Dan Azzi
September 2017


Gentrification in Beirut

Dan AzziDan Azzi

When you think of wars, to most people they seem so theoretical, so academic, so “high school history.” Like when you’re walking through the ruins in Rome and being told about Roman history and its vast empire. Like when you’re walking through a tour of Gettysburg and being shown where General Lee was applying his brilliant tactics against an opponent who vastly outnumbered him. Or when you’re in France near the Arc de Triomphe. Does anyone today imagine that Germany would come marching through the Ardennes Forest at any second and troops would goose step through the Champs-Élysées? I mean for some of us it wasn’t that long ago. My dad was already born when that happened and he would remember it like you might remember the LA Riots or the election of the first African American President. So why is it so hard for you to imagine things like that happening today?
But it’s different for us living here in the Middle East, such as me living in the Lebanon zip code, which always reminds me of that comedian who said “I live in a neighborhood so tough that my zip code was 911.” 
I don’t have to just imagine it – after all, I lived through it. But there’s actually more to it than that. Bullet-holes still riddle the walls of buildings pretty much in any neighborhood in the city, which is all the more strange, when you see some of the multi-million dollar duplexes in the new high rises. 

When you think of gentrification in, say a US city, like where you live, it probably means a really shitty-ass neighborhood, whose buildings are knocked down or renovated, that slowly metamorphoses into nice and expensive dwellings, while the old inhabitants, who have sold their houses for more than they ever imagined, move far away. I actually remember New York in the the old days, with all the graffiti on the walls and the dirty subways, and the high crime and mugging, and I also know it today, where it’s one of the most beautiful and safe big cities in the world. For example, the neighborhood around Columbia University, used to be called Harlem, then became Spanish Harlem, then became Morning Side Heights, with the associated increase in the price per square foot.  

There’s that type of gentrification here in Lebanon, too, if the neighborhood were totally wiped out in the war. Downtown, also called Solidere, is like that. It’s absolutely beautiful, but somehow has a Hollywood studio set feel to it, validated by the scarcity of traffic, much of it Lebanese actors, trying to close the latest deal.

Similarly, they play the name game, too, usually by adding “New” in front of the name. Mar Takla is a nice area, but it’s too expensive for the developer, so let’s buy next to it, and call it New Mar Takla – we might actually get away with charging more – after all it’s New. Sometimes, they’re able to totally rebrand an area. Usually, the worst neighborhoods in the country are the ones in or around the Palestinian Camps. Those actually make the worst neighborhoods in the inner cities in the US look like Beverly Hills. But here in Lebanon, they actually took one of those, Dbayeh Camp, subtracted “Camp”, added “Marina” with some sea reclamation, and presto-bingo, they got away with charging $6,000 per square meter in Dbayeh Marina, 12 kilometers away, in the suburbs. That’s like charging $1.2 million for a tiny apartment in Hackensack, New jersey.

But in most places in Beirut, gentrification would skip a building or two, so in many neighborhoods of the city, you get this weird mosaic of a huge glass tower, with a decrepit, but beautiful, short, old building or even a house. It’s almost like attending a beauty pageant where the contestants are a mixture of the Swedish Bikini Team and your grandmother. Except that some of us, like me, are rooting for your grandmother.

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