The Washington Post shared an article today on Down Town Beirut and how it was rebuilt after the civil war and now has everything except people. This is not the first time that this issue is raised and it is true that DT is without a soul but I disagree with some of the stuff mentioned by those interviewed in the article.
1- Rich people are going more often to DT Beirut and specifically to Beirut Souks as all the fancy shops are there. Businesses in the square were mostly hurt by the political tensions after 2006 when Beirut was fully closed for months and then due to the explosions and the security situation. Moreover, the widespread of the Arguile cafe trend, the tight security measures and lack of parking lots, as well as the overpriced lousy food served in some Beirut restaurants, are also responsible for the closure of some businesses.
“Even the rich people don’t bother coming anymore,” Mohammed Younnes, 27, said on a recent Saturday evening as he gazed at the empty tables of Grand Café, an eatery he manages in downtown Nejmeh Square. Businesses in the square, distinctive for an art-deco clock tower with “Rolex” written on its dial, are relocating or going bankrupt.
2- The reconstruction project did not demolish all historical buildings and Beirut was booming with tourists and Lebanese even when there were no parks or public spaces. In fact, it was the only decent place to walk between restaurants and shops and have a good time before 2006 so I disagree here.
But many Lebanese say that there is another problem: the reconstruction project demolished historical buildings and filled the area with upscale condos and shops. There are few parks or other public spaces.
3- Swarovski? Really?? If there’s anything the average Lebanese can afford, it’s Swarovski.
But the average Lebanese worker earns less than $10,000 a year and can’t afford the new multimillion-dollar residences or the swank offerings from the boutiques of Ermenegildo Zegna or Swarovski.
4- I blame Solidere for a lot of things but DT Beirut was booming and alive before 2006. Tourists and Lebanese loved eating, partying and just walking in DT Beirut but it all changed after the 2006 war and the endless political tensions. Nevertheless, Solidere has been doing a lot of wrong things and should take part of the blame.
After the civil war, Hariri founded a state-affiliated company, Solidere, which led the rebuilding effort and now manages downtown like a virtual municipality. The company, which declined to comment for this article, has been accused by architects, heritage-preservation organizations and everyday Lebanese of driving out the area’s original property owners and unnecessarily demolishing historical buildings.
5- I honestly don’t think parks are the answer here. Uruguay street is booming because it’s a cozy street where people can go and have few drinks. The real problem nowadays is that Beirut Souks and the lower part of Down Town Beirut are attracting everyone while the upper part is dead because it only has restaurants and there are no parking lots around it anymore. Add to that the fact that the road is closed every time there’s a parliament session or a demonstration. Maybe restaurants should try reopen in the lower part and see how things work out. Uruguary street is doing great and more pubs are opening every month.
Preservation activists and many Beirut residents say a rethinking of the center is badly needed. Hallak, the architect, said business would benefit from more cultural projects and public spaces. This would mean creating parks to attract families and sacrificing some profit for preservation, she said. For example, the building that once housed the famed Opera Cinema could become a cultural center, she said. Currently, it is a Virgin Megastore.
All in all, the fact that only millionaires can afford buying apartments in Beirut is not why the city is without a soul. Residential and commercial prices were always high but the city was alive and kicking. I used to spend hours in traffic just to go party at Buddha part and walk in the streets of Beirut. I think what this city needs is for the municipality to drop its rent prices to encourage businesses to reopen and create more parking spaces. Moreover, and some people are going to laugh here, but relocating the parliament to another remote location would most definitely bring back some life to Beirut and make a lot of Lebanese happy.
Thanks Mustapha for the article!
The article sheds lights on something we’re all aware of . I agree that some of the information is subject to dispute – however, I strongly disagree with your intervention regarding point number 2.
On what grounds do you claim that the reconstruction has not destroyed historic buildings? What are your qualifications to be a judge on the matter? What defines a historic buildings?
The right phrase was “did not demolish all historical buildings” sorry I corrected it. I’ve visited Beirut when it was still destroyed and followed up on Solidere’s work. They restored a lot of buildings and destroyed those whose cost to restore was too high. Down Town Beirut where the parliament is and where tourists used to come has a special trait that was preserved to reflect Beirut’s history. No skyscrapers there.
Thanks for the rectification, it makes more sense now.
Solidere did what they thought was correct but as you rightfully said, Beirut’s downtown has got everything but people – which somehow means Solidere made critical mistakes. Proper reconstruction relies on a holistic vision that integrates many urban and social factors, not just preserving architectural character and disallowing skyscrapers in specific areas.
I sincerely hope 2015 will be the year where lebanese citizens will genuinely reconnect with their downtown.
Happy new year!
I sincerely hope you get a better resolution 😉
DT Beirut was, before the civil war, the meeting point for ALL the lebanese people, from all regions. They coverged to that spot looking for all their needs in specific souks, scattered all over the area. So you had streets for clothing, fabrics, gold, foodstuff, electric and mechanical goods and appliances,banks, etc,etc. All these and others complemented by cinemas,theaters, restaurants, cafés, bars, nightclubs, red light zone,etc.etc.
