The White Elephant of Tel Aviv

Roman Mars: This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars: By all accounts. If you’ve ever taken a bus to or from Tel Aviv’s new Central Bus Station, you’ve never forgotten the experience.

Mishy Harman: It’s one of the most bizarre and magical and disgusting and enchanting places you can imagine.

Roman Mars: This is Mishy Harman of the radio show and podcast ‘Israel Story’, talking about the unforgettable, ramshackle massive bus station known as “the city under a roof”.

Mishy Harman: It’s dirty and smelly and feels depressing, deserted, but at the same time, it’s colorful and full of life. The station houses, vendors, foreign workers, and refugees from all over the world. On the fourth floor in what’s called Manila Avenue. You can stuff yourself with homemade pan-fried lumpia that Filipino caregivers sell on their day off. If you turn the corner, an old-timer, my drag you into the myths of the synagogue after which you can meander past tattoo parlors, churches, the free STD clinic, Eritrean brides getting their hair braided, the Israeli-Filipino matchmaking agency, French theater spaces, and end up at a giant Yiddish book library.

Roman Mars: For about 20 years until the year 2010, Tel Aviv’s new central bus station was the largest in the world. This isn’t a city whose population just barely reached 400,000 people during this time.

Mishy Harman: The bus station is dizzying. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to get lost there.

Roman Mars: All attempts at designing proper wayfinding have failed miserably.

Mishy Harman: But what’s probably most interesting about the new central bus station in Tel Aviv is that it’s sort of a layered fossil of the history of Israel.

Roman Mars: If archeologists were to excavate through the layers, they’d find remnants of every phase in the short story of this date from independence, through postwar euphoria to recession and westernization, they’d be able to trace the waves of immigration to Israel from Europe and North Africa. So in many ways, the story of Tel Aviv’s new central bus station is the story of Israel. And this story of Israel as told through this bus station is going to be told to us by Yochai Maital from the brilliant radio program, ‘Israel Story’.

Ilan: There isn’t a single thing I like about this station. Everything here is worthless. Believe me, I’m here cause I have no other choice.

Yochai Maital: That’s Ilan. He bought a store in Tel Aviv’s new central bus station in the early nineties even before it opened. He dreamt of eventually passing it on to his children.

Ilan: I bought it as an investment 20 years ago. Now I’m stuck here. No matter what happens, I’m stuck paying taxes, utility bills, office fees. This place ruined me.

Yochai Maital: Ilan’s store has been closed for years because no one hangs out anymore at the far end of the fourth floor where a huge supermarket used to stand, and Ilan is just one of hundreds of vendors who paid good money to purchase a store here and who are today stuck with a property that’s worth absolutely nothing.

Yochai Maital: I met Ilan in a section of the station called the ‘Ramlod Market,’ on the third floor. He was moonlighting selling baby clothes to Eritrean refugees at a friend’s stall trying to make up for the lost income from his out of business shop. Most of the stalls around him are abandoned. Old newspapers are glued to the display windows of nearby storefronts.
If you come close, you can make out headlines about the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster or the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. The ceilings are covered with black soot, bored peddlers anxiously smoked cigarettes right underneath an old sign that says ‘no smoking’ and the smell of nicotine blends into the stench of urine, sweat and diesel fumes. What can I say? It’s depressing to hang out with the vendors at the HaTahana HaMerkazit HaHadasha, Tel Aviv’s new central bus station.

Yochai Maital: The structure itself is terribly confusing and that’s no coincidence. It was designed to make people get lost. The labyrinth, it was coined by the station’s chief architect Ram Karmi.

Rivka Karmi: And in a labyrinth, you get lost. You know how you get in, but you have no idea how you get out or even if you get out.

Yochai Maital: That’s Rivka Karmi.

Rivka Karmi: I am an architect and I am the widow of Ram Karmi. Rami always said that a good city is a city you get lost in. And he imagined the central bus station as a city under a roof. So if it is a city under a roof, why shouldn’t we get a little bit lost inside?

Yochai Maital: So in order to help me get lost in an, I dunno, a slightly more organized fashion, I teamed up with an energetic architectural duo.

Talia Davidi: Hi, I’m Talia Davidi.

Elad Horn: My name is Elad Horn. I’m an architect from Israel.

