Monday, August 31, 2009

Small is Beautiful: Life in a Small City, Tel Aviv

When it comes to size you can say "good things come in small packages" about Tel Aviv. I say this every time Tel Aviv is compared New York or London and someone writes to say that I am exaggerating just a bit (actually exaggerating in a big way). How can a city this small come close to the big cities? You can't even compare the variety in Tel Aviv to most big cities. How can you be a Jazz aficionado or a rock climber in Tel Aviv? Any night in Paris there are more Jazz performances than in a month of Tel Aviv. The same probably goes for Chicago, Atlanta or London. In Barcelona you can rock climb on your lunch break in the park, what say you Tel Avivian? (You can actually rock climb in Tel Aviv's Ha'yarkon park at your lunch hour).

Well, Tel Aviv is small, it is not going to have the scale of the big cities not any time soon. But what it lacks in size it makes up in other ways. That's the reason for the "good things..." quote. As small as Tel Aviv is, its cosmopolitan qualities are rarely found in cities five times the size. Some cities the size of Tel Aviv specialize. Midwestern cities in the US, Denver, Salt Lake City or Minneapolis tout their outdoor lifestyle and comfortable living. European cities have history and culture going back hundreds of years. Tel Aviv is a microcosm of culture, lifestyle, amenities and business all wrapped up in one small place. Tel Aviv claims the title the first truly Jewish city. The title is more nationalistic (Israeli) than cultural. Today's Israeli life is not necessarily Zionist or pioneering, its more than that. There are fifth generation Tel Avivians worried more about taxes and parking tickets than Jewish identity and homeland. Tel Aviv is also called the "white city", a reflection of dark streets lit by open cafes and bars. Restaurants are willing to stay open to the last customer and some do serve to the wee hours of the morning. But nights are not the only aspect of this city, days bring bustling streets buzzing with workers. The city is a business center during the day more than just a place to entertain at night.

But what makes the city unique is the mix of so many different areas Tel Aviv has great places to live as well as cheap hostels for travelers. There are jobs for waiters and short order cooks and billionaire Real Estate investors (Donald Trump was enticed to invest and lend his name on a high rise tower). There are international corporate branches from AIG and Motorola as well as small companies importing premium olive oil from Beit Jalla (a Palestinian town known for it's olives). Clubs and performance halls host small Jazz bands and world class symphony orchestras and dance troupes fill large halls. This mix of entertainment, services, businesses and culture flow in many directions. People from the world around are welcomed and seem to enjoy the nature of a city without a single image. A city which offer all the benefits of the world's big metropolises without the real size. So in fact it's true, Tel Aviv and the surrounding towns really are: "a good thing in a small package".

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Move Over Ricky: Livin' the Viva Loca in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv has a reputation for being a crazy party town. This is part urban legend part truth. As the summer winds down you can definitely feel the streets along the Mediterranean quieting down at night. In the past there were nights where the beach was filled with teenagers and 20-somethings doing just about anything. For the most part, the kids are tame, they don't even know how to be bad. There are the few wild ones, and they do kiss and tell. The strip of beach south of the opera building (Alemby Street) is know to be a hot 'making out' spot (AND more). If you are not privy to the inside scoop, an early morning walk on the beach has all the telltale signs of the nights activities (condom wrappers, vodka bottles, underwear). The bars in Tel Aviv and the surrounding towns (Holon, Bat Yam, Hertzelia) are also a great source of mythical tales; from dance floor craziness to bathroom sex. The stories about certain bars in the late 1990s to the early 2000s are not all made up. According to bartenders the stories are true. Crazy activities are definitely limited to certain bars. They occur in the late hours between 1:00AM and 4:00AM. The bars close to the beaches tend to be the most active and the ones toward the south are the wild ones. If you are looking for this kind of action ask around. There are still plenty of cafes and pubs to just drink and talk or even dance, so do not avoid Tel Aviv because of its wild reputation.

