Yesterday I ventured to the city of Petah Tikva in the center of Israel to visit two shelters for victims of human trafficking in Israel, one for men and one for women. When I mentioned to an Israeli friend that I was going to Petah Tikva for the day, he said that the name “Petah Tikva” (Opening of Hope) is ironic because it’s a place with very little hope; this combined with my mission to meet trafficking victims at a shelter meant that I had relatively low expectations for my happiness level that day.
Petah Tikva is a city of over 200,000 residents with large populations of Ethiopian and Russian immigrants. Despite playing host to the headquarters of many large hi-tech companies in Israel, Petah Tikva still has a reputation for being a mostly dreary, working-class city. Due to an unfortunate series of events involving a missed bus connection and some misinformation about which public buses go to which parts of the city, my coworker and I found ourselves late for our meeting and on the wrong side of town. After looking at my phone’s map (what did we ever do before iPhones and 3G?), we chose not to risk another foray in to public transportation. Instead, we decided to do the 2 mile walk from the bus station to the shelter on foot, which took us down one of the main thoroughfares of the city and right through the heart of Petah Tikva. In the spirit of going with the flow and learning from unexpected experiences, I decided to look at the walk not as a frustration but an opportunity to explore a part of Israel I would never have visited on my own.
I remember as a child feeling quite charmed by CowParade, the installation of cow sculptures that took over Chicago in 1999; I think CowParade sparked my interest and involvement in projects that improve the visual appeal of spaces. I love volunteering on projects that involve repainting run-down buildings, and one of my favorite aspects of the Habitat for Humanity builds I have worked on was always the attention to detail that went in to decorative touches like painting walls and finishing wood. In several of my visual studies classes in college, I studied the effect of visual perceptions on mood. This interest and belief in the power of visually pleasing stimulants to create a more positive feeling in an area or a person, combined with my interest in poverty reduction in urban zones, makes me a big believer in municipal art instillations.
About a block in to our walk, I had to stop breathing through my nose due to an onslaught of various scents (mostly unpleasant trash and human waste-type smells occasionally punctuated by the strong waft of falafel frying in oil). Instead, I honed in on my other senses. The sound of incessant honking and screaming and cat screeching were typical Israel, but I was immediately surprised by the visual pleasures of Petah Tikva. I will not pretend that it is an architecturally stunning city- mostly just communist-esqe, slightly rundown buildings.
Those who see my frequent photo uploads to Facebook know that I love graffiti art (perhaps soon I will do a post on some of the best graffiti murals and paintings I have found). Therefore, I was disappointed on my “walking tour of Petah Tikva” to see that there was very little graffiti art, or graffiti of any kind, on the otherwise blah walls of the buildings we passed. However, the municipality has obviously made a concerted effort to inject a high volume of good-quality municipal art in to the city. My first visual delight came when we passed an authentic looking London telephone booth in the middle of the sidewalk. The old-fashioned red booth was so out context with the dirty beige walls of the stalls on the street that I made my coworker stop so I could take a picture.
As we continued to walk, I quickly realized that the booth was not a one-off occurrence, but part of a series of European-looking artistic installations. There were several more British phone booths, a number of mosaic-tiled benches and garbage cans that were highly reminiscent of Park Guell in Barcelona, a contemporary metal fountain that reminded me of Dublin, and a variety of larger-than-life sculptures including cows (CowParade!) and a jack-in-the-box type sculpture. These installations continued for many blocks through the center of the city, and clearly contrasted the uniform and colorless buildings lining the street. In some ways these pieces of art were a visually jarring sight compared to the uniformity of the rest of the urban scene. However, my co-worker and I both commented that the area with the sculptures felt much nicer than a few blocks beforehand where there had been no art.
Clearly, the municipality of Petah Tikva is invested in improving the city and the feeling it gives to those walking around it. I really appreciate these types of investments in urban spaces, and I am pleased to report that I had a much more enjoyable day in Petah Tikva than originally anticipated. Thanks to a few pieces of art, I am willing to say that Petah Tikva may indeed still be a city for hope.