Talia Davidi: I’m an Israeli architect as well. And I’m currently a master’s student at the Architectural Association in London.

Elad Horn: I just graduated from the master’s school of design in Harvard, and I’ve been investigating researching the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv with Talia for many years.

Talia Davidi: The whole research of the central bus station started when we had to reorganize the Ram Karmi’s archive. And while going through loads of dusty documents and plans, we found amazing materials dated from the sixties and seventies about the Central Bus Station.

Elad Horn: We knew the station pretty well even before and we knew what everybody thinks about the station, how complicated the building is. But then we saw these drawings and there were like really beautiful actually.

Yochai Maital: The drawings are indeed beautiful. They’re sweeping lines and huge glass skylights but few people see much beauty in the building as it stands today. Talia and Elad are exceptions.

Talia Davidi: It’s really hard to describe it without getting lost in these weird dark alleys where you really don’t have anybody around you.

Elad Horn: Almost half of it is underneath the street level, so it is dark, really dark actually, and airless.

Talia Davidi: In a way, it’s like a dark amusement park. You’re actually afraid on one hand, and on the other hand, having like the most exciting environment around you with people from all around the world, super colorful.

Elad Horn: I would say it’s a multisensorial place.

Talia Davidi: It allows almost anything or everything to happen in.

Elad Horn: The biggest question that we asked ourselves is what rent wrong actually. So we go there and try to find the answer for that.

Yochai Maital: They took me around this magical multisensorial dark amusement park of theirs. At some point, they led me down to the abandoned first floor, then up a narrow ramp, and through a creaky side door. I looked around and realized we were in the lobby of a deserted movie theater.

Talia Davidi: So we’re actually 15 meters below ground level here in what was the Grand Cinema. There were six movie theaters here with amazing names like John Wayne, Everest, Gandhi.

Yochai Maital: Even though it’s been more than 15 years since the credits rolled on the last movie played here, the theaters are still in great shape. The walls are covered with posters of films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Titanic’. The acoustics remain excellent and the cushions of the red velvet seats are still pretty comfy. This forgotten glamour is testimony to the big hopes this station embodied in its early days. The planner’s original idea was that passengers would pop in and catch a movie as they waited for the bus but that never happened and the cinema closed down just a few years after it opened.

Talia Davidi: Today. As you can see, it’s completely abandoned.

Elad Horn: Yep. That’s it. Time stood still here.

Yochai Maital: The new central bus station opened his doors to the public in the summer of 1993. After nearly three decades of planning, it was shiny and new and exciting. But then in just a few short years, it became the grimiest place in town. So how does a place go from such splendor to such neglect in so short a period.

Sharon Rotbard: Sharon Rotbard. I’m an architect, a writer, publisher, and teacher.

Yochai Maital: Who lives right near the station.

Sharon Rotbard: 300 meters.

Yochai Maital: Thinks that in order to answer this question, we need to go all the way back to the days before the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Sharon Rotbard: Oh, we should talk about the land the central bus station was built on and this land belonged to Arabs from Jaffa. It used to be an orange grove.

Yochai Maital: This man grew up on the outskirts of that growth. He remembers it well.

Pinchas Abramov: Of course, it was called Abed’s Grove. We used to sneak in underneath the fence of, steal some oranges, and then run away.

Yochai Maital: Following the War of Independence, most of these citrus groves in the area between Jaffa and Tel Aviv were abandoned/deserted/confiscated, depending on your political point of view. In any event, the state took over the land and Jews started moving in. This man’s home stood exactly where the new central bus station is situated today.

Pinchas Abramov: My house was a special house, right on the corner of Lavinsky street, the second house from the corner. On the second floor, there was this big wall which had a mural of the Sea of Galilee with a fisherman fishing. It was really some sight. Beautiful house. What a house.

Yochai Maital: Initially the government wanted to expand a nearby neighborhood by the name of Neve Sha’anan but as always, the plans were delayed and stalled till they were forgotten altogether. So instead of a brand new residential neighborhood, a favela of sorts started to develop there. A slum of tents, sheds and warehouses. Meanwhile, in a better part of town, lived a man called Aryeh Pilz.

Elad Horn: He was an immigrant coming from Poland in the 30s and he opened up Café Pilz which was a really famous coffee shop on the seaside of Tel Aviv.