Tel Aviv's wild 'viva loca' reputation is a blessing and a curse blended together. A blessing in diluting the not so great tourist image. Tel Aviv is nice and has world class hotels and restaurants, but the image is not glitzy. It is not exotic or even peaceful sea side resort. City government have been trying to give Tel Aviv a better reputation with P/R and global advertisement campaigns (more in Europe than in American and Asia). This strategy is not working that well. It will probably take a great deal of time and money to overcome the current image. A curse in stereotyping the nightlife as wild parties which is not exactly good for the 'locals'. People who pay millions for an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean have a point when they can't sleep at night from noisy, smoky clubs next door. From the mid 1980's to about 2000 Tel Aviv somehow acquired the reputation of a haven for European gay vacationers. This reputation eventually became a reality and Tel Aviv did become a gay destination specially in the summer months and specially for young gays escaping the less liberal European cities. Today Tel Aviv is also considered Israel's gay haven. 20 somethings from all over Israel come to Tel Aviv to live and find company among the gay and lesbian community. The European gays are gone, probably they do just fine in other Mediterranean beaches.

On the positive side Tel Aviv does want to have a cosmopolitan image. When talking to people on the streets and in cafes you will often hear comparisons to New York and London. Tel Avivians want to feel as if they were living in a big metropolis, a world class city. A reputation of mixing business, commerce and entertainment is something Tel Aviv's image makers try to portray. Israel is surrounded by Islamic countries where the lifestyle does not come close to the one here. Tel Aviv also can portray itself as a well run, almost European city with freedoms and customs befitting the culture and business of globalization. This could make Tel Aviv the gateway to the Islamic world from a European and an Asian perspective. In this vain, Tel Aviv will have to change Israel's image of being regimented and militarily run. For long periods of time Israel was certainly patrolled by uniformed soldiers carrying anything from Uzis in the 1960's to M16s today. This is not the case in 2009 Tel Aviv. Gone are the days where you see soldiers patrolling streets, checking cars and ID cards. The only uniforms you see is of soldiers on vacation going home or 'jobniks' (non-combat unit soldiers) shopping at malls. But reputation is a tricky business, and hard to control. Maybe we need a home grown Ricky Martin to get the image up? Watching his videos gives anyone the feeling that life is one big party. What do you think?

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Monday, August 24, 2009

End of Summer - Hot and Slow - Economy Heats Up

Summer is at it's end. In Israel it is a quiet time. Kids are shopping for school supplies. Families are taking their last vacation, there is one full week for summer vacation (called here Ha'chofesh Ha'gadol - literally 'the big vacation'). The peak hot days of mid-August are over with. The tourists have mostly left so 'the natives' are out in bars and cafes. You can go back to sleeping with the windows open. If you plan to come to Tel Aviv in the summer this is probably the best time. There is still plenty of good beach days, now that mid-day peak temperature are bearable. So if you were thinking of coming for a visit, do so now.

Now for the economy. Do you remember the Clinton campaign slogan: it's the economy, stupid? In Israel now this seems to be the case. The Netanyahu administration seems to be completely ignoring other things. Rightly so. The Israeli economy did not heat up the last ten years like other world economies. Locally there was the Lebanon war, than the Hamas take over in Gaza. Economically the Israeli Real Estate market never had the bump up from increase credit. There was never an increase credit here, the banks are too conservatives for that. Israel also did not suffer the sub-prime crash and then financial crisis which followed. But we kind of feel that the market should be going up now. Which is quietly happening, but without international news coverage. Israel economy is too small to make the news. Also, people expect news of Israel to be either something with the Palestinians or a high tech genius making it good in silicon valley. The Shekel is up and not going down. Stanley Fischer's attempt at holding back the shekel's rise with $10 million per day purchase of US dollars has finally been declared a silly attempt at controlling the Israeli shekel's exchange rate. People are spending more overseas and buying dollars and euros. Inflation is up in real terms. In Tel Aviv and the surrounding areas property values are going up slightly. Rental prices go up first, they are more flexible. Home prices are holding flat but rumors of higher demand and inflation in building supplies and builder's salaries are starting to worry buyers. In addition, since Israeli real estate prices have not gone down and are expected to go up, builders and Realtors are pitching to foreign investors. Everyone is hoping to get a piece of the foreign pie, even if it is smaller now. There is also a slight rise in interest form French and British Jews who see investment in Israel as a way to show solidarity for Israel and get a good return. Well, as the air temperature drops the economic temperature raises. If you do not plan to come fore vacation, come to invest. Jump right in, the water's fine!

