A Beirut spring

The need to re­shape and re­vi­tal­ize Le­banon’s cap­i­tal

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The need to re­shape and re­vi­tal­ize Le­banon’s cap­i­tal

The tell­tale signs that her­ald spring in Le­banon are al­ready in full

swing: the longer days, the blos­som­ing street­side flow­ers and trees, and the mounds of janarek (sour plums), freize (straw­ber­ries), and akidinya (lo­quats) at road­side fruit stalls have all made their early ap­pear­ance this year. This is in ad­di­tion to the most in­dica­tive—and sad—sign of all, the al­most eerie empti­ness of Beirut on week­ends and hol­i­days. In win­ter, this void is not as ob­vi­ous in the city sim­ply be­cause few pedes­tri­ans are about any­where and car traffic is al­ways over­bear­ing. But come spring, peo­ple head to their vil­lage homes.

It is ar­guably nor­mal for city dwellers ev­ery­where to de­camp to the moun­tains or sea­side for a change from their rou­tine or a breath of fresh air dur­ing their time off work, and more so in Le­banon where dis­tances—the dreaded traffic jams aside—are short, and thus en­cour­age week­end es­capes. But, in Beirut, the de­sire to flee this city seems to run so deep that there is a mount­ing and tan­gi­ble sense of dis­con­tent among its in­hab­i­tants that in­ten­si­fies with ev­ery sunny week­end un­til the last day of sum­mer. Could this be be­cause of the low qual­ity of ur­ban life the cap­i­tal is pro­vid­ing its res­i­dents with? More and more Beirut dwellers are com­plain­ing about the end­less traffic grid­locks, the in­creas­ing lev­els of pol­lu­tion, the lack of well-main­tained and eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble pub­lic green spaces, the sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of Beirut’s ur­ban her­itage and cul­tural fab­ric, the heightened cost of liv­ing, and the list goes on.

The trou­ble is not only with the city’s wan­ing ap­peal to its na­tives and res­i­dents. Beirut’s touris­tic ap­peal has been de­clin­ing as well, with for­eign vis­i­tors head­ing to cleaner sea shores north or south of the cap­i­tal or to more au­then­tic and cul­tur­ally in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in Le­banon’s ru­ral ar­eas. Ez­zat Ko­raytem, man­ag­ing part­ner of Its.—a media and events or­ga­niz­ing com­pany—and sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Beirut Cul­tural Fes­ti­val (BCF), be­lieves this is es­pe­cially true with re­gards to sum­mer cul­tural fes­ti­vals, adding that this was the driver be­hind the in­cep­tion of BCF.

“In all other cities across the world, there are ac­tiv­i­ties go­ing on in the sum­mer, but in Le­banon these ac­tiv­i­ties hap­pen in ar­eas out­side the cap­i­tal. Beirut is ne­glected, with peo­ple only land­ing at the air­port, and then spend­ing most of their time out of the city. So we thought that some­one should take care of Beirut, and so, we cre­ated the Beirut Cul­tural Fes­ti­val in 2015. The goal of the or­ga­ni­za­tion was to make sure that the heart al­ways beats in all of Beirut,” Ko­raytem ex­plains. The first edi­tion of BCF, orig­i­nally planned for 2015, was meant to take place in Ne­jmeh Square but got can­celed be­cause of its clo­sure to the pub­lic fol­low­ing protests in the area. Since then two edi­tions of BCF have taken place—in the Water­front dis­trict in 2016 and in the Beirut Hip­po­drome in 2017—and in­deed the now an­nual event has contributed to plac­ing Beirut on Le­banon’s cul­tural fes­ti­vals map. But the BCF, while com­mend­able, is nowhere near enough to re­claim Beirut’s po­si­tion as a sum­mer cul­tural des­ti­na­tion.

Beirut is in dire need of re­vi­tal­iza­tion. There needs to be a clear and shared vi­sion that guides pub­lic and pri­vate stake­hold­ers and civil so­ci­ety to­ward re­al­iz­ing con­crete so­lu­tions for the main chal­lenges fac­ing ur­ban life in Beirut—com­plete with a strat­egy to achieve them and a del­e­ga­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity. This will not only make the qual­ity of life of its cit­i­zens im­mea­sur­ably bet­ter; it will also draw tourists back to Beirut.

