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Jewish Social Studies 7.2 (2001) 1-38

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Tel Aviv's Rothschild: When a Boulevard Becomes a Monument

Barbara Mann


The name of a city's streets and squares, the gaps in its very plan and physical form, its local monuments and celebrations, remain as traces and ruins of their former selves. They are tokens or hieroglyphs from the past to be literally reread, reanalyzed, and reworked over time. Images that arise from particular historic circumstances come to define our sense of tradition; they literally manage our knowledge of the historic.

--M. Christine Boyer, The City of Collective Memory 1

The accuracy of M. Christine Boyer's observation regarding the way historical tradition is imprinted upon urban space depends, to a large degree, on the experience of the city's residents. Beyond the more explicitly historical sites such as museums, monuments, or specially designated municipal sites, the inscription of history on the plane of the city is neither self-evident nor predictable. Even the reception of these civically sanctioned sites is subject to multiple interpretation. At a minimum, we can say that an individual's memories may be linked more or less strongly to specific sites--a street, a park, a café. Certain kinds of larger, more collective memories may be associated with the unique geographic features of any given city--a [End Page 1] river or the seashore, for example--or with constructed sites also particular to that city--a central public park, a landmark building, even a main thoroughfare. New York's Hudson River or Berlin's Unter den Linden are examples of loosely regulated public sites that have become thoroughly enmeshed in the main themes of their cities' pasts, and they are featured as such in cultural representations of the city.

A text seeking to describe the city may draw on depictions of these sites as part of a larger reservoir of images that seem mythic in their ability to encapsulate the city's essence. The repeated evocation of such a site, whether in literature, fine arts, or even touristic depictions of the city, furthers the site's monumental character, often without any relation to the site's actual history or to its contemporary significance within the city. These texts, however, should be examined as critically as the "tokens and hieroglyphs" in the city's streets; a careful reading of canonical images of the site, as well as the site itself vis-à-vis the evolving plane of the city, will reveal the process through which the site and its significance have become instantiated in the city's collective memory.

Details at the level of the street are one of the ways in which urban space is produced and experienced. 2 Against the background of major movements and events, of landmarks and loud voices, quotidian detail determines the pattern of the everyday and thus constitutes a kind of history, in the sense described by Roland Barthes in his critique of the Blue Guide, the classic guide to French landscape. Barthes notes that "to select only monuments suppresses at one stroke the reality of the land, and that of its people, it accounts for nothing of the present, that is, nothing historical." 3 In this article, I seek to inject some aspect of the "historical" into a reading of Tel Aviv's pre-urban nucleus, the neighborhood of Ahuzat Bayit, especially the central thoroughfare of Rothschild Boulevard. By "historical" I mean a sense of argument and competing visions of the boulevard as a foundational site in the city's past. The concepts of "boulevard" and "monument" provide poles around which I construct a provisional descriptive poetics of the city-- the monument referring to the grand narrative of Tel Aviv's origins, the boulevard referring to the revelation of difference and quotidian detail.

IMAGE LINK=Urban landscape historian Dolores Hayden argues that "the production of spaces begins as soon as indigenous residents locate themselves in a particular landscape and begin the search for subsistence." 4 I would add that the production of stories explaining these spaces begins just as quickly...


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