The Mother of All and the Children’s City: Cultural Clusters and Urban Regeneration in Petach Tikva and Holon

The Mother of All and the Children’s City: Cultural Clusters and Urban Regeneration in Petach Tikva and Holon

One fine day in December, I decided to visit the city of Petach Tikva. I departed Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station and arrived two hours, two buses, and a short walk later. It was a beautiful day, truly, and the city’s famed eucalyptus trees – originally a coping mechanism for the surrounding swampland – reminded me very much of Savannah, Georgia’s dreamy Spanish moss.

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Just what exactly brought me to Petach Tikva that fateful day? The city is only several kilometers from the country’s cultural and economic hub in Tel Aviv, and yet is it decidedly off the beaten path. Well, I was there to see a museum. Actually, several museums.

The State of Israel boasts more museums per capita than any country on earth, and culture has played a vital role in the Zionist mission of nation building even prior to the country’s independence in 1948. The so-called Bilbao Effect refers to the power of museums to spark a cultural renaissance and revitalize economic development, especially by way of newly generated tourism. It is named after Bilbao, Spain, where “starchtect” Frank Gehry designed a local branch of the Guggenheim Museum chain, which rapidly brought international fame to the previously downturned city.

Cultural clusters (groups of cultural establishments, such as museums, performance spaces, and cinematheques, within a specified area) also have the ability to regenerate the urban environment on a larger scale and restore a city’s reputation and desirability. What can cultural clusters achieve in places like Petach Tikva and Holon, small (sub)urban cities that are negatively perceived as anything from “boring” to “dreary?” And what effects do Petach Tikva’s Museum of Art and Holon’s Design Museum, both at the hearts of each city’s cultural cluster, have on their environs?

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Petach Tikva was founded in the summer of 1878, when a convoy of religious Jews (including no fewer than four rabbis) traveled to the Jaffa area to survey lands from the Arab village of Ummlebis that had been put up for sale. They yearned to establish an agricultural colony, the first Zionist settlement outside of the four holy cities. The group was initially impressed with the land’s black soil and abundant vegetation, but soon learned that diseases including malaria plagued the area and that the nearby river was polluted. Despite numerous warnings, they purchased the land and established a settlement. Immigration and construction began promptly.

As predicted, Petach Tikva suffered from many problems in its first days: rampant disease; a lack of financial success; and discord between the original residents and a new group of settlers. The land was soon deserted. Despite these initial difficulties, the land was resettled after a brief interlude, in part by some of the original residents.

Zionist ideology and an unwavering belief in the divine can help explain how Petach Tikva’s settlers persevered even in the face of extreme hardship and early failure. The settling of Petach Tikva was itself a piece of performance art, a clear declaration of “the new Jew,” who engaged in manual labor to work the land rather than residing in the urban environment. It is not by chance that the settlement was named Petach Tikva, which translates to “gateway to hope,” from the biblical Hosea 2:15: “And I will give her vineyards from thence, and the Valley of Achor for a door of hope: and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt.”

The second time Petach Tikva was settled worked like a charm. The yishuv grew and grew, expanding under the support of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, and officially became a city in 1937. Petach Tikva today is radically different, and the eucalyptus trees are among the only vestiges of its early roots; the city’s emblem also plays homage. The now-industrialized city of approximately 230,000 residents is home to the offices of major corporations such as IBM and Teva Pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, the city’s reputation has taken a nosedive. Far from being well regarded as “the mother of all settlements,” it is now considered a humdrum, dull, even depressing Tel Aviv suburb.

Petach Tikva’s cultural cluster is not widely known, even locally. It is based around Independence Park, a centrally located, vast green oasis that was landscaped by Lipa Yahalom and Dan Zur, the designers of David Ben-Gurion’s beloved Sde Boker. Together with the rundown Museum of Man and Nature and the Petach Tikva Zoo (complete with its bizarre and outdated taxidermy show), the cluster includes the Yad Labanim complex: the Yad Labanim Museum and Memorial Center, commemorating fallen soldiers; the Founders Museum for the History of Petach Tikva, which is modeled after a 19th century rural town and presents Israel’s founding fathers’ way of life; the Oded Yarkoni Archives for the History of Petach Tikva, which collects and displays documents and artifacts from the 1860s to today; and the Petach Tikva Museum of Art.