Yochai Maital: Café Pilz was the swankiest joint in town. Senior British officers came to relax over a dry martini. Elegant waiters and long tails and a bow tie would walk around serving coq au vin, steak bearnaise and an orchestra played the latest hits in the background. And as he spent his days sitting in his cafe smoking his cigars, Pilz couldn’t help notice the construction frenzy going on all around it.

Promotional Film: “Tel Aviv is bursting with life by now.”

Yochai Maital: This is a promotional film of Tel Aviv from the late fifties.

Promotional Film: “300,000 people arrive in our town every day. Although Jerusalem is our capital, Tel Aviv is the center of industry. Once I saw a picture of New York. Well, Tel Aviv is almost the same. Apart from the fact, of course, that we haven’t got skyscrapers, yet.

Yochai Maital: Tel Aviv was humming and Pilz, a tireless entrepreneur, spotted real estate opportunities everywhere. So he purchased the old orange grove-turned-slum from the Jewish National Fund. But then there was the problem of the squatters, like Pinchas.

Pinchas Abramov: Pilz showed up and wanted us out.

Yochai Maital: Gradually, he bought them all out, brought in tractors and raise the sheds to create one giant plot of land. The location wasn’t ideal. Across the street was Neve Sha’anan – a densely populated, low-income neighborhood – and in the middle of Neve Sha’anan stood Tel Aviv’s main bus station, the old central bus station. Every day dozens and dozens of buses zigzag through the neighborhood’s narrow streets and as often happens, this contributed to the area’s decline into a hub of crime and poverty. It was clear to the municipal planners that something wasn’t working.

Elad Horn: They wanted to move the station to another place while they renovate and open up the old one. So Pilz, who was a really clever guy, just came out to the municipality and told them, ‘Wait a minute, why would you move the bus station and then bring it back? Just keep it where it is. Well, I will build you a new one’.

Yochai Maital: And Pilz had big dreams. He was going to finance the building of the new bus station. By making it part of a huge mall.

Sharon Rotbard: It was meant to be the largest bus station in the world when it was conceived.

Yochai Maital: Israel is still a small country with a population of just over 2 million. So as you might imagine, lots of people thought the idea was absolutely insane, but Piltz was charismatic. And even more importantly, he knew all the right people. So he managed to persuade the folks at City Hall and with their approval, he approached a 33-year-old architect, Ram Karmi.

Talia Davidi: And Pilz said to him, ‘Rami, build me a central bus station’. Karmi’s first proposal was relatively simple. The idea was that the station’s lower lever would be similar to a train station in the sense that the buses would pass right through it. On top of that, they would be apartments, hotels, offices, and in the center, there would be a big park, which would actually sit on the station’s roof.

Elad Horn: From there on, it only went downhill.

Yochai Maital: Pretty quickly issues arose with Karmi’s plan. Egged and Dan, the two rival bus companies who had to become stakeholders in the project, were furious when they realized they would have to share a floor. Not a problem, said the developers. We’ll put the bus companies on separate levels.

Talia Davidi: Karmi had the brilliant idea, dividing the transportation between the first and the sixth floor.

Yochai Maital: The Dan city buses would stop on the first floor and Egged’s inter-city buses would leave from a platform all the way up on the sixth floor so passengers transferring from one to the other would have to go through the entire building and would spend good money in the mall shops.

Elad Horn: Yeah. It seemed logical at this time.

Talia Davidi: The idea of building a huge structure – megastructure – was very trendy at the time.

Elad Horn: And Rami Karmi imported this idea to Israel.

Yochai Maital: Pilz in the meantime, understood that the project was going to be much more expensive than he had originally expected.

Rivka Karmi: So he said, ‘Rami, we need most spaces which we can sell’.

Yochai Maital: And so in every subsequent design Rami submitted, the station grew bigger and bigger. By the sixth draft handed in in November 1967, the blueprint had started to resemble that behemoth we know today.

Rivka Karmi: In fact, I remember Rami talking about the central bus station and saying that they wanted to build the largest bus station in the world, and they kept wondering, why would anyone want to build a largest. central bus station in such a small country, but this is exactly what happened.

Yochai Maital: In the end, the new central bus station was designed to include eight floors for a total of 230 square meters, or 57 acres.

