We were asked to walk about a neighborhood close to campus and write a descriptive text about what we observed, followed by a short “first impressions” section.
29 September 2010
After leaving the Medical Gate I followed the one way roads though the area east of The Parisian Hotel. The area was full of mixed eras of architecture and building standards, each structure struggling against the topography more than the last. Some small crumbling homes, now abandoned, seemed to have sunk into the valleys created by newer construction. Remnants of families gone and stories forgotten lay mixed with new pre-fabricated building materials carelessly thrown from the expansive balconies of recently completed but not yet inhabited construction. Electric lines split 8 or 9 times reach like fingers through windows and into homes. Looking down some breezy shaded alleys I could see beautifully preserved architecture from perhaps the 40’s and 50’s featuring fine lattice work, original wood doors and beautifully carved shutters. The shutters seem almost an anachronistic formality, though, as the windows no longer looked out into the world but into the back of a generator for a 15 story high-rise.
The western portion of Ain el-Mressieh is very crowded with cars and has limited pedestrian traffic. Sidewalks are often crumbling or stop abruptly. Most streets have parked cars on both sides, and a significant amount of construction equipment clogs the streets. Few street signs mark the area, though some buildings have the street name written onto the side as part of the address. The people I did see in the western portion of Ain el-Mressieh were construction crews, building guards and car passengers. I did not see any children or women until I arrived in the vicinity of the Phoenicia Hotel.
The eastern portion of Ain el-Mressieh seems to have a different, less residential feel. From the Hard Rock Café eastward, more restaurants, store fronts and offices begin to dot the streets. Again, few pedestrians are walking, and those I do see appear to be construction workers in near by building sites. Immediately after heading inland from the corniche, the streets become quite steep, and inconveniently twist and wind in unpredictable manners. While walking on Umar Daaouk street, I saw the same car full of people circle the block three times, apparently looking for an address.
The most interesting sight told me the story of what Ain el-Mressieh may have been decades ago, or perhaps merely revealed the coping mechanisms of a population displaced by real estate development successes. Around where Dar el-Mressieh hits Paris, in prime corniche real estate territory, a sink hole hides in the shadow of a new 12 story luxury building. The fancy sign boasted that each flat will be over 300 square meters and feature 3 master bedrooms. Below, closed in by barbed wire and littered with construction materials, is a beautifully terraced and landscaped plot of land which features pomegranate, lime and orange trees.
A simple home is nestled in the corner, it’s delicate but simple facades broken off and strewn about. Some of the construction workers from the neighboring building were lounging in the shade beneath the pomegranate trees having lunch. Soon, it appears, the entire space will be swallowed by the tower, probably for some sort of parking structure. Before long, I can imagine any building standing in the way of a high rise will be gone, with nothing left but faceless towers of rebar and cement competing for sea views.
After visiting Ain el-Mressieh, I continue to think about the competing buildings and competing building interests in the area. I imagine the development and redevelopment of Ain el-Mressieh would be fascinating to view through a time lapse computer model. In its current state, it is so cluttered and the architecture so varied that it is nearly impossible to visualize how the area has progressed. Part of the areas charm is the varied architecture, but buildings are competing for space, street access, views and parking. It is obvious that Ain el-Mressieh has not been subject to a comprehensive urban planning effort.
I wonder how real estate prices are affected by the lack of planning effort in the area. If you pay a lot of money for a sea view, and the next year your property is devaluated by another high rise building which blocks that view, what effect does that have on the owner? On the over all housing market in the area? How does that impact greater Beirut’s market for high end apartments, or affordable housing for that matter? Who lives in that neighborhood? Who should live in that neighborhood? Finally, what do the people who currently live in Ain el-Mressieh want from their community? Is it different than what the people who have bought new flats in the high rise buildings want? If so, how can those differences be reconciled?