[Published in Architectural Review, June 2014]
VIEW FROM BEIRUT
Gripped by a wave of gentrification, Beirut’s coastal promenade acts as an enduring social mixer for an increasingly ghettoised populace, says the AR’s Middle East correspondent
In Beirut nothing works except the people. It is ungoverned and entropic, a busy city with few police, no enforced zoning and no organised transport system. This is a city without parks or a central plaza yet quality of life is high. You can understand why along the city’s Mediterranean corniche, a wide waterfront promenade where Lebanese of all classes and sects mingle in harmony, unmolested by security forces and development.
The corniche runs a mile along the coast, demarcated on one side by a new luxury marina and on the other by a headland occupied by the military. Horrific residential towers line the inland side of the corniche road, blocking the sea views of the old neighbourhoods on the bluff above.
Vendors clink coffee cups to advertise their wares. Men on bikes sell crescent loaves of bread laced with sumac, za’atar or cheese. In the evenings, there’s boiled hominy and grilled corn on the cob. Children on bikes weave through the stream of pedestrians; so does the occasional motorbike.
This is perhaps the only truly mixed zone in a stratified city that’s become in so many other ways a libertarian paradise for the rich and a daily affront to the poor. The rich ladies-who-lunch clad in Juicy Couture jog alongside men from the suburbs in knock-off tracksuits. Boys dive in the sea from the railing. Families bring waterpipes and stools and picnic across the avenue from the expensive condos.
As lived, the space is a product of the nature and the enduring tastes of its residents. Since the war, Beirut has segregated into a patchwork of sectarian enclaves, and the rich have increasingly walled themselves off from the rest. Yet there’s a countervailing force that’s more evident here than anywhere else. Sunnis from West Beirut, Christians from the East and Shia from the southern suburb feel equal ownership of the corniche. In recent years when they’ve resorted to violence, they’ve continued to mingle peacefully on the corniche. There are no visible guards, just sporadic army patrols. Here, Beirutis self-police.
A mile to the east lies the ‘New Corniche’, a wide paved stretch along the reclaimed land that’s part of Solidere, the private megaproject that turned the historic downtown into a gated development controlled by family of the assassinated Sunni political boss Rafik Hariri. The New Corniche has no history. The landfill it flanks is barren although will soon be a hotel and entertainment zone. Solidere’s security guards roam the walkway.
And yet, despite the forbidding extra layer around public access, the Beiruti public has quickly claimed the New Corniche too. They ignore the unarmed guards who order them not to ride bikes on the cement. They climb over concrete barricades to picnic.
There’s much to find enraging in Beirut, a city whose cultural and architectural patrimony has been gutted by a corrupt and unaccountable elite. It’s a city of communities with no communal space, where the right to private property trumps the rights of the individual citizen.
Yet the anarchy that benefits megaprojects like Solidere and the sterile area encasing the New Corniche also leaves residents free to intervene in the city. Drivers can park on the pavement, but pedestrians can turn the street into an open-air café. A crumbling, abandoned house on my street serves by morning as a vegetable market and by afternoon as a car park for a maternity ward.
Those who love the city worry that Solidere’s downtown will remain a Disneyland for the rich and that people will be ghettoised by class and sect in Balkanised neighbourhoods. But the corniche says otherwise. Beirutis like to stroll by the sea. In the evenings they smoke sheesha with friends or people-watch. This communal pleasure hasn’t been stamped out either by civil war or the dizzying gentrification that followed.