8/5/2016 An Interview with the Mayor of Tel Aviv

This past week I had the privilege of interviewing the mayor of Israel’s start-up city, the indefatigable, Ron Huldai. Huldai has been mayor of Tel Aviv for 18 years, and is said to be considering a run to become head of the Labor Party. Here are several excerpts from our conversation. The interview took place in English.

Marc Schulman: Thank you for taking the time to sit with me. To begin, tell me how you transformed from being a fighter pilot into a mayor and a politician?
HULDAI: For me it’s not a transformation, it’s one very, very straight-forward line of being in public service. I belong to a generation in which all of us were recruited for the mission of the country; the mission of the nation.

I was born before the creation of the State of Israel. My parents came as pioneers from Poland, in the late twenties of the last century. They prepared themselves to be founders of a kibbutz. My father took on the name of the Kibbutz – “Hulda”, it’s Huldai, meaning from Hulda.

Serving in the Air Force was part of a mission to serve the country. I can’t say I had a dream of being a pilot. But since I had to join the army, I thought, maybe I’d try being a pilot. My Air Force career lasted for 26 years. I retired as a Brigadier-General and a pilot. I took part in all of the wars. Still, I never saw myself as a military guy.

My values always remained the same. I got most of my values from my life in the Kibbutz and my parents. My mother taught me: “A human being, is a human being, is a human being”. I had her in mind when I opened the Mesilah Center,(lit pathway). This center for helping illegal foreign workers here in the city came about because that is the way I was brought up.

My parents were teachers. My brother is a teacher. I dreamed of being a teacher. Though I didn’t have the credentials to teach, a high school chose me to be their headmaster – and I was successful.

I never dreamed of being a mayor, but when I finished my tenure at the high school, I identified an opportunity that I decided to take. Here I also succeeded. I don’t see my choices as unusual, or as a transformation that needs explaining. My choices were not a complete change in direction. So that explains how I became Mayor of Tel Aviv.

MS: What do you see as the role of a city in the modern world?
HULDAI: First, let’s separate. I’ll relate to it in two ways: 1) The cities in this era and 2) Tel Aviv in Israel.
The 21st century marks a turning-point in history. It’s the first century in humankind in which more people live in cities than in rural areas. The year 2,000 was the tipping point. The world today has seen a tremendous wave of immigration from rural areas toward the cities on one hand, as well as a huge migration between countries, and between cities on the other hand. When you talk about migration between countries, at the end of the day, it’s the cities that take the burden and deal with the problems – at least at the beginning. The countries step in to act a lot later.

When I was in Germany last summer I visited a refugee camp. It’s the same case there – Berlin bears the daily burden of the refugees, while the German government got involved much later. Once the majority of people live in cities, the importance of cities to humankind becomes much greater.

If you wish to save the world, there are two main factors that if you had the opportunity to control, you would have the greatest impact: 1) reducing birth rates and 2) decreasing consumption. If you think about it and then compare cities to rural areas, many people are not aware that everything in the city is a lot cheaper than in the rural areas. The size of the water sewage pipes you have to install per capita is a lot more expensive in a village than in a city.

The water is the same, the schooling system, everything, it’s all cheaper. And then it comes to the point that cities, which at the beginning of their creation were mostly service centers for the rural areas, now are becoming more and more the places where people are living. It’s a completely different concept, a different philosophy. We have to think in a lot more innovative way than we did before.

Sometimes, when I speak about kibbutz, I say that kibbutz came into reality 200 years before its time. On the kibbutz you needed to cooperate if you wanted a better quality of life. If you go and see what is happening in the world today, you already see more sharing. You have the “Rent-a-Bike” programs. We had “Rent-a-Bike” in the kibbutz – no one had a bike, we had a center where there were bikes and you went and took one when you needed it.

We have to see about how to build different kinds buildings that have smaller apartments, where people share with one another a lot of services that we can get together. Let’s speak about laundry, or let’s say, you don’t need a big dinning hall all day long, every day. You can have some dining halls in the building, that you use when you need. And you see this already. You see these kind of things in business today.

