New-Old Town

By Adi Dredikman

The next Florentine is in Beer Sheva! Dozens of arts and music projects have grown among the beautiful Ottoman streets in recent years thanks to young communities

Most of us only get there on Wednesdays, too drunk and too late, but the Old Town is much more than the Baraka Club (or, to those who understand, HaHalutz 33). A brief stroll through the old Ottoman streets reveals quite a few associations, social businesses, and cool community initiatives worth getting to know. The Old City, which used to be the social and commercial center of Beersheba, has experienced ups and downs. After years of deteriorating and becoming an unpleasant place to hang out at night, over the past decade the Old City has risen to become a focus of alternative and community oriented culture, which is a focus for young people. The municipality's investment, which funded scholarships for students and artists who chose to live in it, of course, contributed to an increase in the old neighborhood's funds. But the beating heart of the neighborhood and what makes it what it is today is the enterprising and engaged community that has formed in recent years. 

Over the past decade, the Old City has managed to amass an impressive mosaic of groups and communities that maintain a collaborative lifestyle at varying levels. Among them, an urban kibbutz with a joint fund with the Dror Israel movement, but also less established communities such as a group that have formed in the building, which previously served as a student village. To this day, the group is known in local jargon as the "village" and members of the building maintain a community lifestyle that includes joint meals and holiday events that residents of the entire neighborhood are invited to. Another way of life, which is perhaps the most unique of the Old City, is that those who choose to connect with the city's roots and live in its original homes – the Ottoman houses. These houses are built from a number of small housing units in the center of a common courtyard, forming small communities. In many of these houses can be found artists, who open their homes to the general public on the first Friday of each month as part of the Sharab project. All the different groups  are connected by Whatsapp group that unites them all, which is called "With my beauties in the Old City.” The Whatsapp group functions as a wide community space, where you can catch up on the various events going on and it is where some of the community's initiatives in the neighborhood started. One of the initiatives that was born there is the “Atkia LeHakir” (Ancient to Know) production group, which organizes festivals, parties and cultural events in the Old City, all on a voluntary basis and free of cost. Moshe, one of the group's founders, says it all began a little over three years ago. The members of the group wanted to continue to create more content. "The reactions were amazing; the neighborhood was completely lit up with lights and music."

Atika LeHakir, which currently operates under the auspices and sponsorship of the Eretz Yisrael association and works in collaboration with the municipality, has over the years become a refurbished production group that continues to organize diverse events in the Old City. They recently participated in a party production in the renewed artist district, together with Bona (another party production group operating in Beersheba), and helped run the “Exaggerated Fashion Show” event, which was held for the third year in a row under the initiative of Danny Roy Shapiro, a local actor. On December 26, they hosted the last event of 2019 called Petrichor including live performances in a variety of styles at the three major cultural centers in the neighborhood: Ashan HaZman, HaHalutz 33 and Fringe Theater.

Contrary to the feeling that is so easy to have in the university and its surroundings, that we, the students, are the source of most of the community initiatives and renewal in Be'er Sheva, the Old City proves otherwise. Most of the neighborhood residents are not students; some of them former students who chose to stay in the city, some of them residents of Be'er Sheva who grew up there, and some of them came to the city later for a variety of reasons. So, do we, the students, still have a place in all this, in the wonderland known as the Old City? Eyal, the initiator and producer of the Turkish House, a recently launched community venture aimed at providing a stage for local music, certainly says so. He emphasizes that the Turkish House is in a state of turmoil and urges the student community to participate in its work: "With the joining of people and volunteers from the community, it will be something above and beyond. I just give it a free hand, it is important because we want to encourage more creativity and less consumerism, it comes from a place of come be part of it, and we may also create something that more communicates to your content world. I think it's something that can work wonderfully."

Maria is a graduate student at Ben Gurion University who lives in neighborhood B, and proves that even students who do not live in the Old City can take the reins and become part of the developing community. She decided to take part in one of the most interesting initiatives in the landscape, and became a community manager at HaSalon. HaSalon is a local project that offers a cozy, collaborative work space that includes a central study room, fully equipped kitchen and yard, and serves as a community center in the evenings. "This cooperative is a joint business. It means we are responsible for this business together," she says. The idea grew out of a need from community members: "We realized that we are a lot of people working from home alone, or in cafes, which is very expensive and alienating. We wanted to create a space that allows work together. We created a community, both through the shared space we manage together and are responsible for, and through workshops and lectures." HaSalon operated for a year and a half as a pilot in varying locations, and last November was officially launched at our permanent residence on the HaMeyasdim Street. "One of the things I realized during my degree is that writing can be a very lonely operation, and this thing about doing it with other people in a shared atmosphere, in a place you know with people you know, has very much contributed to me in the writing and research process. I think this place can contribute to people who want to work, not just alone from home, but in a more communal setting."

Any of us who agree to board a vehicle, or, heaven forbid, a bus, and go far into the districts of the Old City, will find that behind the stone alleys is a world worth noting. Whether you come to study in a slightly different atmosphere in HaSalon, hear live music inside an apartment, or stroll through the artists' plaza, in the Old City you will find a vibrant community life and culture that is a unique alternative to student neighborhoods and even to cultural centers in the country.