By Quentin Stickley

The Living City: Old Akko, Conservation, and Gentrification

The old city of Akko is unlike any other historical site I’ve visited in that it is a place where people are still living and making history much like they did in the past. It has not been roped off and sterilized for easy digestion. When you walk into the old city, you will encounter people selling fruit on the street, feeding stray cats or shooing them from their doorsteps, and going to and from their places of worship. Colorful street art decorates walls and doors. There are shops and attractions catering to tourists, certainly, but the old city is also a place where people make their homes, raise their children, and practice their religions. It is a delight to visit, but I am always concerned with the fuzzy line between visiting the city and encroaching upon the lives of Akko’s residents. Gentrification as a result of tourism is a grave threat to historic neighborhoods, especially those like Old Akko which are populated mostly by minority Arabs who are also relatively less wealthy. Since UNESCO designated the old city as a World Heritage Site. Building codes meant to preserve the historic structures have made it more expensive for residents to improve their homes, making life in the old city less feasible for many people who live there.

The nearby site of the ancient harbor, Caesarea provides a good example of a gentrified historical site. In addition to its ancient Roman and Byzantine remains, Caesarea was a Crusader site, and later historic buildings still stand, such as the “Bosnian Mosque” built by immigrants from Bosnia who founded a fishing village there in the 19th century. Today, however, the Crusader city at Caesarea feels empty. The buildings have been turned into restaurants and souvenir shops; the people there are all either tourists or people whose job it is to cater to them. Caesarea is a wonderful site with a lot of historical value, but seeing the old city there after coming from Akko made me feel sad. How many people did gentrification displace there? I say all of this aware that I am myself a tourist, and as a student of archaeology who is passionate about preserving historical and archaeological sites. If there is a healthy middle ground between preserving ancient structures and preserving the lives built by the people who now occupy them, I certainly couldn’t tell you where it might lie. But visiting Akko has impressed upon me the importance of seeking such a middle ground, and the fact that historical sites are not frozen in the past. As long as people continue to occupy them, those people will continue to add to the rich legacy of the place.