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Israeli Music Video: Her Morning Elegance: directed by Oren Lavie


This video was featured on Israeli TV yesterday for hitting 7 million views on YouTube. From youTube: For fun Facts about the video visit -
http://www.myspace.com/orenlavie

Oren Lavie music on iTunes-
http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZ...

Her Morning Elegance
Directed by: Oren Lavie, Yuval & Merav Nathan
Featuring: Shir Shomron
Photography: Eyal Landesman
Color: Todd Iorio at Resolution
© 2009 A Quarter Past Wonderful

"Her Morning Elegance" written and produced by Oren Lavie, from the Oren Lavie album The Opposite Side of the Sea
© 2009 A Quarter Past Wonderful/Adrenaline under license from Tuition Read More...


Pictures of Tel Aviv Skyline, August 2009

North view of Tel Aviv skyline. Reading power station smokestack on the left. Phoenix tower on Tel Aviv - Givatayim border in the center. Aviv tower in Ramat Gan (Elite crossing) on the right.

One sign of Israel's economic growth is the city's skyline literally rising from year to year. Tel Aviv commercial and residential real estate values have been rising steadily over the years. With little open space in the city center, the only place to go is up. Old buildings are demolished to make space for taller new buildings. Tel Aviv has a few signature buildings like the Azrieli center (3 buildings pictured below). Many of the new buildings are designed in traditional modern styles. Glass, aluminum and some stone is used in high rise buildings. The use of new materials in high rise office buildings is a skill Tel Aviv architects are known for. The graph in the bottom is Tel Aviv stock exchange 15 Real Estate index (NADLAN15). Notice the rise, fall and again rise of the index the last five years.


A top view of Azrieli towers. One triangle (left), one round and one square. Top of the square building housed the hotel Crown Plaza. The complex sits at the Ayalon highway and has a train station for easy access
Tel Aviv Real Estate 15 Index. The last five years the index has risen, fell and is rising again since mid-2008. The real estate companies have not enjoyed the stability of the actual market in Tel Aviv.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Unofficial Survey: Less Money Equals Higher Quality

Is this a philosophical question? Not really, it is a basic question we ask of ourselves when most big decisions are made. Somehow, with all the big events in the world, this question seem more relevant today. I wondered what Israelis feel with the global economic downturn, differences between Netanyahu's policies and a new American administration and the continuation of Ahmadinejad in Iran. The thinking goes that when the economy was strong people were more concerned about making money than enjoying life. Now that there is less business and fewer opportunities people would enjoy life more (other stressing events emphasize this more). Two friends just came back from the US reported on Americans also getting back to basics. Family, home, community, the basic things in life are back in focus. Here we see reports of bank failures and government bailouts - is America on a verge of a crash? Not so people say, the opposite, they are hustling for their next big-gig. So how do people really think and feel? Israel is different from the US in people's extremism. In the US to be extreme is considered good: the richest, smartest, first, fastest, most ambitious... not so in Israel. Here social culture is more communal: family, school class, neighborhood, army unit - the group and your belonging have higher value than individual qualities. At least that was the thinking for the last generation (50+ year olds). Israelis in their 20s to 40s seem to have taken on the American values and follow career and money. Some say it is just a lifestyle choice: an evening in the park with the kids or a plane ride to a far away hotel. But wait a minute, there are still strong signs of traditional family life here. So maybe the economic downturn is an opportunity to go back to basics?

I decided to look for signs of life in the family and quality of life front. An unofficial survey of friends indicates a return to home and family preference. People see their lives different from just a year ago (when world economy just started falling). If the slow economy started people feeling better about family, work conditions is what people really clinched it. People feel that work is too much of a burden, it takes too much time out of life. What people say is deceiving sometimes. Actions are usually a better indicator of changes in behavior. Are Israelis spending less time in bars and restaurants? Do they shop less in boutiques? Do they keep their cars and refrigerators a little longer? A walk in Tel Aviv parks during evening hours definitely reveals more families picnicking and kids playing. Restaurants and bars are visibly empty, just a year ago any good restaurant had a line. With cars you can tell things are bad, there have been more discount deals and large car billboard advertisements than ever before. In the papers there are articles comparing the features of new cars, but also articles about buyers waiting for the change in technology to hybrid or electricity. Once in a while you see a shiny Chrysler or Lexus on the road, they stick out so much, people stare as if the owners are shouting, I don't care about the economy, this was the deal of the decade. Never mind, some people need their shiny cars...

