Losing Aabrine, erasing a neighborhood

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Gabriel Daher, who is known for posting beautiful images of old Beirut, posted something a bit different today. The photo above appears to be a demolition in progress on Aabrine street, in historic Ashrafieh. Heritage activists say it’s not just the demolition of one building, but that a developer plans to tear down an entire cluster of buildings , pretty much erasing what remains of the neighborhood. (Update from developer below. See notes at bottom of post)

I took a picture of the same building about a year ago, when we first heard it could be endangered:

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Activists say at up to 5 buildings on Aabrine street may also be razed. Here are some of the ones I visited a year ago:

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If they go, we will also be losing their beautiful courtyard area and green spaces:

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We will also be losing their quiet alleyways:

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We will also be losing their windows:

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And their doors:

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I went in through one of them:

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Inside there were the old vaulted ceilings:

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But also rare wood ceilings, with what appeared to be actual tree branches holding them up:

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I wonder if anyone knows how old these could be?

And what happened to the people who used to live here? All that remains are these physical structures, reminding us of a bygone time of urban village life, gardens, small shops and pedestrian traffic.  Will it now be replaced by tinted Range Rovers and big concrete walls?

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We saw a similar cluster get razed a few months ago in Furn El Hayek. Will anyone stand up to the developer this time?

UPDATE 1:

An activist from Save Beirut Heritage just told me the buildings range from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. They raised a complaint with the culture ministry about a year ago, when it was reported that Bank Audi had purchased the land. If anyone has further details, please comment below.

UPDATE 2: (April 24/2015)

In a reply to a Facebook thread on this blog post, Bank Audi has denied buying the plot of land. This is odd because multiple heritage activists have informed me that they are certain the bank was involved at some point fairly recently. It’s not clear if there was a sale or what the banks involvement may have been. A number of activists are now saying a group called Mena Capital is the current owner but I have yet to confirm this. 

UPDATE 3: (April 25/2015)

A source close to one of the developers has just contacted me saying that there is no demolition planned for the photo of the first building in this cluster–the one with the green net over it. Green nets are usually employed for heavy construction works and thus a very common sign of demolition across Beirut when placed on decaying buildings. But the source says the net was only installed to protect pedestrians from falling material and that in fact a renovation is planned for said building. The source–who did not want to be named–says the corner building is actually protected by government heritage listing (which has been confirmed by activists) and thus any demolition would be unlawful. 

The source claims there is a plan to renovate and “hopefully” save the building and turn it into a cultural center.  But the source could not provide further details and also said the timetable for these plans is dependent on financial issues and “factors we have no influence on.” The source also could not comment on the other five buildings in the cluster, saying they were part of a separate development. 

But does this mean any of the buildings are safe? Activists and architects have told me there have been multiple indications that attempts have been made by developers to bypass heritage listings and apply for demolition permits. There has also been talk in the neighborhood of imminent demolitions since the residents vacated a few years ago. Fellow blogger Elie Fares has a great post from 2 years ago looking at the emptying of one building in particular which is part of this cluster. I will follow up on these new developments next week to find out who actually owns these properties and how solid the claimed renovation plans for the corner building are.  

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