This post was written on May 2, 2011. Since then, it's been posted, then re-posted, and now re-posted again a third time, after Posterous.com's shutdown forced the first displacement. This has meant that many of the original links are broken, and most of the original images have reduced quality due to data transfer errors when I first moved it to WordPress.
I like this aesthetic. It seems fitting for the subject.
Yesterday, on International Workers Day, Save Beirut Heritage held the sit-in that I mentioned in a previous post, at the site of the future Aya Towers. I only stayed for the first 30 minutes or so, as I wanted to take part in a solidarity march in Hamra, but had enough time to get a feel of the movement.
LBC was starting to interview the organizers as I arrived. I was impressed by the group's passion and the politicization of their discourse, even though they'd probably argue that the issue is apolitical, given the ugly connotation that the word 'politics' has in our society. Everyone seemed well-informed, creative & hard-working - and I even heard murmurs of escalated mobilization in the future (but you didn't read that here).
As Celine pointed out, the crowd that gathered was much smaller than expected, given the great show of support online, but perhaps this was due to the overlap in May Day activities happening in different areas. Regardless of the number that made it down there (and of how long they stayed), the fact that this issue is even being raised in the city that rolls-with-the-punches, and that people are dedicating energy to fight for it, is already significant.
Yet there is one factor that is hard to ignore. This group is very much composed of the "creative class," or to put it more bluntly, of "urban hipsters". This is not to disparage the activists as individuals, as I too am pretty much a hipster in my relationship with the city. People like us value these buildings for their aesthetic and cultural significance, and are attracted to areas like Mar Mikhael because they are 'authentic', while our relationship with them is not. And in our attraction, we make these places cool, which in turn makes us a contributing factor in the destruction that we lament.
The disconnect between the group's aims and the desires of the local residents became apparent when a man approached us to talk about his problem with the spread of pubs from Gemmeyze. "Our neighborhood is ruined", he said, and though the main SBH organizer was sympathetic, it was clear that their priorities were different: "We cannot stop people from selling their property; on the contrary, we want them to benefit. But once they sell, these buildings should be protected, not torn down."
The LBC reporter was not even interested in hearing the man's story, saying "oh we've done a lot of reports on that."
Funnily enough, the resident seemed to be more aware of the enmeshed nature of the gentrification process that is both destroying the area and now generating a resistance to the destruction: "It's all tied together" he said. "Those who can afford it, leave the area. Those who can't are stuck with the pubs."
BEIRUT IS WHOSE?
Ideally, the influx of new businesses in such areas should help regenerate them, funding municipal works and community events. But more often than not, this influx raises rents and attracts people with a temporary and/or superficial connection to the place, creating tensions with the local residents who have lived there for years. More needs to be done to create a "big tent" movement around this cause, factoring in all concerns, because - after all - the only reason these buildings are deemed 'Beirut Heritage' is because they have been inhabited for a long time. Indeed, the very "character" that attracts us is a measure of the rootedness of the communities that live there; the weathered look and quaint architecture was once clean and modern, and was meant to be a space where families are raised. Let's not allow our own particular love for the city overshadow that other love enshrined in the mundanity of dining room discussions and a full night's sleep.
Beirut is... for everyone who calls it home.
POSTSCRIPT: Follow this deeplink for more on what Dubai "is" or "is not." Click here for more on the limits of architecture as politics.