Charmland: A skater’s paradise, for the moment
A group of friends have turned the erstwhile leisure spot into a park
BEIT SHAAR, Lebanon: At the end of a run-down road in an upper-middle class town, the noise of skateboards on concrete and laughing young men rings out from a dilapidated country club – once the domain of the fashionable and well-to-do.
“I’m pretty confident when I say that there is no land like this in Lebanon. There’s a charm to it: Charmland,” Carl Ghorra, one of the original group of longtime friends that breathed new life into the deteriorated compound, told The Daily Star as he pointed to a large faded sign bearing the defunct club’s name.
For more than seven years the group of friends has been working to turn the erstwhile sport and leisure spot into a skate park, foraging for materials to build ramps and obstacles and placing them around the club’s open spaces.
“This was a full-fledged country club,” Kareem Akl said, as he took The Daily Star on a tour of Charmland’s luxury underground squash and basketball courts and nearby stables. “If you spoke with someone older they would say, ‘Wow, Charmland.’ They all used to come here – and then it went to shit.”
Ghorra – whose family has a stake in the club – said that a legal battle over ownership closed Charmland’s gates around a decade ago, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying the tranquility of its grounds.
“Lebanon, with its traffic and pollution – the daily hell … You come here and it’s a timeout, it’s an oasis [away] from all that,” he said.
From the bleachers of Charmland’s now-overgrown horse track, rolling hills, pine trees and wellmaintained villas block Beirut’s concrete jungle from view.
“Sometimes before I go to Beirut and know I’m going to spend 2 hours in traffic, I come here and relax … because I know what’s waiting for me out there.”
The skaters’ self-made paradise has repeatedly been made inaccessible to them by the local municipality, including during Lebanon’s waste crisis in 2015, when the municipality turned the underground basketball court-cum-skate park into a waste-sorting plant.
Now, bits of rails, ramps and other skate park obstacles peak out from under a sea of cardboard and plastic left behind after the facility closed last year. Akl reads out the names of friends immortalized in graffiti, half visible on the sides of the court, many of whom were no longer in the country or in good health.
“What a pity,” Akl added, standing at the base of the cardboard mountain. “We’d practically do anything to skate here again, because [we can come here] rain or shine, it doesn’t matter.”
Together, the group managed to get rid of “one mountain and a half” of the recyclables before being told by the municipality that the refuse would have to remain in place in case the garbage crisis spills into the streets again – a not unlikely event, given the government’s failure to implement long-term solutions.
Since the underground skate park’s closure, most of the shredding has taken place around a vast empty swimming pool. Years back, Akl and his friends got hold of several ramps from Red Bull, including a daring quarter pipe with a nearvertical drop.
Skaters dump their belongings on the bar of a burnt-out shack by the pool’s edge – which, Akl explained, local kids had set fire to “because they said they were cold” – before setting off on their boards.
The young men whoop and pound their skateboards on the ground when one of their number pulls off a difficult or daring trick.
“This is the only free place you can come and play whenever you want,” Akl said, lamenting the lack of skate parks and public space in Beirut.
“We used to [skate in the street] and still do, mostly in the mountains because Beirut is all private property and within five minutes a security guard will tell you to leave – and we’re no longer kids so we don’t fight with them over it,” he said.
Even within the makeshift skate park, the group runs into trouble, however. Authorities reportedly confronted them over alleged drug use on the club’s premises – but the skaters dismiss those claims as absurd, saying that, simply by inhabiting the space, they have pushed away the criminal activity it used to attract.
“When we first came, we used to find needles down there, condoms, everything bad. We cleaned [the premises]. We tell the municipality that: We’re cleaning here, we’re not here to destroy or to take drugs, or to turn it into a brothel – we’re here to skate. And to skate, we want a clean environment to skate in,” Akl said.
Besides the pool/skate park, Ghorra has also put Charmland’s vacant chalets to work as an improvised sanctuary for stray dogs that he says would otherwise be poisoned or shot by municipal order. “I just did it. Off the books, a good deed, and they would have surely been dead if I didn’t take them … I vaccinate them, spay them and deworm them.” Ghorra said, adding that dogs have always been part of his life and now are part of his community of friends.
Three Labrador-crosses warmly greeted Ghorra, as he opened a heavy sliding door.
“It’s a pack,” he said, grinning. “They’re a pack.”
A pack in their own right, Charmland’s founders fondly recount old stories from their shared history in the space, including that one time a taxi driver thought someone was being killed in the basement, due to all the noise. He showed up with a handgun.
The camaraderie between the members is one of the reasons they have a profoundly positive outlook on the space and how it, and skateboarding, has impacted their lives.
“I’ve been doing it for 10 years, so [after that] you owe everything to skateboarding – who you are, how you think. I was shaped because of this,” Akl said.
Asked why they put so much effort into a place that could be taken away from them by a court decision at any moment, Akl turned thoughtful.
“You never know when you’re going to lose all of this, but what are you going to do?” he said. “We put everything we have into this place, even though it won’t last forever. Downstairs, for example, we got kicked out several times. Then, a few months later, it all falls apart and we come back – so no one is going to take this place from us. It’s not easy for someone to come and say, ‘This is mine now’.”
Since the underground skate park’s closure, most of the shredding has taken place around a vast swimming pool.
Majed, a young skater, joins others for some daring fun at “Charmland.”
A skateboarder gets ready to ride as a truck unloads trash inside “Charmland.”
Akl and his friends got hold of several ramps from Red Bull, including a daring quarter pipe with a near-vertical drop.
The group of friends foraged for materials to build ramps and obstacles to create their own skate park.