The Petach Tikva Museum of Art is firmly rooted in the present, featuring contemporary art by Israeli and international artists. However, works by Israeli artists such as Marcel Janco and Yaakov Steinhardt who were active around the Museum’s 1964 founding initially formed the collection’s backbone. The collection notably lacks pieces from the early 20th century and the 1970s and on, which can be attributed to the increasing price of art works, the museum’s shrinking budget, and the decline of the city’s reputation which meant that leading artists no longer wished to exhibit in Petach Tikva.

The Petach Tikva Museum of Art is small. It has no permanent display, and much of its original collection is now primarily kept in storage for preservation and research purposes. Even so, it is the most significant and impressive institution in the cluster by far, featuring art of a very high caliber. It is distinct from the other institutions in the cluster for several reasons, mainly due to its impressive renovation in 2004 to the tune of NIS 4,000,000, as well as its controversial (rather than nationalistic or commemorative) exhibitions.

The Petach Tikva Museum of Art. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons.

The Petach Tikva Museum of Art’s presence begs the question, the very basic question, of why such a place needs to exist, particularly in the shadow of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s very well funded establishments. In a community like Petach Tikva and in a cultural cluster like Petach Tikva’s, it is dubious how many members of the local community visit the contemporary art museum, or are even tempted to. The museum’s Director and Chief Curator Drorit Gur Arie insists that a small museum like Petach Tikva can be “a fascinating alternative” to larger, mainstream museums. In 2014, a decade after the museum’s renovation, Gur Arie published Museum: Use Value, a collection of essays that explores the role of Petach Tikva’s museum, especially within the contexts of community and education, and the importance of small museums to ask challenging questions. This book is desperately, painfully highbrow, with countless footnotes in its margins. Rather surprisingly for such a lofty endeavor, it is published exclusively in Hebrew, drastically and perhaps unfortunately limiting its impact and international influence.

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More museum hunting and specifically a desire to see the acclaimed Holon Design Museum brought me to Holon over a year later. The weather was similarly lovely, and I was graced by another one of Gush Dan’s warm days.

Petach Tikva may be located nearby, but Holon’s native topography could not have been more different: whereas Petach Tikva was founded in swampland, Holon’s first residents were in fact surrounded by sand dunes. Settlement began in the summer of 1929 when Shlomo Greene purchased land for several modest shacks and a synagogue; this became Greene, Holon’s first neighborhood. Zionist development rapidly expanded in the years that followed. Initially, urban development was unregulated, haphazard, and even chaotic, with no land allocated for roads or public buildings. The first residents were not wealthy, a composite of Jewish working-class families from Yemenite, Polish, Iraqi, Russian, and German backgrounds.

Since its inception as a Zionist settlement in Mandate Palestine, Holon was perceived as an extension of Tel Aviv. Holon’s growth was in large part driven by severe housing shortages in its more-developed neighbor, particularly for workers, as well as a budding local textile industry. The local council officially chose the name “Holon” in 1937, which alludes to the sand dunes the settlement was built on and references the Book of Joshua. In light of financial and security concerns, Holon’s first five neighborhoods united in 1940. Holon continued to expand in the years that followed, reaching approximately 10,000 residents in 1947. Holon was declared a city in 1950. In the decades that followed, it continued to grow through the arrival of Israelis, the absorption of immigrants, and the ongoing creation of new residential neighborhoods.

Holon in the early 1990s was in rapid decline due to rising crime and unemployment, as well as its neglected infrastructure. The city’s deterioration was further exacerbated by the relocation of its more prosperous denizens to greener pastures in Tel Aviv and Rishon LeZion and its increasingly poor reputation as an uninspiring, unexciting, unpleasant suburb. When Moti Sasson was first elected mayor in 1993, he immediately began his partnership with Hana Hertsman to improve the public’s perception and transform Holon into “The Children’s City.” A quarter of a century later, they still hold the city’s reins.