Look at WeWork and WeLive today, you can see the beginning of it. We just initiated an architectural competition for this kind of joint/“shared” living building. You have AirBNB, and car-sharing. That’s the way I see the future.

About the city of Tel Aviv and the State of Israel. The State of Israel is still in a real struggle over its identity, and Tel Aviv is maybe the most, the best example of the modern Zionism— of the modern way of living of the Jewish people. Democracy, tolerance, pluralism, art, culture, rational thinking, science, research, start-up city, open to the world. You see, it is not always obvious, as values of all of the people of the state of Israel. And if you watch the last speech of Yigal Weinstein, the rabbi, about the gay community, it’s one example of the difference. And the city of Tel Aviv also, as the center of a big city called Israel, is also always taking the burden to be the edge and in pioneering of the research of every aspect of urbanic life – we are the first. We are the first to suffer a traffic problem. We are the first to suffer ecology. We are the first to deal with, let’s say, “shabbos” problems (chuckles), we are the first to deal with preservation.

We are the first ones dealing with bike problema; how to handle bikes in the open space. As being the central part of Israel, we are also the central part of the big city called Israel.

 

MS: Why do you think people dislike Tel Aviv from the outside?
HULDAI: First of all, I am not sure people dislike the city of Tel Avi, (and by the way, that would be a new phenomenon). Eighteen years ago, Tel Aviv was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was a neglected city, with a negative balance of immigration. That changed over the last 18 years. Tel Aviv has become a first-class city. Everybody wants to live in this city. When someone who wants to live in the city and can’t afford it and has to leave the city, will have negative feelings toward that city.

And then there is the question of “the bubble”. Look, you have to realize, the city of Tel Aviv is the extreme opposite of a bubble. What is a “bubble”? The kibbutz is a bubble. Everybody on kibbutz is the same. Beitar Illit is a bubble-everybody there is haredi. Ra’anana is a bubble-everybody there is middle class. Tel Aviv is the city of uniqueness. It’s a city of extremes. Tel Aviv has the highest percentage of single parent families. We are the place that when somebody cannot find himself in any other community, he finds himself in this community. When someone comes out of the closet, they come here. If someone is very creative, for example, an artist living in [the border town of] S’derot, eventually, they will find themselves here.

We are the home for the youngest and the oldest people. We have Arab residents here. We have the richest and the poorest in the country here. We have Allenby 40 – if you want a strip-tease club, and the Opera, on the other side of town. You can never say something is “average” about the city of Tel Aviv. Everybody here is different.

By the way, as the Mayor, when I go around here in the street and I shake hands, only 1 out of 6 people I meet will be Tel Avivans. If you go and ask people at the Opera, where are you from, less than 15% will be Tel Aviv residents.

MS: What are the main challenges the city faces?
HULDAI: We have three main challenges in this metropolis. First, we lack sufficient and efficient public transportation systems. We are just at the beginning of bringing the first line of light rail into the city. The second challenge is the cost of living and the cost of housing. Our third major issue is having 12%-15% of illegal foreign workers, and we are dealing with this issue almost totally by ourselves.

MS: How do you succeed in making the city run so efficiently?
HULDAI: Look, I’ll tell you something. First of all, when people ask me how I am doing things, I tell them – have less political influence and more of a professional approach to things in the city, and you have to understand management and motivation of people.

I don’t subscribe to the view “the free market will arrange everything.” I am still real social-democrat. I didn’t privatize services. I work with unions. I tripled the number of lawyers and tax collectors for the city of Tel Aviv. I don’t think that outsourcing is better. When you work with a unionized system, then you have to create a different culture for your organization.

The fact you built a train is not important. How fast that train gets from Be’er Sheva to Tel Aviv is what’s most important. When you say – “I paved the road,” that is nothing. What matters is – how much time it takes to get from door-to-door. It’s meaningless if you have a train and you don’t have a parking lot for cars.

