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Gemmayze

“We will find where you live,”  a watchman yelled at me after taking a picture of ruins on his construction site. He had followed me across the street to issue the threat, claiming to have memorized the license plate number on my car. “Wait and see what they will do to you when they come to your house.”

Source: Teloduh

This vast site, believed to be a 1st century artisan workshop (for at least part of its occupation), was uncovered late last year and could help tell the little-known story of Berytus, one of the most influential cities in the Roman empire.

Source: L’Orient Le Jour

 

Instead it is scheduled to become a glass skyscraper, serving as the headquarters of a private bank, SGBL (Société Générale de Banque au Liban).

 

The skyscraper is being designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, one of many celebrity architects transforming Beirut’s skyline with high end real estate towers worth billions of dollars and far out of reach of most Lebanese people. Piano is also designing the massive 160,000 square meter Pinwheel Project, which consists of a series of hotel and condo towers in the heart of downtown, as well as a city museum project, which is also to be built atop of a ruins discovery.  

Source: RPBW project conception

Sadly the type of violent threats and harassment I experienced is not unusual when attempting to document the wonders of the ancient world being unearthed for the first time in contemporary Beirut.  One would assume that a 2,000 year old site is one the entire country should be able to see, to learn from, to explore, to be inspired by, to build a sense of place, pride in preservation or national belonging. But in Lebanon, history can be private property. Several journalists and activists have been threatened or physically attacked for documenting the impact of real estate projects across the country.

To appease critics, some investors have recently pledged to preserve very limited sections of ruins, displayed decoratively as part of their real estate projects or concealed in parking garages. Yet these are often placed out of context or difficult for visitors to access and comprehend.  In the case of the Piano project, can the design of such a large building possibly preserve the vast vista of ruins beneath? Can the design be changed in any way meaningful enough to communicate its significance and that of ancient Berytus?

Upon closer view, we can see the interesting rock patterns in the walls. What do they tell us?

At the top corner of the site, the stones are entirely different, much larger and better carved, resembling grand Roman structures. Was there an important building near this site?

Most importantly, will the public ever get a chance to experience this piece of the puzzle of a city and great civilization we are just beginning to understand? With large walls surrounding the permiter, as seen in the photos above, passersby are not allowed even a glimpse of it.  (Photos in the post were taken from other buildings or openings in the wall.)

At any rate, the site might not be around for much longer.  Clearance may be closer than we think. In photos taken a few months ago, we can see nearly 20 tents set up in the dig:

Photo: Timo Azhari

But today there are only a few tents left, meaning the archeological teams may have largely packed up and left:

Is this why the developer is so aggressively keeping it off limits to the public? The site workers must have been threatened themselves if anyone is allowed to get a photo out.

It’s unclear if the diggers have already started to clear the area or penetrate to deeper levels as their position has changed since I first began documenting the site earlier this year.

Compare this image taken in January 2018:

To this photo taken from the same vantage point in recent days:

In addition to the removal of tents, we can also see the position of the two bulldozers is further into the site than they were early this year.

Here’s another shot from January 2018:

And the same vantage point today:

From a closer perspective, we can some of the amazing wall detail on the left section:

So what to make of the threats issued to me for taking these photos? They were taken from the public street, from the sidewalk, at a brief moment when the door to the site was open. There is no legal basis for banning photography in public space. There is no basis in banning the Lebanese public from seeing their own history.  But who was the man who threatened me and why?

The owner of SGBL bank is known to surround himself with those capable of serious violence. His bodyguards have regularly engaged in alleged criminal acts, including armed assaults and even a shootout in nightclub, according to news reports. In 2015, a bodyguard formerly employed by the owner stabbed a man to death in broad daylight, and was subsequently sent to prison. Is this the type of violence and threats that a Pritzker-winning architect like Renzo Piano would like to be associated with?

Interestingly, SGBL itself claims to be “a strong advocate of culture and arts in Lebanon,” according to its website. While Piano, who has been involved in several projects across Beirut has said: “Cities are beautiful because they are created slowly; they are made by time. A city is born from a tangle of monuments and infrastructures, culture and market, national history and everyday stories. It takes 500 years to create a city, 50 to create a neighborhood.”

In fact, the city of Beirut has not been developing just for 50 or 500 years, but for thousands of years and several millennia. Would it be too much to dream that Piano and SGBL live up to their stated ideals? Since both Piano and SGBL have profited so generously from Beirut, could they possibly give something back by preserving a bit of its illustrious past for the coming generations to enjoy?

 

 

Photo: Jihad Kiame

Two years ago the Governor of Beirut issued an order to stop demolition of this historically listed Art Deco building in Gemmayze, and shared the news to much fanfare on Facebook, as we reported at the time.

But the image above was taken today and we can clearly see the destruction has resumed after a two year period of quiet. So what happened?