Appealing to families has been a central component of the municipality’s rebranding efforts. Although family-friendly benefits are often considered a distinct advantage of suburban living, Holon unconventionally chooses to emphasize its urbanity as a way of attracting families, potential residents, and even visitors. It does not deign to be a sleepy bedroom community for Tel Aviv. Rather, its vision statement highlights the city’s “urban environment and design as a way of life” (emphasis my own), with culture and cultural institutions being marked as the instrument of choice for improving the city and its reputation.

A city of close to 190,000 denizens, Holon’s current renaissance can greatly be attributed to the blossoming of art and culture within its borders. The Children’s Museum opened to the public in 2001, almost ten years after Moti Sasson was first elected. It represented a turning point in Holon, acting as a cultural anchor that facilitated the creation of the Mediatheque several years later. Today, Holon’s “Mediatheque” cluster is based around the Mediatheque itself, which houses the Mediatheque Public Library, the Mediatheque Theater for Children and Youth, and the Holon Cinematheque. The Israeli Cartoon Museum is located a fifteen minute walk away and displays both a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions featuring comics and caricatures. The Israeli Center for Digital Art is situated in the Jessy Cohen neighborhood on the city’s edge, and includes a museum detailing the neighborhood’s history; the Institute for Public Presence, which researches, exhibits, and develops art in the public domain; a printing press; a digital magazine; a radio station; and Fab Lab IL, the country’s first digital fabrication lab.

Located next to the Mediatheque building, the Design Museum forms the heart of Holon’s cultural cluster, both in terms of its central location and its prominence. Despite its wide recognition, the Design Museum is surprisingly (and disappointedly) small, displaying just one temporary exhibition and no visible permanent collection.

The Design Museum’s origin is very much interwoven with the cluster’s formation under Moti Sasson and Hana Hertsman. It was first conceptualized in winter 2002, when the Children’s Museum had just opened and the Mediatheque was still under construction. Hana Hertzman approached Israeli artist and international “starchitect” Ron Arad for the project. Arad’s completed building is dramatic and bold and beautiful, fitting for Israel’s premier design institution. The museum opened in 2010.

The Design Museum parallels the Petach Tikva Museum of Art as the most significant institution in its cluster, and likewise fulfills a specific niche in appealing greatly to the world beyond its hometown. It is the gem of the cluster, and the feather in Moti Sasson’s cap. Even considering its small scale, there are no comparable design museums in the country, unlike the Petach Tikva Museum of Art, which must somehow distinguish itself from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s many art museums.

A recipient of the Condé Nast Traveller Innovation and Design Award for Culture, the Design Museum’s prominence has propelled Holon and its cultural cluster onto the national – if not international – stage. To wit, the Instagram post above was also shared by the trendy Telavivian, a testament to the museum's ability to both reach international audiences and be embraced by the Tel Aviv elite. As part of its international presence, the Design Museum’s website is available in English, and its exhibition texts similarly incorporates English translations. Countering Use Value, Ron Arad’s book Design(ing) Museum, co-written with Asa Bruno in English, is fairly brief with sparse text and extensive images. It details the museum’s creation process and features uncut pages that must be ceremoniously split open, reminiscent of books from a bygone era.

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Petach Tikva and Holon are two small suburban cities in Tel Aviv’s orbit with similar demographics and comparable socioeconomic ratings. Immigrants have played a significant role in both cities’ development: Petach Tikva and Holon alike were home to ma’abarot (settlement camps) following the founding of the State of Israel, and both continue to welcome immigrants, including sizable Ethiopian populations.

And yet, the two cities’ cultural clusters could not be more different. Petach Tikva’s is highly centralized: institutions circle Independence Park, either in the Yad Lebanim complex or a very brief walk away. In contrast, Holon’s cultural institutions are dispersed throughout the city. Although the Mediatheque and Design Museum are located next door to each other, it would be a much more demanding endeavor to walk to the Cartoon Museum or the Israeli Center for Digital Art. Petach Tikva’s cultural institutions have several overlapping themes, such as commemoration, preservation, conservation, memory, and education, whereas Holon’s institutions have diverse appeals and subject matters.