These are the issues you have to address when you deal with a city. We have less people in the cleaning department today (and there is a lot more cleaning being done), because of efficiency. We invested a lot in new equipment.

MS:Talking about skyscrapers, how do you make sure that more of the designs in the future are like Sarona, as opposed to Yoo Towers? Part of the city, as opposed to their own enclave?
REPHRASE:
There are two views in terms of urban planning, in the sense of someplace like the Sarona Towers, which are very much part of the area and there’s a market underneath, and it is part and parcel of the area; and there is the Yoo Complex, which is very much a separate part of the city— it’s almost its own little city.

 

Huldia: Yoo Towers is an exampleof a mistake. I was not aware enough when I started dealing with Yoo, because I was just at the beginning of being Mayo when I dealt with it.
And it is a mistake, because it is not part of the city. It’s like a gated area. I dislike gated areas and this is NOT my strategy and my approach and my urbanic approach— and you will not see it any more in the city of Tel Aviv.

This is it. (Huldai bangs on desk) Skyscrapers, small buildings, they are part of the streets. From now on, and forever. There is only one justification for doing it this way. Because it is so close to the Ayalon highway, and being isolated from the city. But this is not a real justification. Ok.

I have to say, that as Mayor, already for almost 18 years, I have learned a lot about how to create the connection between the skyscraper and the streets. And if you wish, one of the first one, government tower on Kaplan/Begin is a bad example… the way it is connected to the streets — with stairs, instead of being at street level
When you see the new one,( the tall building next to it that is almost finished) you’ll see it has a completely different connection to the street.

So, we are making mistakes, and we learn from it and we change.

MS: Jumping completely: Can you tell me about the electric cars that you are planning to bring to the city?

We are not planning electric cars. We have thought about it, but we realized that the infrastructure for electric cars is too expensive. So we are going to start, next year, with regular cars, small cars. We are going to start with 260 cars, in stations all over the city— and we hope that we are going to succeed.

First, I have to say, that it requires substantial subsidies, and second, there is another big issue.
Tel Aviv is too small for a car sharing system. A car sharing system has to be a much bigger area and so far, we do not have cooperation — not from the Ministry of Transportation, not by the Ministry of Finance, and some of the cities around us can not afford the subsidy. And we hope that once its up and running others will join– you know, it’s like the chicken and the egg— I hope that it is going to succeed and they are going to join us, but it could fail, because of the size.

So, we are trying, so since we don’t have efficient public transportation system, I would like to create a city that one can abandon private cars. That’s very, very important in a city. So we are trying to provide the bicycles, car sharing, and give our people better service.

 

MS: How did Tel Aviv become the “Start-up City”?
HULDAI: When I was asked 18 years ago by Yossi Vardi (the grandfather of Israeli hi-tech) how I am going to encourage innovation in the city, I told him look I am not going to encourage innovation in the city. I am going to encourage young people to live and to work in the city. And that is what we did. We always worked to find ways to encourage young people to come here.

Who are the innovators? They are young, most of them are single, work-a-holics. If you identify the people, you can determine what you want to offer them. And that’s what we did. Besides, we understood we have creative people and we have to empower the process. We were the first to provide WiFi in the public sphere. We provided the first co-working spaces with free WiFi, free coffee, free tables – for young people during the early stages of their ventures, when they had nothing.

In the last three years, the number of co-working spaces have more than doubled – from 21 to 60.

I don’t believe what had been described as a “start-up” 20 years ago is the same “start-ups” we see today. They are different. Two decades ago the companies were more “high-tech”, than real start-ups. But today, in the city of Tel Aviv, here in this small area, you have the highest density of start-ups in the world, per-capita, or square kilometer or square miles. And I believe that is because they want to live here.


Authors Note: I first met Huldai a lifetime ago, when he was a commander in the Air Force. He was impressive then, and is just as impressive today. He is not a universally beloved mayor, but he is a mayor that almost every resident of this city respects. Huldai is sigulary responsible for transforming the city from a rather backward city to the world-class city it is today.