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Israel's Foreign Worker Dilemma: Economic Downturn Debate

The number of unemployed in Israel is flat or slightly down at 7.6% (1st quarter 2009) [228,000 out of 3.005 million workers, Israel Bureau of Statistics, 27/5/09]. Unemployed workers now outnumber the number of foreign workers. This puts pressure on the state to reduce the number of foreign workers. But some of the foreign worker are doing work Israeli natives are not willing to do. Still, out of approximately 200,000 registered foreign workers there must be some who can be replaced by Israelis. There are estimated 200,000 more unregistered illegal workers (some with expired permits some smuggled through Egypt and Jordan). The thinking now, while the economy is not creating enough jobs, first turns to these workers. The reduction of foreign workers in Israel started in mid-2008. The Olmert administration did not pay much attention to the details: what work needs to be done and by whom. They just cared about reducing the number of foreign workers, and as quickly as possible. A policy was formulated to reduce the foreign workers by half in one year (mid 2009) with focus on restaurant and services (i.e. cleaning), and agriculture (i.e. pickers and packers). The idea was to give Israelis a chance to take the jobs which will open up once foreign workers left. It has not worked very well, in some sectors it has not worked at all. The jobs in home care of old people, now done by young women from the Philippines and Thailand is attracting so few Israelis, training programs are no longer running. In agriculture the problem is even worst, farmers are already warning that some crops will simply disappear from store shelves. Some cash crops will not be exported any more. Even if Israeli workers start processing fruits and vegetables the cost of manufacturing will go up. In today's economic climate farmers will not be profitable or will lose their competitive pricing. This is the price we pay in hard economic times, some products simply are not viable. This means some workers are not needed.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Israel Radio: Gulf States Investing in Israel: Farmer's Loss is Arab's Gain?

Agriculture of past times; ארכיון קיבוץ עין השופט Kibbutz Ein Ha'shofet archives / CC2.5 / taken from 1939 to 1950 / link: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PikiWiki_Israel_2065_Agriculture%20in%20Israel_%D7%97%D7%A7%D7%9C%D7%90%D7%95%D7%AA%20%D7%A9%D7%9C%20%D7%A4%D7%A2%D7%9D.jpg

A report on Israel's radio this morning mentioned an interesting story. Gulf states investors are buying land in northern Israel. The sellers are Israeli farmers in economic dire straights and apparently the investors are individuals or organizations based in the gulf states (Kuwait, UAE, Dubai, Bahrain). Jewish agricultural land ownership in northern Israel go back more than fifty years, in some cases even a hundred years. These are private lands bought by European Jews just before and after the state was founded. The land was bought from Arab individuals for agricultural use and at the time (1900's to 1940's) the Zionist intention was to build communities based on farming. The idea of Jews farming was revolutionary a hundred years ago. The idea of farming in Israel was a European dream. In the diaspora Jews were not allowed to own land and eventually turned into urban dwellers. But all of that is old history.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Pictures of Tel Aviv at Night / Aug '09

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La Goffre: Belgian Waffles on Ibn Gvirol (Tel Aviv, Israel)

On hot August evenings Tel Avivians fill Iben Gvirol sidewalks. Cafes line up Iben Gvirol from Arlozorov to Ha'cheshmonaim. When the evening air cools down from mid day highs in the 90s°F to the mid 70s°, the sidewalks starts to fill up with couples and groups. Just across from Gan Ha'ir at 84 Iben Gvirol is La Goffre a small cafe-restaurant. The specialty here is Belgian waffles with a dozen sweet toppings (syrups, chocolates, fruit, ice cream and whipped cream). On the sidewalk wicker tables give an informal feeling, sometimes you just need a comfortable place you do not need to dress for. Ten tables are outside and six tables inside. On warm evenings when the traffic along the street slows down outside tables fill up first. So if you have a few friends who want to come out and enjoy something sweet and a cold drink (beer on tap and in bottles is served here) - come to the La Goffre. Tel: 03-5224040; e-Mail: mail@lagoffre.co.il; main location: Haifa: 1-700-550-850; additional locations in Modiin and Kfar Saba. Read More...


