Every major city has its river and even in arid climates one can find seasonal waterways flowing between buildings and beneath the streets. In Israel’s largest and most populated city, the Ayalon River lends its name to a highway. Motorists traveling on it do not see the stream encased in concrete in its middle. Train passengers hardly take note of it.
During the brief winter rains however, the river has on occasion overflowed its banks, paralyzing the highway and railway that have trapped it in a culvert. A rare example of open space in a tight city, its future is the subject of a fierce debate among planners.
As it Was
In this 1958 map of Tel Aviv-Yafo by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the river flows between Tel Aviv and the cities of Givataim, Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak to its east. All four of these cities were developed during the British Mandate of Palestine and collectively known as Gush Dan, or Dan bloc after the biblical tribe that had claim to this area.
In an impractical arrangement resembling many American cities, early Tel Aviv had two separate train stations, Central Station and South Station. Train passengers coming from the north bound for Jerusalem or Ashkelon had to take a bus or taxi between these stations to continue their trip.
The river originates in the Judean Hills to the north of Givat Ze’ev, collecting from other tributaries. Leaving the hills, it flows though the Ayalon Valley, which is mentioned by Joshua, Samuel, Pharaoh Shoshenq I, and Chronicles.
It drains into the Yarkon River a mile shy of the Mediterranean Sea. The Yarkon (al-Auja) also appears throughout Scripture. In contrast to the Ayalon it is lined with parkland and trails for nearly all of its length.
Before Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv was founded on April 11, 1909 when 66 Jewish families gathered on a sand dune north of Jaffa to parcel out the land by lottery using seashells. On the 1912 Wagner & Debes map of the area, the dunes line the seashore while ancient Jaffa is ringed by orchards. Three roads dating to the biblical period link the city with Nablus, Jerusalem, and Gaza.
The Ayalon appears on the eastern edge of the map as Wadi el-Musrara, its Arabic name. The “Temple Colony Sarona” was a German Protestant settlement, one of six communities founded by the Temple Society in the last half century of Turkish rule in Palestine.
To its south, the French-based Alliance Israelite had purchased land for agriculture in order to generate food and revenue for recent Jewish settlers in the region. Whether the orchards were Jewish, Arab, or German, they were famous for their Jaffa oranges.
As the city expanded following independence in 1948, the gap between the two railway terminals brought focus to the Ayalon River as a link between them. A dry riverbed in the summer, it caused flash floods during the rainy months and neighborhoods along its banks sought to tame the river. In the 1970s, the state of Israel did just that proposing a three-in-one solution that confined the Ayalon to a concrete embankment that served as a median for the Ayalon Highway. Railroad tracks connecting the northern and southern sections of the city were completed in 1993.
Nature reminds us
Twice since the completion of the highway the Ayalon had jumped its banks, forcing the highway and railroad to close in 1991-1992 and in January 2013, transforming the flow of vehicles into a cocoa-colored current speeding towards the sea.
Landfill into Park
At the river’s entry into Tel Aviv, just before it begins to follow the highway, it passes by the former Hiriya Landfill, which collected the city’s trash from 1952 through 1998. Like the former landfills of New York City, Hiriya was subsequently designated as a park. Among the items addressed in the park’s international design competition was preventing the 80-meter mound from sliding into the Ayalon basin.
The winning proposal by Peter Latz envisioned the Ayalon River as a “wild wadi” with lakes, grassland, and meanders. At the river’s exit from the park, a dam was built to hold back the water in the park’s constructed valley to prevent its urban section from overflowing its banks.
At the height of the rainy season, the Ayalon fills up much of the park, giving its signature mound the appearance of an island. Keeping its trashy history in mind, the park has a recycling center and extraction of methane from the landfill. Named after Israel’s legendary general and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, this park is three times the size of New York’s Central Park. Its summit offers a panoramic view of central Tel Aviv atop the otherwise flat coastal plain.
“High Line” for Ayalon
Within its urban section, there is a proposal by the city to encase it entirely in a culvert, along with the highway and railway, with a linear park atop this cover. The decking of highways with parks on top has many examples around the world, transforming empty space into a public amenity. Here in New York, examples of railway trenches decked with parks include Manhattan’s Park Avenue and Riverside Park.
The plan has been approved in July 2015 by the Tel Aviv Local Planning and Building Commission, an early step in the process. On one hand, the crowded city deserves a park that would unite neighborhoods separated by the highway, but on the other hand is there another way to do it, where the river does not disappear from public view? The Haifa-based OGE Creative Group has a novel solution: decorate the concrete embankment with street art and install pontoons on the water that would rise and descend with the river.
Any city can build a linear park atop a rail line or highway and call it a High Line but by its definition, the High Line isn’t just a path with benches and shrubbery, it is a one of a kind example of postmodern landscape architecture. By Middle Eastern standards, Tel Aviv is an infant but it revels in its youth with unique architectural elements such as a district of Bauhaus structures that earned it the nickname White City and a designation in 2003 by UNESCO, which is usually an Israelophobic organization.
The design that will in the end become the Ayalon linear park, it will come to define 21st century Tel Aviv. As the Holy Land inspires western religions and as early Tel Aviv inspired modernist architects, I hope to see the Ayalon redesign as an inspiration for urban planners to think creatively about transportation, public space, history and the connection between a city and its river. Although it is no friend of Israel, Saudi Arabia offers a good example of a usually dry urban riverbed transformed into a park in Wadi Hanifa. Likewise, the trail along Las Vegas Wash is another example of a riverbed used as a linear park.
What will be a city park could have national and perhaps international significance.
Author Talk at King Manor Museum
Yesterday’s author talk at King Manor Museum was a positive event that brought together many park supporters, museum visitors, bikeway advocate Daniel Solow, authors Carl Ballenas and Vivian Rattay Carter, Councilman Rory Lancman, and Queens tour operator Richard Mumith, among others.
I look forward to my next author talk on May 12 at the Douglaston-Little Neck Historical Society, where I will discuss the streams of northeast Queens such as Alley Pond, Udalls Cove, Oakland Lake and Golden Pond. I hope to see you there. Signed books will be available.
In the News:
The Record reports that Kinellon, New Jersey seeks to acquire New Pond to reserve it from development.
Lubbock-Avalanche Journal reports that Texas Parks and Wilflife awarded a grant to Plainview to develop a park around Travis Trussell Pond.
Dover Post reports that Mallard Pond Park in Dover, Delaware will be receiving a redesign.