Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jerusalem inaugurates the Bridge of Strings

The Jerusalem skyline was changed dramatically with the lavish inauguration of a huge new bridge this week. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opened the $73 million structure in a gala presentation despite interruptions from ultra-Orthodox Jews who demanded “promiscuous” female dancers be dressed modestly with long skirts and full head cover to cover their hair. The 250 meter long and 120 meter high harp-like structure is known by two names, the “Bridge of Cords” and the “Bridge of Strings”. It has an elevated walkway and will eventually carry a new light rail line. The bridge was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and curves from the city’s main western entrance suspended by 66 white cables attached to a spire. Like all new structures, it has attracted vitriol and praise in equal measure.

Last week, Jerusalem’s opposition leader urged Israel’s President to boycott the lavish inauguration of the bridge. Nir Barkat said Shimon Peres should not attend the ceremony due to its "wasteful" expenditure of public funds. The inauguration is part of the anniversary celebrations of Israel’s 40 year occupation of the entire city which it took from Jordan during the Six Day War. The bridge celebration is eating up a large slice of the anniversary funds. Barkat wrote to Peres that it would have been appropriate for the public funds for the inauguration be invested in “other burning and more pressing needs in the city such as education, children's meals, city sanitation, job projects, and housing for young couples.”

Writing in, Jackie Levy agrees with Barkat. Levy described the building of the new bridge as a “tasteless act” and a luxury Jerusalem could ill afford. He said it was difficult to recall a more “huge, pretentious, expensive and arrogant” work built for the sake of so little. Levy acknowledged the bridge was spectacular and of beautiful design. But it was ill-suited to a poor city where 40 percent of the population (Jewish and Arab) live below the poverty – four times as many as in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Levy said it was a pretentious and wasteful bridge “whose inauguration celebrations alone account for more than half of the city’s annual culture budget.”

Others were more favourable. Calatrava himself had no hesitation in calling it his favourite work. The Spaniard had built over 40 bridges around the world including ones nearing completion on Venice’s Grand Canal. But he described the Jerusalem work his “unquestionable favourite.” He said the most important aspect about the bridge was the fact it was in Jerusalem. “I have always loved Jerusalem, which is a universal city for everyone,” he said. “But now that I know the city I love it even more.”

He said the bridge was a unique engineering challenge. A nearby highway tunnel hindered the building of bridge supports there and the span had to be held by cables suspended from the mast, which was complicated by the sharp turn of the train route. The bridge design also had to accommodate the traditional urban landscape of Jerusalem, where all buildings are faced with local limestone under an ordinance dating to British rule at the end of World War I. The ramps leading to the bridge are being clad in stone, and a pedestrian plaza planned underneath will also feature stone benches and stone-faced light fixtures. Calatrava said the bridge “covers the gap between tradition and modernity.”

However the bridge will remain unused for two years due to delays in the provision of the light rail service. Digging in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Shuafat in North Jerusalem has been held up by the discovery of a first century urban community. Coins found at the site date the community to between 70 and 150 AD and it appears to be a joint Jewish and Roman neighbourhood. While the find delighted archaeologists, it dismayed rail planners of the 15km network which will link Mount Herzl in southern and predominantly Jewish Jerusalem to Pisgat Ze'ev, via Shuafat, in the north. Daniel Seidemann, a Jewish lawyer who promotes Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, described the route of the railway as ideological. "It serves the mantra of the undivided eternal capital that few believe in today,” he said. “Given the reality of life here, and the glass walls between the neighbourhoods, it goes against the grain of how the city works."

But finding a solution for the future of Jerusalem is the most intractable element of the Israel-Palestine peace process. Jews demand it never again be divided as it was from 1948 to 1967 while the ultra-Orthodox demand the right to pray at the Wailing Wall. But there is a steady Jewish exodus of the secular population precisely because of the relentless campaign of the Orthodox to remodel the city in their own image. Meanwhile the Arab percentage of the city is slowly growing. The city is slowly being rundown, its infrastructure has deteriorated, and its narrow lanes have become a giant traffic jam at most times of the day. Writing in Dying For Jerusalem, American Jewish historian Walter Laqueur says that it is a mystery why this “problematic holy city should remain the main bone of contention on the road to peace”. It seems too much to hope for the road to peace to be paved by a bridge of strings.

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