This is not the first time Governor Ziad Chbib has made promises that turn out differently with the passage of time. In a press conference last year, governor Chbib voiced opposition to construction within the city’s only park, Horsh Beirut. He also seemed critical of construction on Beirut’s only public beach Ramlet El Baida. But construction has resumed in both of those projects.

#بلدية_بيروت تبدأ اعمال البناء على قسم من #حرش_بيروت وهو جزء من العقار 1925 وبذلك تستكمل مهمتها بقضم آخر بقعة خضراء في بيروت #اوقفوا_سياسة_قضم_حرش_بيروت

Posted by NAHNOO on Sunday, March 5, 2017

 

And despite a court ruling against construction on the coast, which is prohibited in the Lebanese constitution, the governor failed to enforce the ruling.

Picture taken today shows that construction has resumed on Ramlet El Bayda beach. #الشط_لكل_الناس #StopEdenRock Pic via Firas BouZeineddine

Posted by Paul Samrani on Monday, March 13, 2017

 

These developments only seem to prove that activist victories must be maintained and government officials can never be left alone or relied upon without continuous monitoring. What is going on with the governor’s promises? Are they mainly PR moves to placate a public outcry? Or is the governor less powerful than private business interests? Or is there more to this story?

Let’s not forget that the developer in this case has allegedly harassed activists and threatened violence, as we reported previously.

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UPDATE: Shortly after posting this, I was informed by a member of the Save Beirut Heritage preservation collective that the building will not be completely demolished: it will be entirely gutted but the facade will remain. Four additional floors will also be added. Here is an artist conception:

 

The Save Beirut Heritage activist informed me that this was a “compromise’ agreement. In fact, the preservation of facades seems to be a popular move being implemented across Beirut, with major construction concealed behind a thin layer of the past. But is facade preservation considered a form of architectural preservation, especially when a building is extended with double the number of floors and turns out looking and feeling radically different than the original?

The nice thing about Gemmayze is that it is one of the few neighborhoods that survived the civil war as well as the even more destructive demolitions of the post war period. It had been one of the few places where one could imagine what Beirut once looked like in the last century, the so-called ‘golden days’ old timers rave about. But that is rapidly changing as more Art Deco and low rise buildings are being torn down, in favor of mega structures, multi-million dollar apartments few can afford and luxury car garages. The result is a radical change not just in the building itself but also the shops, the street life and the overall fabric of the neighborhood, its affordability, its inhabitants.

Go to Gemmayze while you can and enjoy and document as much as possible. In a few years, the neighborhood may be as unrecognizable as the “makeover”  this building is currently undergoing.

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Demolition works today in Gemmayze. Source: Save Beirut Heritage

Despite a cessation order posted yesterday by Beirut’s governor, demolition works have continued today at a historic Art Deco building in Gemmayze. One activist with Save Beirut Heritage sent me these pictures and told me he was threatened by the site’s foreman today for taking them.

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Save Beirut Heritage

According to the SBH activist, the foreman began by cursing his mother and sister– with the typical vulgar references. Then he recalled that he had seen the activist–who frequently documents heritage demolitions for SBH– at another historic building being torn down in Furn el Hayek, also documented on this site.

He said: “I wish we would have put you in a van when I saw you there. We should have taken you somewhere and beat you up,” the activist recalled.

The SBH activist said the altercation began when he took a picture of this artist conception of what the new building will look like. The image shows a completely different building that appears to have retained nothing of the original structure. The height has also been changed from the current 4 floors to at least 10 floors:

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Save Beirut Heritage

 

Such an image appears to contrast the brief bit of jubilation among citizens and activists yesterday when the governor posted the cessation order on his Facebook page after coverage of the demolition, both by The Daily Star and this blog.

But how could the old structure be protected if an entirely new– and much larger– structure is to take its place?

The activist I spoke to was not the first to say he was harassed at this site. A licensed architect had reportedly visited the Deco building recently and went to have a look at the demolition orders posted on its outer walls. The architect told this story:

“The foreman asked me to leave when I was looking at the papers. I refused saying anyone has a right to read demolition permits posted on a building, particularly a licensed architect and member of the Lebanese architect’s union. The foreman asked for my ID and tried to grab it. Soon after, I got a call from the union with the foreman claiming I threatened a union action against the building!”

Can you imagine how much power this developer must have to get a bureaucratic Lebanese union to react so quickly?

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Tiles removed from art deco building today. (SBH)

 

A close read of the Governor’s cessation order indicates that work on the “eastern” part of the plot must be stopped. However works on the western part were allowed. This means the building is actually composed of two parts. The corner section–which activists say dates back to the earlier part of the century– and the section left of it on Rue Gouraud, which is apparently a later addition from some time around the 1940s.

