are a-changing here, as they say.
Its the most neglected and hardcore area in Tel Aviv, says Robert Ungar, an architect who heads up the Onya Collective.
The organization is behind the areas new garden.
Onyas weapons of choice are soil and seeds, and it believes in harnessing the power of plants and green space to bring positive change to urban spaces.
Its so dense and polluted, and no organization is really taking it on, Ungar says of the area. This is our biggest challenge.
A handful of herbs and flowers may not be enough to turn the tide of a neighborhood, but its a start.
The gardens appeal was enough to lure in Dor Zolta, a 28-year-old who grew up in nearby Holon. He said that before Onyas event, he had only ventured to South Tel Aviv to catch a bus or train.
It doesnt matter so much what they are doing to make the place better, as long as its a step in the right direction, Zolta says, sipping a beer while taking in the funky roots-rock of the band OSOG.
Ive never been to the neighborhood before to hang out, and this sort of event can make the people who live here feel a responsibility over the neighborhood and maybe take care of it themselves.
WHILE TEL AVIVS northern beaches, hotels and restaurants have shot to the top of tourism blogs must-visit lists, South Tel Aviv has lagged behind.
The dual forces of urban sprawl and geopolitical instability, which pushed businesses out while tens of thousands of African asylum seekers streamed across Israels borders, have changed the fabric of this enclave.
Elliott Glassenberg, a local activist and teacher at the Bina Secular Yeshiva that sits a stones throw from the bus station, is passionate about improving life for Africans who live in the area, and also securing the closure of the Holot Detention Center, the isolated open prison complex in the Negev Desert, where hundreds of migrants are being held for entering the country illegally.
Groups like the Onya Collective, he says, bring immense value to the neighborhood by fomenting a sense of community.
But there is a risk to their work, as well a risk that the residents of any city that has seen gentrification transform its streets can tell you about. The residents of South Tel Aviv deserve a safer and cleaner space to live in, activists say. The risk is that as their neighborhood changes, the cost of living there will, too.
Its always a little from column A and a little from column B. A lot of times people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are at a loss because they want their quality of life to improve, but when it does, rent and housing costs go up, as well.
Jaffa and Florentin, two neighborhoods that border the ring of tough streets around the Central Bus Station, have been transforming over the past decade; quaint boutiques, microbreweries and high-rises are now ubiquitous there.
As community initiatives have slowly begun to take root in the grittier South Tel Aviv enclaves of Neve Shaanan, Shapira and Hatikva, developers have started to take note.
Handfuls of land plots in the area have already been purchased, and luxury condos are being planned alongside the crumbling slums that dot these crowded streets.
Since 2000, the city of Tel Aviv has established its own independent organization, Mesila, to offer aid and educational outreach to migrants and foreign workers. It has smoothed out some of the areas most potholed roads; at night, new streetlights and police patrols have cut down drastically on crime.
Community initiatives like Hyde Park Levinsky have brought Jewish and foreign residents together at the local Levinsky Park, much in the spirit of the Sunday soapbox orators who have discussed ideas in Londons Hyde Park for a century.
Its a start, says Ungar. But there are problems he isnt willing to wait for the government to fix.
Theyre fixing streets and helping security. These are heavy actions. But no one is talking about the things that arent basic. Green space is not basic. Culture and community is not basic. Very little is being done to create and strengthen community, which is vital.
The Onya Collective got started last year when a group of its core volunteers took over the Central Bus Stations derelict roof as part of the global urban art initiative Worldwide Storefront.
That project, which brought forth a reading corner, a strawberry patch and an hydroponics station in a forgotten radio studio, brought the all-volunteer collective a fair amount of local press and encouraged them to launch an even bigger project: a soil-less urban garden built by both Israeli and immigrant communities in the heart of the neighborhood.
Most days, the little garden a festive mishmash of hardy potted plants, strings of lights and hanging paper maché projects is locked for lack of operational budget. Ungar hopes that will eventually change.
Everyone passes the responsibility for South Tel Aviv onto someone else, and what happens is it allows creative initiatives like us to grow because there are gaps in this city that nobody takes care of, he says.
Were growing within these cracks.