It was the heart of the whole country, beating according to its mood and circumstances. It was Paradise …
The buildings had their own wear and patina, adding a charm that only the passing of time bestows upon things. Businesses were inherited by sons and grandsons through generations upon generations, so reputations and acknowledgement came from tradition and continuity.
Where are those families now? How can you atract the Lebanese back to a place where nothing of the above can be found anymore? I belong to an older generation of course, and am very nostalgic by nature; but I think Najib´s generation deserves to “feel” what it is like to have your capital´s DT as the “melting pot” of the entire nation.
Unfortunately I cannot see this becoming reality in such a pasteurized setting, where all the buildings look the same, the streets look the same, and the SOUL has vanished forever !!!
The evolution of the city comes out natural. The old souks of fabrics,gold, electricity changes due you out generation convenience. At that time if you wanted to purchase a suite you will have to pick the cloth, the buttons & wait a couple of days for you first fitting . Nowadays “nobody got time for that”. The whole city changed drastically due to million factors ( dynamics of the city, demographics, globalism etc. )
Overpriced and lousy,since you mentioned Grand Cafe ,imagine Grand Cafe charges for nuts served on the table before you even order anything or those restaurants where they charge you for water before you order anything .
They should be ashamed of themselves and pleaaase let them not blame it on the rents .I’d rather not open a restaurant in Dt then to charge people for a couple of nuts and blame ot on the rent
Absolutely! Times have indeed changed! But amazingly, we still have the Londons,Paris, NYCs of the world, all preserving their heritage, or even fully restoring it, like so many european cities devastated in WWII. And we also have them WITHOUT DTs, like LA, mocked by all for that.
No time to wait for a suit? Oh YES, we are soooooooooooooo busy in Beirut….
Nonsense. Beirut’s centre-ville has suffered much more from solidere’s demolitions than from the war’s.
In fact, you should think again about your approach. Rafik Hariri had views on the centre-ville since 1982. His society, Saudi Oger, demolished all the zaitouné district, the khan antoun bey (which ironically they want to rebuild today), some buildings on the port, the “hot” district between Gemmayze and Martyrs’ square (Al-Mutannabi street’s lupanars). All of which are beautiful buildings.
In addition to these demolitions, since 1990, Hariri’s solidere demolished the old souks, wadi abou jmil’s buildings(which were in excellent shape until 2010!), the Martyrs’ square’s buildings, and many buildings in actual saif i village.
All these buildings could be saved, easily saved. The reason that was given by solidere was “it was too expensive”. Expensive? Why is the cost of a long-term project like the rebirth of a downtown taken into account? Slowly, the state would have found enough money to ensure the saving of all.buildings, during these 25 years… Solidere gives priority to profit instead of heritage preservation.
A private lucrative company’s primary objective is money, obviously. Not heritage.
After the war, the centre-ville still belonged to various lebanese from the 3 religions. Solidere wiped out this diversity, it became the land of only one family, the Hariri. It wasn’t complicated to renovate the whole district, without any contributions of the inhabitants. It was common sense: were they responsible of the war? It would have been normal if the state, which failure led to the conflict, took into charge the complete renovation of all the buildings, not only there, but in all Lebanon. But again, the state serves the lebanese people, solidere serves the Hariri family. Other priorities.
Today, the revival of the central district can’t be done without wiping off solidere and giving back their properties to the old beirutis and their families.
By the way, mister nagib, no skyscrapers? Seriously? Instead of the zaitouné old district and the seafront with historical cafés like kahwet el bahr and kahwet el hajj daoud, and the normandy hotel, and the royale hotel etc., you have today the four seasons tower, the huge monroe hotel, the platinum tower etc. Besides, the final project of Solidere, on the landfills, will change beirut’s waterfront and make it look definitely like another soul-less dubai. Even though these towers will not be built in the place of old buildings, they are going to make beirut look even uglier, and terminate the demolition of its charm.
. , well said !
The number of buildings that have been restored is a little less than 300 while there were around 1000 buildings in the area, meaning at least 2/3 were destroyed–that is according to a recent presentation by Solidere at LAU that I attended last month. Most major districts and neighborhoods in the city were razed: Saifi, Zaitouni, Martyrs Square, the many souks, Wadi Abu Jameel, and others.
Our perception of the decisions that were taken by Soldiere in the early 1990s (what was restorable, what was not, what was the best way to rebuild) is inherently conditioned by the huge amounts that were spent on selling the project–TV commercials, PR campaigns, grandiose artist sketches, talk of billions in economic growth–it was the language many of us naturally wanted to hear coming out of a war and seeing the eyesore of destruction down there. But in terms of actual facts and how laws were changed, properties appraised, infrastructure costs, who owned what and who stood to benefit most– there has been major issues with transparency till this day. I’ve written an in-depth piece about it last year for Al Jazeera English, which was quoted by the Post article, if you are interested, I’d be happy to hear your feedback: http://www.beirutreport.com/2014/01/erasing-memory-in-downtown-beirut.html