Next week there is a protest to call for the opening of Beirut’s only major park, which has been closed for decades. The mayor has repeatedly warned that the public is simply not ‘ready’ to use the space and may damage it. I recently traveled to a few parks in the US to find out how city governments cope with such unruly public spaces– and actually let people use them– in my monthly column for Bold Magazine.
By Habib Battah
As we pulled up to the guard gate, the Florida park ranger probably thought I was crazy when I got out of the car to take a picture of the sign above her head. It read: “$8 per vehicle, $2 for cyclists and pedestrians.”
A sign like this may be normal in parks across the US, but for a Lebanese person on vacation, it almost felt outrageous. Once you drive inside, there are vast green fields set up for baseball and soccer games, dozens of picnic tables under palm trees with built-in barbecue stations and then, a massive stretch of sand beach. All this for the $8 per car and up to eight persons per vehicle or just $1 per person.
By contrast, in Lebanon, where most of the coast has been colonized by private resorts, beach access can cost a minimum of $20 per person. No cooking is allowed, so you’ll need to dish out an additional $15 per person for food and drinks at pricey on-site establishments. That means instead of paying $8, in Beirut that same family of eight could end up paying at least $280 or over half the monthly minimum wage of around $500. That’s expensive even for elites. But for the majority of the country that is poor, it means you simply won’t be able to enjoy a restful beach day or any public space.
Instead, in Beirut, lower income families can be found slipping under a fence near the corniche promenade to perch precariously over a pile of rocks or take a dip in a sewage infested area. How sustainable is that? How healthy is it to keep the poor bottled up with no place to breathe, no place to unwind from the daily stress of the city while the rich sip cocktails and stretch out as they please.
Ridiculous as it may seem, Lebanese resort owners will certainly argue that they are providing a public service. Had it not been for them, people would make a mess, leaving their garbage everywhere as is the case in many parts of Lebanon. To some extent this may be true. But why is that? Is it because the Lebanese people are “dirty”? The claim is made often by foreign observers and local elites, among them the mayor of Beirut, who complained during a recent lecture that he could not open city’s largest park (which has been closed for decades) due to a lack of orderly citizen conduct. Speaking at the American University of Beirut earlier this year, the mayor painted a picture of an unappreciative and dangerous public. With an expression of disgust on his face, he described the garbage found ‘daily’ inside Horsh Beirut park, particularly the waste of drug addicts. “Everyday we pick up needles” he exclaimed, gesturing excitedly.
Not only were the citizens dirty or abusive, they could also be violent, even lazy. Without providing any specific evidence, the mayor complained that public spaces evolve into places where fights over politics break out. He lamented that a city basketball court had become a place where locals gathered to “put their feet up and watch television.” The mayor then wistfully recalled his university years in the more civilized United States in Austin, Texas, where he described himself as being active at camping and swimming. Indeed Austin is known for its lush parks and natural springs. The most famous of them is Zilker Park with a giant pool and picnic areas that can be accessed for as little as $3 per adult and $1 per child. But how does it work? Like the aforementioned park in Florida, there are garbage cans and garbage collection, and regularly scheduled cleaning. There are rules– like no entrance after sunset–and park rangers patrolling in vehicles to enforce them.
So why doesn’t the Beirut mayor offer something comparable to his good old college days for constituents in Lebanon? In fact how is the public supposed to properly dispose of garbage if there are no garbage cans in most Lebanese public spaces? How would any American park stay orderly if the city offered no personnel to maintain or police it?
Cynics are likely to argue that Beirut simply cannot afford such maintenance and monitoring services, but according to several news reports quoting council members, the city has amassed around $1 billion in reserves. How that money is spent remains a mystery as the municipality does not make its budget accessible to the public. In fact, the billion-dollar city of Beirut does not even have a website to communicate with citizens about its activities or spending. During his recent AUB lecture, the mayor suggested it was not his fault but the governor of the city who had prevented the establishment of a website. Yet he offered no reason or details as to how or why on earth that could happen.
On the other hand, the municipality has recently been spending money on keeping parts of the coast private. A municipal police station has recently been erected on the last major stretch of Beirut coast where the poor and middle class often congregate, swim in natural pools and have barbeques. Known as Dalieh, the massive vacant plot of seafront land has been a swimming and picnic spot frequented by Beirut families for generations. But the property has recently been purchased by developers and fenced off, pending construction.
State and municipal police have deployed to the site to try keep people out but have so far proved unsuccessful as hundreds continue to visit the area on weekends through an opening in the fence. They have been supported by a group of urban professionals and activists, who have organized weekend gatherings to occupy the space with protests, live music and teach-ins. They carry banners and homemade wooden benches, providing at long last, spaces for residents to sit, enjoy or express themselves, making up, if only temporarily, for the municipality’s failures. The group, which calls itself The Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh, includes lawyers, architects, urban planners and professors and they have been busy lobbying high level officials. Many have offered tacit support to their cause. Some, such as the Environment minister, have spoken out publicly against the privatization of the city’s last undeveloped shore, posting pictures of the fence and decrying the assault on public space.
At a time when citizen rights are trampled upon across Lebanon and the region, the grassroots Dalieh movement offers a breath of fresh air. It provides an alternative to the cynical and dehumanizing language used so often to ridicule the low income classes, to subdue their legitimate rights to secure the investments and long term profitability of ruling families and their associates. Of course these efforts will only gain momentum if they are joined and shared by like-minded individuals, including those that have read this far. It is time to stop accepting public space as a privilege reserved for those living in other countries. As activists have shown, access to the city can be demanded but it will not demand itself.
This column was originally published in the Sept. 2014 issue of Bold Magazine