REIMAG­IN­ING BEIRUT

There is no bet­ter time than this sec­ond quar­ter of 2018 to em­bark on this mis­sion of reimag­in­ing Beirut—and not just be­cause it hap­pens to be spring sea­son right at the time when Beirut is in need of its own re­birth. The CEDRE donor con­fer­ence in April se­cured pledges for fund­ing needed to im­ple­ment Le­banon’s Cap­i­tal In­vest­ment Plan (CIP). Many of the projects pro­posed in the CIP ad­dress is­sues fac­ing Beirutis, in­clud­ing the lack of pub­lic trans­port and proper in­fras­truc­ture. The CIP also in­cludes projects un­der the head­ing of cul­ture, tourism, and in­dus­try re­lat­ing to “the restora­tion of un­spec­i­fied ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites and her­itage build­ings, the sup­port of un­spec­i­fied mu­se­ums, and al­lo­ca­tions of money to cin­ema, the arts, pub­lic li­braries, and ed­u­ca­tional fa­cil­i­ties” (see ar­ti­cle in Ex­ec­u­tive’s April 2018 is­sue). It is hoped that at least some of these projects will be in Beirut.

Through a se­ries of up­com­ing ar­ti­cles, Ex­ec­u­tive will be ad­dress­ing the many di­men­sions of re­shap- ing ur­ban life in Beirut. We want to start right where the ur­ban land­scape con­trasts its greatest tourism and hospi­tal­ity po­ten­tials with the greatest des­o­la­tion in spring and sum­mer: the city cen­ter. Down­town Beirut, re­built in stages be­gin­ning in the 1990s un­der the man­date of The Le­banese Com­pany for the De­vel­op­ment and Re­con­struc­tion of Beirut Cen­tral Dis­trict sal, bet­ter known as Solid­ere, is where the po­ten­tial to re­vi­tal­ize hospi­tal­ity and tourism in the cap­i­tal is log­i­cally con­cen­trated. With its wide spa­cious roads, pretty build­ings, nu­mer­ous glitzy hospi­tal­ity venues, yacht ma­rina, and largely landscaped roads it is easy to as­sume that Beirut Cen­tral Dis­trict (BCD) and its his­toric po­lit­i­cal core, Ne­jmeh Square, is al­ready a touris­tic hub. But, as the say­ing goes, not all that glit­ters is gold. There are sev­eral el­e­ments that need to be ad­dressed in the area, in­clud­ing the lack of pub­lic green spaces and venues for cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties, be­fore it can meet the needs of the modern day tourist or ur­ban dweller.

As part of its mas­ter plan for BCD, Solid­ere be­lieves that Water­front—a land­filled dis­trict on the north side of Down­town which is still un­der de­vel­op­ment—and sev­eral other projects that are yet to be com­pleted in BCD will have el­e­ments that of­fer a more com­plete tourism pack­age to Beirut’s vis­i­tors, as well as an im­proved qual­ity of life for its dwellers.

Water­front to­day houses sev­eral night clubs that are more than happy with the sur­round­ing empti­ness, which al­lows them to pump up the vol­ume as high as it goes with no com­plaints from the nonex­is­tent neigh­bors—the area’s cen­tral location does not hurt busi­ness ei­ther. These con­cepts are cer­tainly suc­cess­ful con­trib­u­tors to nightlife in Beirut and have proven so for Rabih Fakhred­dine, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of 7 Man­age­ment which op­er­ates three out of the nine hospi­tal­ity venues in the dis­trict.

Through a se­ries of up­com­ing ar­ti­cles, EX­EC­U­TIVE will be ad­dress­ing the many di­men­sions of re­shap­ing ur­ban life in Beirut.

This town, is com­ing like a ghost town. Down­town Beirut lacks the bustling crowds usu­ally found in city cen­ters.

The birds of­ten out­num­ber the hu­mans in Beirut’s Ne­jmeh Square.

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