SHAFAQNA- This is going to sound like a self-help post, and it could somehow qualify as such. It’s a call for a buildup of self-helps for Beirut. People and cities shape each other on a daily basis, and this relationship could be used to create a better city with happier people. Last week I moved from Beirut to Beirut. I moved for many reasons, most tangibly the building being built in front of my balcony was killing every last drop of my empathy towards this city. After having lived in the Mar Mikhael area, north of Gemmayzé, for around four years, I can say that I sadly witnessed its fast decay from a cozy, interesting neighborhood to a trendy hotspot. With the exponentially increasing attention to Mar Mikhael, investments left the corpse of Gemmayzé to its northern extension: eating, digesting and eventually spitting it out as waste.
I may be part of the waste being excavated and thrown out of the area. I am a young, Lebanese citizen who is not willing to keep up with the increase in rents with no services in return. I, like many others, will not mind paying a little extra for a functional city. If I knew that even a lira of my taxes would go into regulating the growth of my neighborhood I wouldn’t mind paying. If there was some way that the ridiculously increasing rents could contribute to bettering shared assets such as sidewalks, public spaces, gardens, and streetlights to name a few, I would take on some extra projects to afford the happiness. The sad news though is that this institutional mode of reform is far-fetched in Beirut, and as usual, as citizens of a failed state, each has to find their own ways to make peace with their lives and if possible, make this place more habitable for others in the process.
I like to believe that I moved from Beirut to Beirut to make my life [and this city] a better place, and I think it’s a potentially replicable scheme where people could improve this city by relocating in the process of attempting to improve their own lives. It’s almost a simple mathematical equation. In my case, I wanted to decrease noise, traffic and cost. I wouldn’t survive in this city otherwise, and although I am sometimes convinced that it’s time to bid it farewell, I do want to make the “here” work for me. It’s quite a big sacrifice to leave everything behind, and it makes it almost not worth it, but let’s make this place work.
The trick about picking a new home is to try not to compromise on the main axes of change. I think what I wanted to change about Beirut is quite common, so let’s use that as a template. No more noise. No more traffic. No more money waste. For noise, pick an old building; they have better walls. If possible, find a ground floor with a garden or a roof with a terrace, and plant some low maintenance greens to filter out the city. It’s not impossible to find a good house, but it can be time-consuming. Ask around, and don’t roll your eyes at Facebook groups like Apartments in Beirut; I found my place on one.
For traffic and cost, pick a home close to where you work or spend most of your time. The lack of efficient public transport in this city cancels out the luxury of living far from where you do most things. I have rekindled my relationship with the Hamra area over the past year, especially that I was growing tired of every other hip new establishment near my home in Mar Mikhael. For a while, I was spending most of my time two or three “service” tariffs away from home. A “service” in Beirut is a 2,000 Lebanese lira increment getting you a seat in a cab. The supposedly long forgotten East and West dissection of Beirut still lives on with the city’s cab drivers making it quite hard and expensive to move around. That’s money and time lost if you can’t walk from your designated points A and B.
Minimize the distance between your activities and walk. That’s less traffic, cost and noise. Although real estate developments are munching on every shred of space, Beirut is still a somewhat pleasant place to walk. It’s not comfortable per se, but it’s an adventure. From my new house in the quite affordable area of Zqaq el Blatt, my walk to Hamra is a stroll through patchworks of very different times. The buildings alternate between the traditional mansions, modernist monoliths and contemporary commercial constructions. My everyday route houses a public garden in Sanayeh and a future public library across the street.
I try to discover something new, or say hello to a random shop owner to spark a conversation when I have time. It helps to be aware of the city. It keeps it alive, both literally and figuratively. Most of the damage happening to Beirut is caused by the fact that its people aren’t that aware of what is being destroyed. And that’s because life here could easily become the point A, the point B and the traffic in between. Beirut is a tough cookie. It can simultaneously be described as a beautiful enigmatic place and a hell in urban dress. It’s up to us to perceive it the way we want it to be. Waiting for legislation to ‘enforce’ better guidelines for the urban, namely assigning pedestrian streets, regulating noise levels and traffic, is futile. How about we find ways to bypass the existing mess by individual action? Won’t the sum of positive individual actions create a collectively better city by default?