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SBH

Here’s a closer view of the Western section:

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SBH

Yet when I visited the site last weekend, both buildings were cloaked in green demolition nets and barricades have been put around the sidewalks and curbside parking of both buildings. And once again, the artist conception doesn’t appear to preserve either part.

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Metal barricades extend around both buidlings

Activists and citizens will have to stay vigilant on this issue to make sure the corner building is not demolished. But who will hold the owners accountable in case they threaten people for taking pictures or reading legal permits posted on the building?

It’s actually not surprising to hear about developers harassing journalists and photographers. I was physically assaulted last year for taking pictures at a major construction site that concealed ancient ruins. How long will Lebanese developers remain above the law?

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Interior shot with Deco stairwell. (SBH)
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Old tiles still untouched on this floor. (SBH)

***

Update: The architect who was harassed agreed I could use her name. She is Abir Saksouk-Sasso.

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In a Facebook post last night, Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib shared an order from his office to halt demolition works on the Art Deco building in Gemmayze. This follows coverage of the demolition by The Daily Star and this blog over the weekend.

Earlier yesterday, leading politician Walid Jumblatt issued a statement condemning the demolition and demanding accountability from the Culture Ministry and Beirut Governor over this issue.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 3.17.20 PM

 

Jumblatt also mentioned Roman ruins discovered in another part of the same neighborhood and questioned both the need for wealthy developers to keep amassing profits by building towers on such small plots and the lack of interventions from the municipality to save some of these plots, despite its huge amount of financial reserves. I had posed some of the same questions in my post on the Roman ruins this week–indeed a friend of Jumblatt had alerted me to his statement soon after it was published, noting that Jumblatt had read the blog post prior to making it.

So it is in this context that Governor Chebib published the work stoppage order last night. In fact the governor directed his comments toward Jumblatt stating that his cessation order had already been issued over the weekend and a police memo issued on December 12 to enforce it. This is curious because the governor had not mentioned any of this during his interview with the Daily Star on the same day–Dec. 12. In fact, the when asked about the building Governor Chebib reportedly “could not recall the file” and seemed to indicate the demolition was legal.

“Although he could not recall the specific file for Atweh’s property, Governor Ziad Chebib, who gives final approval to all such requests, said the law was clear: “If the owners or builders have a license, their work’s status is legal.”

Also when I visited the building this weekend with some activists and the local Mukhtar, we noticed several official permissions posted on the building signed by the Governor. I haven’t had time to go over these in detail, but maybe someone can come up with a quick translation:

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Whatever the case is, I’m glad that major politicians are now debating what had been any other demolition a week ago–that is, before our coverage started. We should also thank the architect Jihad Kiame who drew our attention to this issue earlier this month when he posted about the building’s imminent demolition on Facebook.

Now that the conversation has started, the efforts should focus on closely monitoring what happens next and who will be held accountable for those actions.

 

***

Update: 12/16/14

Architect Kiame and The Daily Star’s Venetia Rainey have just posted that some construction work continued today. Rainey is scheduled to talk to the governor about it. Looking forward to her piece.

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The green screens have gone up and demolition work has already begun on the top floor. The wrecking crew is working by hand so it will take a while.

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I just spoke to the local Mukhtar and he said many residents are opposed to the project, which he said was rejected by the municipality of Beirut. However, as is often the case, the building owner sued at a higher court and apparently won.

The residents are planning a sit-in and I will have more details on that when they are available. In the meantime, you can go take some pictures. The building sits on a old-fashioned corner facing the Ginette restaurant on Rue Gouraud, near the Red Cross building.

Preservationists say the battle is not over just the building itself but the space it occupies in the context of the neighborhood.:

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How different will this corner be if is occupied by a luxury glass and steel high rise? Again, it’s not just one corner–the entire neighborhood is being transformed. The Mukhtar told me Gemmayze used to be “a village” only 15 years ago, full of bustling small shops and locals, but now it is largely a rowdy pub and night life district.

“It used to take me an hour to walk down this street– just to say hi to all my friends,” the Mukhtar said. “Now I walk down the street and I don’t know anyone.”

 

***

UPDATE:

I just noticed The Daily Star has an interesting piece on the building by my colleague Venetia Rainey. She discovered that the building is owned by “engineer Mohammad Rashid Atweh.”

According to her interview with the culture minister Rony Arayagi, Atweh won the case because of the “absence of compensation” from the state. But I wonder, why would the state need to compensate Mr. Atweh to not destroy his own building? The building is in good shape with over a dozen shops and apartments to rent or sell. Why would maintaing or repairing his own building be a “loss”? On the contrary, shouldn’t building maintenance and repair be mandated by the law?

If anyone knows what the owner needs to be compensated for, please let me know.

UPDATE 2 (12/16/2014)

The governor of Beirut has just posted a demolition cessation order on his Facebook page. More details to come.

