Girls from Eritrea play in an open area opposite to the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

It’s impossible to remain apathetic toward Tel Aviv’s “new” Central Bus Station, a grimy, peeling concrete structure that spans five blocks and reaches seven stories in a run-down section of this bustling city.

No longer new — it opened its doors in 1993 — and certainly not central, the bus station evokes sharp responses from anyone who steps inside. Some are fascinated with the urban eyesore, while for others, it instills fear after years of violent crime marred its reputation.


Buses parked at the station. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

An abandoned cinema in the station’s basement. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

Designed by renowned Israeli architect Ram Karmi, the hulking station, said to be the second largest in the world, was envisioned as housing an entire city under one roof. But Karmi’s brutalist style, with coarsely strewn stairwells, mezzanine floors, winding walkways, vast corridors and dark hidden spaces made the station impractical and impossible to navigate almost from the start.  


A man walks by as a woman waits outside a hairdresser’s shop. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

An office used by maintenance staff in the station’s basement. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

Twenty-six years later, its legacy is as rough and as unwelcoming as the abandoned stores and deserted floors inside it. Only a small part of the station is used today for daily travel, with most commuters hurrying through, hoping to spend as little time there as possible.

But the expansive space has given rise to a cast of exotic characters and myriad artistic initiatives that take advantage of the unique charms of this gritty interior.


A vendor carries plastic flower decorations out of a shop as he prepares to open the store. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

Merry Christ Palacios, a caregiver from the Philippines, prays during a church service held at the bus station. Palacios shops there and worships in its church. “It’s special because I can find everything we need to buy,” she said, but she added that visitors need to be “very careful about their bag, cellphone, money and things” as they navigate the station’s hallways. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

The surrounding neighborhood is populated by a mix of African migrants, Filipino care workers and longtime Israeli residents, all of whom mill about the station’s ultracheap clothing stores, bargain electronic outlets, beauty salons and foreign food markets. 

Over the past five years, artists have realized the benefits of this unadorned space, brightening its walls with graffiti on the seventh floor or filling the abandoned stores on the fifth with modern installations. A Yiddish Cultural Center and a bat colony also call the station home. 


A woman cleans in a space that functions as a gallery displaying street art, close to bus terminals on an upper floor. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

Tamar Lehman, a counselor for young adults with mental illness, plays an accordion inside a cultural center used by “Yung Yidish,” a nonprofit aiming to preserve Yiddish culture. “I felt this building is just like the people I work with — they may appear totally confused within themselves, not understood, bizarre, but the more you learn about the people and their inner structure, you slowly become more familiar with their inner world, with all its craziness, and you see the beauty,” she said. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

Recently, a group of architectural students opened an exhibition on the fourth floor that ­reimagined the space, with ideas including a basement swimming pool and even an indoor athletic field. Others, with less admiration for the massive structure, continue to call for it to be torn down.

In the meantime, a local theater group has adopted the bus station for its site-specific and immersive performances. 


Dana Forer, an actress and manager of the Mystorin Theatre Ensemble, performs in “Seven,” a site-specific act that uses all seven floors of the station. “The Central Bus Station is a playground for imagination,” Forer said. “I feel full of joy and creativity when we light up the dark spaces with our performance.” (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

Actors from the Mystorin Theatre Ensemble perform inside a former box office during the show “Seven.” (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

In “Seven,” an artistic interpretation of the seven deadly sins, the Mystorin Theatre Ensemble spotlights some of the station’s darkest corners: a former waiting area it has renamed “the red square,” the oddly painted concrete staircase and even the dreaded first floor, with its abandoned movie theater, stores, cafes and ticket booths. 

“It’s an urban playground for artists,” said actress and theater manager Dana Forer. “For us, this is an ideal space. We have seven floors, and the people who come here help turn our performance into a world of fantasy and reality.”


Mystorin actors and a passerby walk down the stairs during “Seven.” (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

An entrance road into the basement of the New Central Bus Station. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)