Elad Horn: Which is more or less two Empire State Buildings together.

Yochai Maital: By the time Pilz got all his building permits in order, architectural styles around the world had begun to change. New wisdom had it, that a few small scale public transportation hubs were more efficient than one gigantic station. And besides, there were enough examples to conclude that megastructures rarely functioned the way they were originally intended to. On top of all that Pilz had other problems. He had bought out all the squatters, but the residents in the adjacent streets were livid, even though their neighborhood had never been particularly nicer upscale. They were concerned that the new station and all the increased bus traffic would depreciate the value of their apartments even more, that they would end up living in a cloud of smoke and fumes. And as it turns out, they were right. This is Shula Keshet, a resident of the neighborhood.

Shula Keshet: Can you imagine what it feels like to wake up to these terrifying rattling noise? And I wake up and this noise doesn’t stop. You sit at home, you want to watch TV and you can’t hear it. You want to talk with the family, you can’t talk. It’s a deafening noise. Besides that, we had to shut the balconies because the people who go by in the buses can practically see what’s going on inside our houses.

Simcha Nasi: Someone knocks on the door, I can’t hear it. It’s awful. What can I tell you? Terrible noise all the time.

Yochai Maital: That’s Simcha Nasi who still lives directly across from one of the bus exits. He was one of the residents who complained to Pilz. And well, you can judge for yourself. This is a recording from his living room window at 10:00PM. (loud bus sounds)

Simcha Nasi: The new central bus station should never have been built here in the first place. Absolutely not.

Yochai Maital: But Pilz was determined. And on December 14th, 1967, six months after Israel tripled its size in the Six Day War, the Minister of Transportation, the Mayor of Tel Aviv, and many other dignitaries gathered at the edge of the old orange grove and laid down the cornerstone for Kami’s creation and what now felt like a huge country, a huge station seemed fitting. The hubris of building the world’s largest bus station was in line with the general sense of postwar euphoria. In the months that followed hundreds of workers dug foundation, laid rebar, poured in, concrete, drilled, and hammered. And all the while residents demonstrated outside. Pilz in the meantime was ready to move on to the

Elad Horn: So he invited Jews from all over the world to come on and see the place and get a free tour in Israel, on him. Sort of like birthright before birthright.

Talia Davidi: And of course the grand finale of the trip would be a visit to the new central bus station, Pilz’s new project, with the expectations that the visitors would buy a shop in the station.

Yochai Maital: Pilz, hope to tap into the overflowing Zionist sentiments that followed the Six Day War and amazingly, he succeeded. Hundreds of people bought shops, some of them took out loans and others like Mark Almog from France sold their houses and made aliya.

Mark Almog: We were promised a magnificent shop in a shopping center that the whole world would take pride in. Others like Pincha’s whose house with the painting of the Sea of Galilee was demolished to make way for the station. were given shops as some sort of compensation.

Pinchas Abramov: I got 42 meters at the central bus station. They said the shop would be something, something great.

Yochai Maital: It’s important to bear in mind that Pilz didn’t lease those shops as a mall developer would today. He sold them as property. The owners registered the asset under their own names, just like buying an apartment. Over the next six years, as people sold more and more of his stores on paper, the massive building started taking shape. People were excited about it. Every few months there would be a headline in the papers saying something like, a city under a roof is coming to life, or the world’s most high tech bus station due to open. But then in 1973 came, the Yom Kippur War and with it, a general nationwide recession. Kikar Levinsky, the contracting company Pilz had set up to build and bankroll the project started faltering. There was a shortage of concrete, problems with the workers unions, and growing debt. Finally, in 1976 Pilz filed for bankruptcy and the construction stopped altogether. By that time, the structure was already mostly built. A huge concrete skeleton in the middle of the city.

Elad Horn: Tel Aviv’s grandma and grandpa’s all remember these places as the city’s big white elephant

Yochai Maital: Now a saga of who should take responsibility for the fiasco erupted. Public commissions were established, but the blame game went on and on, and so for 12 years, the ‘miserable station’ as Pilz himself called, it remained empty. Or almost empty. A huge colony of bats made the building their home.

Elad Horn: Gradually, it started to host those sorts of marginal parts of society.

Talia Davidi: Some legal, some not so much.