UPDATE 3 (12/17/14)

The demolition has sparked a debate among the governor and politician Walid Jumblatt, with hope that at least part of the building will now be saved. See this update.

UPDATE 4 (12/18/14)

Activists say they were threatened or harassed for documenting the ongoing demolition.

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There has been an ongoing dig for quite some time at the beginning of Gouraud Street–the main street in Gemmayze–just across the street from the Sacre Coeur school.

Recently a truck was parked in front of the site, with a small ramp feeding into it. I’m not sure if this was for the removal of ruins or construction materials. I noticed a small gap in the canvas and went to check it out.

Below I found some workers or archeologists. The first to look up and spot me began yelling–“No photos!”

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I decided to come back the next day, when the workers were gone, to get a better look:

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An activist told me the site could have been a water channel, possibly during the Roman period, but this is yet to be verified.

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From the number of blue crates stacked up next to the site, it seems quite a few artifacts were discovered. Hopefully the new concrete wall and columns did not affect the excavation, though they were built very close to the ruins.

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I wonder if this dig will reveal more about Roman Beirut, an extraordinary city in the empire, as I have covered in the past, despite repeated harassment from developers and ministry of culture employees. Unfortunately many of the ruins of ancient Berytus, including the Roman hippodrome, are now being dismantled to make way for luxury housing.

Incidentally, I visited this same site almost two years ago. At the time it was a garbage swamp:

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This plot seems awfully tiny for a tower. Wouldn’t it have been great if they kept it as a small garden with ruins? God knows, we could all use some breathing space in this city.

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    I recently stumbled upon a passageway between 19th century homes in Gemmayze. It is only accessible by foot:

    There are jagged paths and stairwells leading to the houses above and below:

    Were these footpaths once common in other parts of the city?

    One great thing about Beirut is no matter how many years you’ve lived here, there are always new places to discover.

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      The parliamentary bodyguard who drove his car into activists last month (video) is still free, as the prosecuting judge has delayed submitting his case to trial, Nizar Saghieh, an attorney representing the activists, said after a press conference Wednesday.

      The activists also presented video evidence contradicting much of the MP’s vague testimony–where he asserted his convoy had been attacked by the same unarmed activists a day earlier.

      In one video, we can see the MPs convoy vehicles leaving the scene with no visible damage–contrary to the claim that the activists had caused damage to his bullet-proof cars.

      Though some media outlets such as Naharnet and MTV have parroted the MP’s claims without question, a number of other TV stations showed up for yesterday’s press conference, proving perhaps that the media message is getting much harder for politicians to control:

      Not surprisingly, MTV’s microphone was not on the press conference table:

      The lawsuit filed against the bodyguard in question has yet to be submitted to trial and there is no clear deadline for its submission, Saghieh said.

      The activists have also filed a complaint against the judge, Danny Zeini, who activists and their lawyers say unlawfully ordered the detention of activists at the Gemmayze police station–and were only freed after a street demonstration demanding their release.

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        I know it is not Egypt, but taking on a police station until captives were freed and naming and shaming a plainclothes security officer, are pretty significant events in tiny Lebanon.

        I will write more about this soon, but for now here are some of my comments featured in the Wall Street Journal this week, prefaced by a priceless quote from one of our MPs:

        In a telephone interview, Mr. Gemayel said his bodyguards did nothing wrong and blamed protestors for instigating the violence.
        When asked why his convoy was parked illegally, in the middle of the street, closing down part of a busy Beirut neighborhood, Mr. Gemayel was at first reticent.
        “They were not parked illegally. Ok, they were parked in the middle of the street but the street wasn’t being used.”
        Journalists like Habib Battah, who writes the popular blog BeirutReport.com, point to how comfortable officials like Mr. Gemayel are when openly admitting to breaking the law, and the media’s partisanship as a reason why citizen journalism is so important in Lebanon. Political parties own the majority of Lebanon’s media outlets.
        More and more Lebanese citizens, Mr. Battah says, are tired of the status quo: a corrupt government, arbitrary laws and a complacent populace, which helplessly waves off abuses with the “Welcome to Lebanon” mantra.
        Mr. Battah’s blog has documented much of Nasawiya’s standoff with Mr. Gemayel and is credited with challenging wasteful government projects. More recently, Mr. Battah helped stave off the destruction of two important archaeological sites, one dating from the Roman Empire, nearly torn down by real estate developers earlier this year.
        But activists and bloggers like Mr. Battah have a gargantuan task: Lebanon’s government is considered one of the most corrupt in the world, according to a study by Transparency International, a global watchdog.
        Although Lebanon has not experienced the Arab Spring revolutions its neighbors have – largely because of its more pronounced sectarian divisions — popular discontent with the government still runs high. But channeling that discontent into change is difficult.
        “I don’t feel protected by the judicial system. My only recourse is writing about what I see on my blog. And hoping it goes viral,” said Mr. Battah.