Pink, green, orange and blue plastic chairs permeate the intersection between HaShuk and Levinsky streets. Dozens of 20-somethings recline into them, nestled into this corner of Florentin, a southern Tel Aviv neighborhood that remains a cradle for conversations and socializing deep into the autumn months.
Wine bottles—many at least half-empty—are littered around the legs of the colorful chairs and the people who have claimed them.
A melody from a live trumpet player drifts into the scene from somewhere deeper in Florentin, a solo reminder of the artistic soul of this neighborhood.
When the Covid-19 pandemic began in mid-March, the Israeli government was quick to enforce a national lockdown. Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Health Ministry enforced a limit on the distance and purpose for which Israelis could leave their homes.
After successfully minimizing the number of cases and deaths during the early months of the pandemic, the government slowly allowed cities and communities around the country to re-open.
Despite the early success, however, a second strict lockdown was imposed in mid-September to control the rising number of cases that followed the reopening of businesses and schools.
Florentin, known for its young and vibrant population, is bustling with restaurants, bars and clothing shops. The colorful and often political street art provides a backdrop for people walking to a local shawarma shop, Teder Beer Garden or an art gallery full of locals’ art.
Hugs and waves
Benny Briga is quite familiar with the vibrancy of Florentin, the neighborhood home to his café, Café Levinsky 41.
Briga has owned and operated this small hub of food and drink for the past eight years and has become a well-known character of the surrounding streets.
As residents stroll down Levinsky Street, many stop to greet Briga with a hug or friendly wave. A few individuals exchange kind words with him, chatting about their personal lives or remarking on the state of the pandemic.
It is evident that Briga, with hair that reaches down his back and a seemingly permanent smile, is more than familiar with the soul of Florentin.
“When we opened, we were alone,” Briga remarks, “and then something started changing. Then we became a beautiful neighborhood.”
Briga recounts how the neighborhood became filled with life as the price of housing and living in central Tel Aviv rose, along with its population size. Young people moving to the city had to expand into the South which, at the time, was a quiet neighborhood lacking the youth and buzz for which it’s known today.
In seeking cheaper costs of living in Florentin, young people molded the neighborhood into what it is today.
“A lot of Israel came to see the beauty, to be free on the streets,” says Briga when discussing how the neighborhood has changed since Covid-19 struck.
Unlike many parts of Tel Aviv that grew quieter during the lockdown, Florentin managed to maintain its usual energy and even attract outsiders because of it.
While shops and dining options shut down following the restrictions of the lockdown, the streets remained ablaze with lively conversations, music performances, and even protests.
Always changing and different
I am an American teenager who recently moved into the neighborhood on a gap-year program, so I’ve gotten to know Florentin more through its people than its usual commercial attractions.
Without ever having seen the people of Florentin in a non-pandemic world, I immediately recognized their adaptability.
From the couples drinking wine on their balcony as the sun sets, to the chefs preparing food that will soon be whisked off by a Wolt driver, my newfound neighbors have gotten creative with how they continue to live.
In this way, the people of Florentin are similar to Briga’s recipes for gazoz (a traditional Israeli fizzy), which he describes as “always changing and always different.”
Like Briga’s gazoz, Florentin is a dynamic collection of people and destinations, adapting to the climate and circumstances of the surrounding world.
The true magic of Florentin can be found in the neighborhood’s ability not only to survive, but to continue to live.
With a newfound sense of caution and care, Florentin navigates a world-altering obstacle with grace and joy.