by Nicole Levin

The Historic Neighborhood: Nahalat Shiv’a – Jerusalem

Slated for demolition by city planners, this architectural gem was saved by the public.

Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalayim) is a wonderful opportunity to revisit the unique standing, character, and beauty of Israel’s capital city.   Like every city, its buildings, monuments, streets, and alleyways are testimony not only to historical events, but also to the vision of its planners.  Shockingly, the first master plans of Jerusalem did not propose preserving the historic Jewish neighborhoods first built outside the Old City walls, such as Mishkenot Sha’ananim (1860) Mahaneh Yisrael (1868) and Nahalat Shiv’a (1869) even though their buildings are testimony to the courage and heroism of Israel’s early pioneers, and tell the story of the renewal of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Thanks to a public outcry against the planned demolition of Nahalat Shiv’a, it was preserved in the end. Today the restored neighborhood is a bustling pedestrian area, and blends in well with other preservation and renewal projects implemented in other nearby neighborhoods in the city’s center.

The history of the neighborhood

The cornerstone for Nahalat Shiva (meaning Estate of the Seven) was laid in April 1869. It was the third neighborhood to be established outside the Old City. The seven founders (after which the neighborhood got its name) were Yoel Moshe Salomon, Yosef Rivlin, Yehoshua Yellin, Michel HaCohen, Binyamin (Beinish) Salant, Aryeh (Leib) Horowitz, and Haim Halevi (Kovner).  Yosef Rivlin, who established Bonei Yerushalayim (Builders of Jerusalem), a company dedicated to purchasing and settling land in Jerusalem, travelled to Europe in 1859 to raise money from Diaspora Jews.  According to reports, Yoel Moshe Salomon began negotiations to purchase land from Arabs in 1867, without disclosing that the land was intended for Jewish settlement. Finally, the seven founders combined resources and purchased a tract of land bordered by Jaffa Road in the north, a Moslem Cemetery to the south, an ancient Moslem tomb in the west and rocks and trees in the east. It was close to the Russian compound. Because the right to own land was restricted to Ottoman citizens only, the plot was registered in the name of the wife of Aryeh Horowitz, who was an Ottoman citizen and fluent in Arabic. She dressed as an Arab when she appeared in court to receive the Kushan (ownership papers).

The dangers of living outside the Old City were great, and the rabbis of the community were opposed to the idea of settling outside it. However, the harsh and crowded living conditions, the high rents and the spread of cholera finally compelled the Jews to look for other solutions.

Nachalat Shiva: The early days 

Nahalat Shiva was not carefully planned. Its general layout was dictated by the fact that land close to Jaffa Street was more valuable than that near the Muslim cemetery; as a result, the neighborhood was divided into seven strips from north to south in such a way that each plot was flanked by a ‘good’ and ‘bad side.’ Between the strips of houses, narrow, paved alleys were built to allow for the passage of people and animals. The single-story houses were similar but not identical.  Houses were built around courtyards that could be locked to protect the residents; in these courtyards, wells were dug to provide water.

Yosef Rivlin built the first home and lived there alone for many months despite the danger. Two years later, more tenants joined him. In 1873, ten cows were imported from Amsterdam and a dairy was established. In the same year, residents set up a cart service to and from Jaffa Gate that enabled the daily transportation of passengers, food, and other products, thereby increasing the amount of people who came to the neighborhood for various purposes. With time, these carts provided transportation to other neighborhoods as well. In 1874, a first Ashkenazi synagogue was built outside the Old City in Nahalat Shiv’a. A Sephardic synagogue followed, along with a guest house and a school.  By 1875, fifty families lived in the neighborhood. Life was not easy, and the residents had to defend themselves against physical attacks from Bedouins and others and attempts to steal their property.

Nahalat Shiv’a was originally built as a residential area. But due to its location near Jaffa Street, which gradually became the city center, the neighborhood played an important role in the city’s commercial development and had many small businesses and workshops. Over the years, the population aged, and those who could afford it moved to modern neighborhoods. However, property in Nahalat Shiv’a was always in demand because of its strategic location near Jaffa Street.

In 1959, Michael Shaviv’s master plan for Jerusalem was approved, and based on this plan, Ossip (Yosef) Klarwein  (1960) designed a modern city center with wide streets. This detailed plan proposed the demolition of the Nahalat Shiv’a as well as other historic neighborhoods and the construction of modern buildings in their place.  Consequently, 11 buildings in Nahalat Shiv’a neighborhood were demolished along Jaffa Street including the houses of founders Yoel Moshe Salomon and Yosef Rivlin; they were replaced by an office building named Beit Yoel (House of Yoel).

After the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, the city underwent extensive development. Satellite neighborhoods and suburbs were constructed, and these attracted affluent populations from the center of town. The central business center ceased to be the focal point of commerce or social activity. The absence of a clear planning policy and security problems further added to the demise of this area.  City planners advocated for a modern capital city with high-rise multi-purpose buildings, contrary to world-accepted standards for the preservation of historic cities. The first master plans of Jerusalem after the establishment of the state did not consider the areas outside the walls of the Old City, i.e., the “new city’’ as having historic value.

When the municipality’s plans to demolish the neighborhood of Nahalat Shiv’a were published, a public  outcry arose. As a result, a team established by the Jerusalem Municipality reexamined the whole concept for the city as reflected in its master plans, and decided to differentiate between the various  neighborhoods in the center of the town.  A ‘’historic center’’ was identified, extending from the walls of the Old City in the to the old Shaare Zedek hospital area on the western part of Jaffa Street, including the Arab and Haredi neighborhoods, the Downtown Triangle,  HaNevi’im Street (Street of the Prophets), Independence Park, Keren Hayesod Street in the south and Mahane Yehuda Market in the north. The decision was to conserve these areas, and as a result, Nahalat Shiv’a, was saved.

The Plan to Preserve Nahalat Shiv’a

The Jerusalem Municipality drew up a conservation plan (Jerusalem Outline Plan No. 2422) for the Nahalat Shiv’a neighborhood, which was approved in August 1987.  The plan included the renovation of building facades, the transformation of Rivlin and Salomon Streets into a pedestrian area (which eliminated the traffic jams) and the installation of new and uniform signage and streetlamps. Special care was taken to preserve architectural characteristics of buildings from the past. Later amendments to this plan included a network of paved paths and pedestrian crossings, the construction of Kikar Hahatulot (Cats Square) and the Museum of Tolerance, and renovation of facades of buildings along Jaffa Street.

Based on these plans, land could be used for commerce, recreation, and tourism. Today the neighborhood is full of restaurants, pubs, galleries, jewelry stores, art stores and offices. It is sometimes referred to as the Soho district of Jerusalem. The first synagogues of the neighborhood have been preserved and they attract worshipers from other neighborhoods too. Though the neighborhood is not residential in nature, about 200 people still live there. Today, some of the properties are owned by the descendants of the original families.

The successful restoration of Nahalat Shiv’a inspired additional restoration projects around the city such as Haneviim Street, Mamilla, Ben Shetah Street, and the restoration of Jaffa Street with the construction of the light rail.