Petach Tikva’s institutions are in many ways potential unfulfilled. Parallel institutions in neighboring towns now sadly overshadow Yad Lebanim, which was once a pioneer in commemorative sites and a recipient of the Israel Prize in 1980. The Founders Museum, which has the potential to appeal to a very broad audience given that it is located in the first Zionist settlement, has frustratingly limited opening hours. The city’s zoo is pleasant enough, but tired, and its taxidermy display borders on the morbid (its fluorescent lighting doesn’t add much charm, either). The Museum of Man and Nature similarly could do with a makeover. Possibly the most tragic is the Museum of Art, which exhibits contemporary Israeli art at a very high level; even bordering Tel Aviv, Petach Tikva’s art museum truly could make a name for itself. Instead, it invests its energies in pretentious essay collections rather than engaging the Israeli and international public as well as I feel that it could and should.

Petach Tikva’s municipality could be blamed for this unrealized potential. Although it financially supported the Museum of Art’s renewal, it does little to promote its cultural cluster. Indeed, the municipality does not even use its unusually active presence on social media to publicize Petach Tikva’s cultural cluster.

On the other hand, the website of Holon’s municipality borders on being propaganda (or salesmanship, or self-promotion), and expresses a profound desire to be (inter)nationally relevant through its extensive webpages in English. Regardless, Holon’s cultural institutions and the cultural cluster they form have proven fundamental in the (re)branding of “The Children’s City.” Indeed, Holon presents an urban model in which the development of a cultural cluster is closely intertwined with urban regeneration and in which the city government carefully and skillfully (and oh-so-closely) manipulates the urban environment. Holon’s cultural institutions, blessed by the municipality’s support (financial and spiritual) and the Friends of Holon’s contributions, have transformed the city into an (inter)national center of culture. In other words, they have achieved real change. Whether or not these institutions succeed in bringing tourists – which I think they do, particularly the Design Museum – Holon has become a city to which families want to move, a place where people are happy to be. Indeed, a survey conducted by the municipality on the heels of Holon’s 70th anniversary in 2010 reveals that denizens overwhelmingly (82%) reported satisfaction with living in Holon, and more than 75% were proud to call the city their home and would recommend it to their friends. Although Petach Tikva’s municipality claims it welcomes a steady influx of new residents, including those from Tel Aviv, the city is still overwhelmingly pigeonholed as gloomy and grey despite all that it offers.

These disparities may be attributed to the cities’ innate differences. Although both originated in pre-State Israel, Petach Tikva is “the mother of all settlements.” She was the first Zionist settlement, founded in swampland as the embodiment of “the new Jew”: she has always been driven by ideology, namely Zionism, religion, self-reliance, and the collective. Even her art museum, which presents controversial, at times inaccessible contemporary art, reflects an allegiance to the community, a desire to educate and reflect on society’s current ills. Once dubbed “the sands of the south,” Holon is meanwhile heavily influenced by its commercial roots. Its municipality is proud to utilize culture to revitalize the city and encourage economic prosperity. It has no need for pretentious ideology when it has results.

In my opinion, the institutions within the clusters themselves have much to improve on in terms of quality and accessibility, and should focus on attracting Israeli audiences both from Gush Dan and throughout the country, rather than pandering to an international audiences or the Tel Aviv elite (of which Petach Tikva’s Museum of Art is very guilty). Despite their shortcomings, I believe Petach Tikva and Holon’s cultural clusters have become a way for the cities to distinguish themselves from Tel Aviv and its many suburbs, a foil of varying levels of effectiveness to battle negative associations in the Israeli imagination. Holon and Petach Tikva exemplify two urban models – one half-baked and one fully realized – of culture and art’s potential to ignite urban regeneration.

Linda A. Ivri... made aliyah from New York in 2012. She received her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Smith College in 2009 and was awarded a fellowship to teach English in Crema, Italy the following year. She is writing her thesis on cultural clusters in Petach Tikva and Holon as part of her M.A. in Theory and Policy of the Arts at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. An avid traveler and a museum fangirl, she lives in Jerusalem with her husband and son.

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