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Israel's Politicians and Bureaucrats

Politicians attract media like moths to light especially in Israel. But here the bureaucrats really run things. Bickering between the two fills newspaper pages. This is what Israelis really want to know and in all its gory details. Political aids moving to administrative positions make good stories. Bureaucrats holding back a big project like the new rail line to Jerusalem or the electric coal plant two years late in construction are even better. School budgets and the shameful state of affairs with the teachers are always good stories. Water issues and the 10 years of bickering over a desalination plant, which nobody really wants in their back yard (remember the American NIMBY movement?) [see existing plant] Israel's politicians are no different than most democratically elected officials, they boast and promise great things before elections. What happens once politicians are elected and they face the bureaucrats running the government? Well, we call it bureaucracy. Politicians complain, say that things could be better, that decisions and actions have to be made more quickly, that process (American investment lawyers call it 'due diligence') always hold back good plans. The bureaucrats are not phased by politician's promises without meaning, budgets and trade-offs. Following laws and regulations, assuring proper process, making sure the public's interest is taken care of that makes them happy.

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Pictures of Tel Aviv: Dizengoff Center Food Fair

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Real Estate Market Heating Up - Invest in Israel

Two weeks ago there was a real estate sales fair in the Tel Aviv fairgrounds. A building company was selling 200 apartments at 20% discount. The fair was reported in the news but not advertised to the general public. It was only for security system employees (IDF, IAI, IMI, etc.) - Why would a builder sell apartments to a special group and do it quickly?
In the Globes newspaper there is an advertisement for a "Israel's Luxury Real Estate and Investment Exhibition" (Sunday August 16, Dan Hotel Tel Aviv). Why would a group of builders and realtors take a day to show off their high-end products? There is a pattern of builders and realtors pushing buyers and make deals. The economy here is slow but has not been hit by the likes of the US sub-prime crash or the Wall Street financial troubles. There was a spurt of building management work for Israeli companies in eastern Europe and Africa during 2002 to 2005. The French bought apartments of speculation during the Paris riots. But the real estate sector in Israel has been on a snooze. Builders want to build but buyers are afraid.

Overall the Israeli economy has been puttering along. No ups and no downs in real terms. But the fear in the market is real. People still read newspapers and watch TV. The pictures of abandoned almost new houses in California and Bernie Madoff being lead by police does not make for a happy home buyer [NY Times]. But the reality on the street is different. Israel finally has quiet along it's borders. The military industries targeted by builders are selling drones at a good clip. High tech sector is not bleeding workers like in 2008 and some stocks are actually up. The Tel Aviv stock exchange is back from a fall at a valuation equal to pre-crash days. The IDF has the lowest number of soldiers deployed in the territories in 40 years. The Israeli Shekel is up and even Stanley Fischer can't get it down. All sounds like good news - RIGHT? RIGHT!

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Netanyahu Pushes for Land Reform - Privatization for the People

Residential and commercial buildings in Israel are all built on leased land. This is going to change for the first time in 100+ years (N. Tel Aviv apartment buildings / © 2009)

Last week the Israeli Knesset voted to approve a land reform act. The law changes an old practice which the state owned the land in Israel. Most of the land in Israel was bought by the Jewish National Fund or appropriated by the state. Very little was transferred to individuals or organizations, today all state land is leased out to individuals and organizations. The law enables the state of Israel to sell 5% of the land to individuals, companies and organizations. For the first time in many parts of the country individuals will be able to own the land their homes or apartments sit on. The driving force here is the difficulty of having any building improvement approved by the Israel Land Trust (Minhal Mekarke'ei Israel), a government agency managing the land and leases. It will also ease new construction specially commercial and industrial construction in none urban locations. Strictly speaking any major changes to building on Israel state land needs the government's approval. The joke goes that to have a balcony closed you need to wait two years and even then you will not have your plan approved as you wanted. New construction approval is so difficult it has become a political game. Only large companies have been able to build regularly and in any significant scale.[see Ha'aretz]

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