Yochai Maital: By the early eighties, the station had already gained its notorious reputation. It served as an underground meeting place. Huge raves and rock and metal concerts took place there. In 1983 after a decade of neglect, inhabited only by bats and punks, it finally seemed like the station was going to be redeemed. Contractor Mordechai Yona bought the project from its creditors for a bargain price of $5 million. Once again, you could hear the hustle and bustle of construction work in the empty concrete shell. Yona, like his predecessor Pilz, knew the right people. Like the then minister of transportation, Moshe Katsav. When Katsav visited the site just a few months before it was supposed to open to the public, he said, ‘I’m certainly pleasantly surprised and we, of course, will be happy to help you in any way to overcome bureaucratic obstacles’.

Yochai Maital: What Katsav was happy about was that Yona was delivering. The station was set to open more or less on schedule. Most of the real estate had already been sold back in Pilz days so in order to make this financially viable, Yona had to build more and more and more. The huge station, like the very hungry Caterpillar, just grew and grew.

Tzvi Shuv: The total build-up area in the station is more than double the area that was authorized.

Yochai Maital: That’s Tzvi Shuv, a lawyer who represents many of the original shop owners in long-standing class-action suit against the station. He’s actually continuing a fight his father, also a lawyer, started.

Tzvi Shuv: There are tens of thousands of square meters that were built illegally without building permits or even organized plans, and they were also sold to people. And there’s really nothing to do about that.

Yochai Maital: So what you’re saying is that the new central bus station is the largest construction violation in the city.

Tzvi Shuv: In the country.

Yochai Maital: Katsav, however, promised to remove bureaucratic ops and he kept his word. Advertising brochures and radio campaigns urge the public to buy a shop. The country’s biggest commercial center is on its way, they said, don’t let it start without you.
And again, people who seem to have forgotten the heartache of the station’s first incarnation lined up to buy a store from Yona. In the summer of 1993, 29 years after the ambitious architect, Ram Karmi, put pencil to paper, all the usual dignitaries reconvened at the station, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was there, as was the transportation minister, the finance minister, the mayor of Tel Aviv, and even Karmi himself in what was the only time he ever visited the building while it was working. In a rare moment of self-deprecating humor, the opening ceremony was kicked off by releasing a giant helium balloon in the shape of a white elephant but not everyone was amused. Here again is Shula Keshet, one of the station’s unhappy neighbors.

Shula Keshet: At the time, they were celebrating inside, we were standing outside in a big demonstration of thousands of people – thousands of people – and we were standing in demonstrating at the foot of the central bus station of this terrible monster that is destroying lives until today.

Yochai Maital: But the neighborhood residents’ protest was largely ignored while all of Israel heard about the grand opening that evening on national TV. more than 30 years after Pilz first set his eyes on the plot, the new central bus station in Tel Aviv was now up and running. It’s been opened ever since but its far from the posh shopping mall it was meant to be. There’s a certain tempatation to view those first years as the years where things were still working but honestly, things never really worked.Yona never manage to sell all the new stores he had built, so many of them stood vacant and many of the ones that were open, especially stores located enough far corners of this vast labyrinth, were barely getting any foot traffic. You can understand why the vendors don’t have many good words to say about this place.

“This in Tachana, not good working.”
“When are they going to burn this place? There’s nothing here. There’s more life in a cemetery than here.”
“There’s no air-con, nothing. Look at my cash register. No money. Come look.”
“You can’t make a living here. No work, no nothing. I’m just sitting here passing the time.”
“I prefer to work in that other place than inside here in Tel Aviv central bus station.”

Yochai Maital: And we can go on like this. Believe me, we’re not short on this kind of tape. In 2002 the ground floor was closed for good. The reason, excessive air pollution, that meant that Dan, the municipal bus company, moved up to the sixth and seventh floors right next to Egged the national bus carrier. So now with all the platforms located on the top floors, the entire concept of the station that people will trickle down through the shops on their way from one bus to the other was gone.

Yochai Maital: The lower floors of the station became ghost floors and before long, just like his predecessor Pilz, Mordechai Yona filed for bankruptcy. Since then, the station has fallen deep in debt. They are real estate billionaires and banks passing hot potatoes from one to the other. Store owners suing in court. And in the middle of all of this is Miki Ziv, the station’s General Manager, who’s doing his best to run the place. He’s tried all kinds of creative solutions – cheap rates for artist studios, cultural events, conferences. But it seems as if the station is just getting emptier and emptier.

