an illustration depicting Tel Aviv in the 1920s
Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Growing up in Israel, I relied on landmarks to navigate; today’s residents rely on smartphones. But what are they missing?

Growing up in 1950s and ‘60s in Jaffa, my friends and I liked to visit nearby central Tel Aviv on weekends to stroll along Dizengoff Street, then the Israeli city’s major artery. The No. 7 bus went from Jaffa through the dilapidated neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv and into Dizengoff Square, where the whole city went on Saturday nights to see and to be seen; its route served as the spine of our mental map of the city. Whenever we needed to get someplace in Tel Aviv, we went to Dizengoff and found our way from there.

Such a navigational approach will probably sound familiar to urban travelers of my pre-smartphone generation: We relied on landmarks to envision the urban layout. When I moved to Tel Aviv proper in the 1970s to become a city planner, the bus that drove from my home to my office downtown was again the No. 7. Every time I used it, it reminded me of my childhood trips. But in the intervening years, its route had changed. And that helped expand my mental map to encompass new neighborhoods and landmarks.

My picture of the city was widening in other ways. In my work developing urban plans for Tel Aviv, I spent decades poring over archival maps that showed how the city grew over time.

Conceived at the beginning of the 20th century and starting as a cluster of neighborhoods, Tel Aviv developed haphazardly. Its lands were once part of Jaffa and its surrounding Palestinian communities; the city grew upon sand dunes, vineyards, and orchards. During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, much of Jaffa’s 120,000 residents fled, fearing expulsion as the Jewish forces moved closer, and were never allowed back. After the formation of the state of Israel, Tel Aviv expanded over the lands of the once-Palestinian villages. The future of these neighborhoods was unpredictable, as was the future of the city as a whole.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods were first mapped. Looking at a 1930s map of Tel Aviv, we can see the “Boulevard Ring,” which starts and ends at sea, combining Rothschild, Chen, and Ben Gurion avenues. It was, and still is, the most noticeable urban feature in the city. Nowadays it is the main leisure axis of the central city, and a destination by itself for many visitors from all over the metropolitan area, who come searching for its main focal points: city hall, theater, museum, main squares, and commercial arteries.

A general plan of Tel Aviv from the 1930s. (Courtesy of Nicky Davidoff)

As these historic maps show, the way we imagine the places we live tends to be distorted. We are preconditioned to perceive that all modern cities follow an orthogonal grid; we tend to think we’re walking in straight lines as we navigate their streets. In truth, many places are not so neatly planned, and the lines between landmarks do not follow orderly routes. But even if our mental maps aren’t exactly accurate, they are strong expressions of our relationships and attitudes to the place we live. Without them, I fear we’d barely know our communities at all.

Now that I’m retired, I still discover new enclaves in Tel Aviv, roaming without a map or a GPS. I add them to the map in my head, which consists of all my past experiences and memories. All of us are looking for a direct path to the newest hotspots and secret corners of our city. But the younger generations rely on different tools and landmarks to find their way. Sometimes I come across new buildings that change the identity of the street entirely, and my mental map of this street becomes a historic postcard, to be deposited in my personal archive.

With the pervasive reliance on smartphone navigation apps, such mental maps seems less like a cohesive geography and more like a pack of disconnected points: home, workplace, some friends. They are floating in a void of vagueness, with no base layer to hold them together in our minds. Once, passersby were able to orient me when I requested directions. Now, when I ask for help in my urban wanderings, people will respond by searching their phones and showing me on the screen, not knowing how to even point the way.

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