On Track With The New Jerusalem
Wed, 07/24/2013
Israel Correspondent
The refurbished First Station site features restaurants and shops. Michele Chabin
The refurbished First Station site features restaurants and shops. Michele Chabin

Jerusalem’s First Station (HaTachana, or The Station, in Hebrew) one of the changing city’s newest attractions, just turned 120 this year, but its smart new look, trendy shops and daily events have transformed it from an abandoned skeleton into a place where young, and young-at-heart, locals as well as tourists, come to decompress.  

The Station and its wide plaza, once the city’s hub for rail traffic from all over the country and, until recently, just another example of urban neglect, has been refurbished and expanded.

The building’s period architecture has been carefully preserved, and so has a section of the station’s original railroad tracks. Following a campaign by local residents, another, much longer section of the train tracks was recently turned into an ultra-popular walking/bicycle trail that originates at The Station.   

The refurbished venue is full of nostalgia for older Israelis, some of whom once travelled from the Station to points north and even Damascus.

“That used to be where we would buy tickets,” said Jerusalem-born Shlomo Levi, 59, pointing to the modern Visitors Center on the newly refinished wooden platform.

Visiting Jerusalem from Finland, where he now makes his home, Levi gazed at customers enjoying a late-night meal.

“There were benches there that I’d sit on with my parents and wait for the train to take us to Nachsholim, all the way up the coast just below Zichron Yaakov,” Levi said, referring to two beaches up north. “Look how busy it is.” 

Though some of the stores and restaurants have yet to open, there is enough food, drink and entertainment to make the trip worthwhile. Visitors can stroll into one of the boutique shops, view the multimedia exhibits and art installations, or buy items at more than two dozen quaint stands selling Israeli-made crafts and ceramics, kids’ clothes, gifts, jewelry, books and fabrics.

It’s especially crowded on Thursdays and Fridays, when visitors come to buy fresh produce, baked goods and wines directly from the growers and manufacturers.

“I like the open atmosphere here,” says Laurie Goldberg from St. Louis, on her third visit to The Station in a month. “I especially loved coming here on Friday, to the musical Kabbalat Shabbat. It was beautiful,” she said of the lively musical performance that, in the summer, takes place a couple of hours before candlelighting,

Goldberg, who lived in Jerusalem until two-and-a-half years ago, said she appreciated seeing Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, all enjoying themselves.

“There are people from so many different walks of life. The atmosphere is non-judgemental and that’s something you don’t find everywhere in Jerusalem.”

The Station project is just one example of efforts by Jerusalem officials to create a more progressive, post-intifada Jerusalem. Other examples include the Mamilla shopping promenade, which transformed the abandoned buildings alongside the Old City into an upscale, open-air mall, and the forthcoming Cinema City, a 15-screen cinema complex that is scheduled to be built across from the Supreme Court.

The Station’s management has made a great deal of effort to provide a street fair environment seven days a week, with special events scheduled each month. In June, it played host to the city’s first international Formula 1 Road Show. This month features a model train display for train enthusiasts. In August, visitors will be able to ride in a helium balloon that affords a view of the city from 500 feet.

At the moment, the Station offers just a few restaurants and cafés, including Italian-Mediterranean style Landwer Café, open seven days a week, and Hamiznon Kitchen Station, a kosher dairy restaurant closed on Shabbat and holidays. Re:bar offers a wide variety of healthy drinks, shakes and yogurts, while Vaniglia sells two dozen flavors of ice cream. 

One store that is always packed is Gaya, where young and old can test their mental dexterity against one of the store’s dozens of wooden puzzles (or buy one and take it home). 

There are many free events, including yoga classes, concerts and the child-friendly Kid Space, where kids can blow huge soap bubbles, play with wooden trains, oversized blocks and Tinkertoys or just run around and have fun.

Once you’ve experience the Station, cycle or stroll down the well-lit, well-paved rail trail that ambles through the German Colony, Baka and Beit Safafa and links the Station to Jerusalem’s sports center at Teddy Stadium, the Jerusalem intercity rail station, and the Malcha shopping mall.   

No bike? No problem. You can always rent one from Smart Tour at the Visitors Center, which offers regular, tandem or electronic bikes (helmet included!). You can even rent a Segway if that’s your speed.

Marilyn Behar, who was visiting the Station for the second time, said her two toddlers love the sense of freedom. “The kids can be free to run around here because there are no cars,” she noted.

But it isn’t just the safe space that brought her back. She and her husband, both secular Jerusalemites, said there aren’t enough places in Jerusalem that are open on Shabbat. “We want Jerusalem to keep its traditional identity, but we also want the city to promote equality,” she said.

Benny and Sveta, a young secular couple enjoying a beer at the Habutkah kiosk, also expressed their appreciation. “It’s great to come here on Shabbat because there’s life here.”

Laurie Goldberg agreed that Jerusalem “is much more alive than when I lived here. There are more things to do now.  It’s a more interesting place to live.”

The Station is located at the corner of Rehov Devid Remez, just across the street from the Liberty Bell Park (another great place to bring the kids). It’s close to the city’s major hotels, restaurants and theaters and just a 20-minute walk to the Old City. Parking is available at the Train Station parking lot and the Liberty Bell Park parking lot ◆