Miki Ziv: We have here 1,500 stores, but only six hundred are open because the building is so huge, they are not necessarily.

Yochai Maital: At first, the planners thought that up to a million people a day would pass through the station.

Miki Ziv: Nowadays, an average of 50,000 people are coming. It’s going down.

Yochai Maital: 50,000 people. That’s just 5% of the original estimate. Maybe this is the root of the problem. The developers’ greed led them to sell more and more commercial spaces, which in turn blew the station’s size out of proportion. Or maybe it’s all just location, location, location, and putting the station in the poor neighborhoods of Southern Tel Aviv sealed its fate. Or perhaps it was simple, short-sightedness. In the 1960s there were only 24,000 private vehicles in all of Israel, and everybody used public transportation. Who knew then that this number would increase more than a hundred fold and reached the 2.5 million cars that crowd our roads today. When Pilz and Karmi dreamt up the project, they imagined a city under a roof. And when all said and done, it does kind of have that vibe. Here’s Talia, the architect.

Talia Davidi: In a way, the fact that it’s called ‘a city under a roof’ kind of says it all. In a city, you’ve got everything. You’ve got the dark spaces, you’ve got the lit spaces, you’ve got the interesting bits. You have the scary bit. You have the exciting bits and all of it just exists there. Co-exists there in a way.

Yochai Maital: Despite the gloominess all around, sometimes you get the feeling you can spend your whole life in here. There’s a post office, grocery shop, travel agencies.

Talia Davidi: You can find a dentist clinic, lawyers, churches, market-

Miki Ziv: Jewels, clothes-

Talia Davidi: Artist studios, kindergartens-

Elad Horn: There’s also an atomic bomb shelter and synagogues.

Talia Davidi: There’s a whole world in here right under Tel Aviv’s nose. It’s just the shame that nobody bothers to pick up the stone and take a look beneath it.

Yochai Maital: More than 50 years have passed since the idea for the central bus station was born in the creative mind of Aryeh Pilz and started to take shape on Ram Karmi’s drawing board. Ever since, people have been trying to figure out what to do with it. Here’s Sharon Rotbard. the architect again.

Sharon Rotbard: I can certainly see how in the past 10-15 years, the use of the station is decreasing. Shops are closing, trade is deteriorating, and gradually causing deterioration in all the neighborhoods around here. In this case, there is no real winner. Everybody’s a loser. The architect of this building, Ram Karmi has been really despised for this project. And it affects very severely all the residents of the neighborhoods around it. You know, they say in Hebrew ‘evens she tipesh zorek la’be’er gam me’a chachamim lo yochlo lehotzi ota hachotza’. It means ‘a fool may throw into a well a stone which a hundred wise men cannot pull out’.

Yochai Maital: Rivka Karmi. Ram’s widow, is a bit more optimistic.

Rivka Karmi: I believe the story of the central bus station is not over yet.

Yochai Maital: Pinchas has for his part is desperate.

Pinchas Abramov: I’m over 80 years old today. I used to be young. I had the will to deal with them. Nowadays, I have no energy.

Yochai Maital: There are many parallels between the story of the central bus station and the entire Zionist project. Entrepreneurship, creating facts on the ground, the patchwork system, a gradual move towards privatization and capitalism. In the state’s case, it worked pretty well, but not so with the central bus station, at least not so far, but who knows? Maybe the station’s good days, they’ll lie ahead and the grandchildren of Ilan, Pinchas, Mark and many more will end up inheriting a shop in the Soho of Tel Aviv. For now, while history debates whether the new central bus station is a stone thrown by a fool or a spectacular human monument, many people that we would rather forget have turned this strange, confusing place into their home.

Roman Mars: That’s reporter Yochai Maital for “Israel Story” with production help from Katie Pulverman. It was edited and produced by Yochai Maital Mishy Harman, and Julie Subrin. ‘Israel Story’ is a great new podcast from PRX and Tablet Magazine. It’s hosted by Mishy Harman, who you heard at the top of the show. A lot of people, including Ira Glass, call it the Israeli ‘This American Life’. They specialize in telling human stories from Jews and Arabs, secular and religious people, from one of the most fascinating places on earth. You can find all their episodes every place that you get podcasts and on their website,



Reporter Yochai Maital produced this piece for Israel Story with help from Katie Pulverman and editors was Mishy Harman and Julie Subrin. Special thanks to Yael Factor, Adrianne Mathiowetz, David Harman, Jack Gilron, ShlomoMmaital, Zafrir Kachanovsky, Chanoch Lipperman, Wayne Hoffman and Jonathan Zalman. All images via Israel Story unless otherwise noted.


