‘Call Me a Dreamer.’ A Shattered Beirut Neighborhood Rebuilds


BEIRUT, Lebanon — After the August port explosion that disfigured a lot of Beirut, many in contrast the town to a phoenix that might rise once more.

“We are staying,” learn some indicators within the well-known nightlife district of Mar Mikhael, one of many worst-hit neighborhoods. Down the principle thoroughfare in Gemmayzeh, one other badly broken space whose sleek previous buildings housed storied households and Beirut newcomers alike, it was the identical: Residents vowed to return, and banners on buildings promised to rebuild.

Two months later, some companies have begun to reopen, and groups of volunteer engineers and designers are working to save lots of heritage buildings. But even the bullish say they don’t consider a full restoration is feasible, pointing to the shortage of presidency management and sources, mixed with an imploding financial system that has put even fundamental repairs past the wallets of many residents.

“When you spend years planting something,” he said, “and suddenly there’s something that cuts the plant down, you hope the roots are there.”

But he was not sure whether everything that made Demo what it had been would return — the small shops and bakeries nearby that gave the street life, neighbors who stopped in for coffee or a beer.

“Everyone that works at Demo, or lives around it, needs to get back and get their lives back,” he said. “But it’s not just Demo, it’s a whole neighborhood. For years, I walked through Gemmayzeh daily. Now it’s not there anymore. What form it’ll take, I don’t know.”

Fadlo Dagher’s family began building their pale-blue villa on the main street of Gemmayzeh in 1820. To him, the houses in the neighborhood — and throughout Beirut — represent the tolerant, diverse, sophisticated country Lebanon was meant to be.

“This is the image of openness,” he said, “the image of a cosmopolitan culture.”

The houses — generally wide dwellings a few stories high, with red tiled roofs and tall, street-facing triple-arched windows opening onto a central hall — began appearing in Beirut by the mid-1800s, after the city grew into a hub for trade between Damascus, Syria, and the Mediterranean.

The style blended architectural ideas from Iran, Venice and Istanbul. While the new houses’ walls were of Lebanese sandstone, their marble floors and columns were imported from Italy, roof tiles from Marseille, France, and cedar timbers from Turkey.

Despite war, neglect and a 20th-century fashion for high-rises, many of the old houses stood untouched in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael until the explosion, which seriously damaged about 360 structures built between 1860 and 1930.

To abandon them, Mr. Dagher said, would be to jettison one of the few shared legacies of a perpetually fractured country.

“I’d like to imagine that what is happening here, this diversity, this mixed city, that it still exists, that maybe it can reflourish,” he said. “Is it mission impossible? I don’t know. But, OK, call me a dreamer. This is what I want it to be.”

Habib Abdel Massih, his wife and son were in the small corner convenience store he owns in Gemmayzeh when the neighborhood blew apart, injuring all three. He has spent his whole life in the neighborhood, watching it change from quiet residential area to cultural destination.

Her son and daughter-in-law, Roderick and Mary Cochrane, are rebuilding. They do not yet know the price, only that it will be astronomical.

“You restore things because it’s part of the history,” said Ms. Cochrane, an American. She was hospitalized after the explosion but recovered. “We take care of it for future generations.”

Mr. Cochrane added: “Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh should remain a place for Lebanese, for small designers, small shops, small business owners. Without these, there’d be no Beirut. We’d be a city like Dubai.”

Just off the main drag of Mar Mikhael — where the sound of laughter, clinking glasses and pounding car stereos once floated up from the pubs to the balconies nearly every night — sit Butcher’s BBQ and, nearby, a cocktail bar, Tenno. The main street is dark and quiet now; many homes remain uninhabitable.

But Tenno is open.

Bashir Wardini and his partners raised about $15,000 through GoFundMe, and in mid-September muted their doubts and reopened to host a friend’s birthday drinks. They had not been sure customers were ready to return. They were not sure they were ready, either.

“Many of us, and our customers, said, ‘No, you have to reopen, you have to move on, because the street needs to feel some kind of life again,’” Mr. Wardini said.

Tenno looks itself again, but the rest of the neighborhood feels wrong. Mr. Wardini said still he avoids going there, unless he has to.

“It takes a few drinks too many to forget the surroundings,” he said.



Source link Nytimes.com

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