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  1. Oh my God, the “New” CBS in Tel Aviv is the weirdest building I have ever been in. I have gone through it many times and I’m still not sure what’s going on there. I’ve even been on the “forgotten floors” which look like they are from a dystopian world.

  2. Nicole

    I wonder how user experience might have helped prevent this? This is part of a broader question – how can UX fit with architecture? Hard to prototype buildings and architectural designs – or could VR make this a reality? I’m envisioning an alternate history where the architects/designers used VR to test this projected design/space with users; found that it did not work for them; and then came up with a better design through usability testing.

    This is also an interesting topic of the gap between vision and implementation.

  3. Daniel S

    You have awoken so many memories in me. I spent very little in this bus station, but only because I was terrified of being in it alone.

  4. Shoshannah

    Wow. This episode brought up so many memories for me. In the early ’90s I was a teenager living in a boarding school away from home, and every few weeks we where bussed to the TLV station so we can go home for the weekend- first to the old bus station and then to the new one, which opened about a year or two after I started boarding school.

    I remember the ladies with the bus station logo who gave out maps of the place at the opening. How big and shiny it seemed, how modern compared to the open air old bus station. And while even then there where many empty shops, it still seemed fresh and new.

    But even before I finished studying the place had changed, and the optimism vanished.
    A wave of bus bombings that started in the country didn’t help- the thought of a bus exploding in a closed space like the new bus station wasn’t pleasant, particularly while waiting for a bus in the always dark underground floors.

    These days, the bus system has changed a lot, and many connections between buses are made in other smaller hubs.

    Yet the building still stands, serving it’s few passengers, and every once and while the media remembers it and asks what will happen to the building. Should it be demolished? Changed? Something else?

    Thanks again for a great show and great episode!

  5. Xiggy

    The first thing that came to mind was Buses? Why would anyone want to build a huge bus station? Trains maybe, not buses! Then ten minutes later, it hit me! Oh yeah. Trains! Already got enough train rides a few years back. Check.
    Still, world’s biggest bus station? Serious? If they go all electric it might be salvageable.

    1. Josh

      Interesting connection, although I don’t think it has anything to do with the Holocaust. The Ottomans (with German help) built a train system in what was then Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th century. The British took it over (and changed the gauge) in World War I. It was originally conceived and built as a way of connecting Turkey, Lebanon etc. with Egypt and Mecca and Medina to the East. When Israel became a country in 1948, the neighboring countries put a halt to train traffic, so Israel’s train system became essentially land-locked. Today it still functions, especially in the center of the country, and a new fast rail system linking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in set to open in 2018.

    2. It is mostly that there are a lot of places in Israel where the train just does not go, such as smaller towns. It is also much easier to put in a new bus line than a train line, as long as the roads already go there.

      Oh and Moshe Katzev? He became president of Israel and is now in Jail for Sexual Assault.

      Most Israelis I know avoid the place at all costs. Even when I had to take the bus to and from Tel Aviv every day I made sure to get off long before it got to the CBS. Israeli buses generally pickup and dropoff at the road-side.

  6. It’s interesting to note that the same Ram Carmi designed the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, a regal and inspiring structure.

  7. D

    Why not create mixed use housing for students, artists, and young families? The people could use the ease of access to markets, shops, and transportation. Most spaces have a use, it just might not be the use for which it was originally designed.

    1. Saint Miles

      “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic. The most obvious music in the piece. No credit given.
      Not cool, man, not cool.
      Only way to make this up is to put a Maggot Brain symbol on the next coin.

    2. James Martin

      I’ve been trying to remember who that was for a half hour. No music credit. You saved my sanity.

  8. telatfor

    Tel aviv population is is about a 3 million and not 400,000 as mentioned.
    400,000 is only at the main municipality “tel-aviv-yafo”.

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