BEIRUT: Located on a hill overlooking the coastal plain and within walking distance of Downtown and Ras Beirut, Zoqaq al-Blat is, for property developers, a treasure trove. Guillame Boudisseau, a real estate consultant for Ramco, notes that there are currently 350 construction projects ongoing in municipal Beirut. A resident of Zoqaq al-Blat for the last 15 years, Boudisseau has seen the effects of development on his neighborhood, where property prices have reached $3,500 per square meter.
“And this,” Boudisseau stresses, “is the starting price.”
In Beirut, “urban development” has tended to come at the expense of the architectural patrimony. In the 1990s, according to a study by the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings, Beirut was home to 1,600 Ottoman, Mandate and Modernist structures. Today, there are about 200.
Historically, Zoqaq al-Blat extends south from the Grand Serail to Batrakieh (the seat of the Greek Catholic Patriarchate) and west from the Muslim graveyard to Zarif. Built in 1967-68, the Fouad Shihab ring road effectively cut the quarter in two and, after 1990, the structures north of the motorway were included in Solidere’s Downtown gentrification project.
South of Fouad Shihab, the quarter has been left to more conventional patterns of urban neglect and construction and many longtime residents lament the changes to Zoqaq al-Blat.
“I was born here and have lived here all my 47 years,” says Choghig Der Ghougassian. “Gradually it started to change, ... in the last five years rapidly. Not recognizing the street you grew up in is a terrible [thing]. I am not opposed to change, but the character of the area has been fundamentally altered.”
Unlike most parts of historic Beirut, the cultural wealth of Zoqaq al-Blat is relatively well documented, thanks to “History, space and social conflict in Beirut: the quarter of Zokak el-Blat” – a multidisciplinary collection published in 2005 by the German Orient Institute (OIB), itself located in Zoqaq al-Blat’s former Farjallah Palace.
Founded in the 19th century, when Beirut was still enclosed within its walls, Zoqaq al-Blat became one of the city’s first garden suburbs, where wealthy businessmen built often lavish family homes in the orchards overlooking the cramped Ottoman city. As the quarter’s name testifies, Zoqaq al-Blat (referring to the district’s “paved street”) was long recognized to be chic.
The quarter was also mixed in both sectarian and socioeconomic terms. In the first half of the 20th century it was home to Sunnis, Christians, Druze and a significant Armenian community into which Der Ghougassian was born.
Zoqaq al-Blat’s treasures are not only architectural. In his study “Fin de Siecle Beirut,” historian Jens Hansen argued that these once-gracious surroundings provided the cradle of the nahda, the 19th century Arabic cultural renaissance.
Such elite families as the Yazijis, Bustanis, Sarkis and Abdel-Qadir al-Qabbani founded schools, newspapers, literary and welfare societies here. AUB (nee the Syrian Protestant College) was set up in Zoqaq al-Blat in the early 1860s, only later moving to Ras Beirut.
The Civil War saw most of the neighborhood’s wealthiest residents leave for more stable, confessionally uniform, parts of the country. Many Lebanese Christian and Armenian families relocated to east Beirut and Metn, while Druze families migrated west or to the Chouf. Many left the country altogether.
Der Ghougassian recalls that at the outbreak of the Civil War, most of her classmates at the neighborhood’s Armenian school fled east to Burj Hammoud or further afield.
“Almost everyone left,” recollects Der Ghougassian. “Only six of us remained in the class ... They are nearly all gone. The entire building I live in was filled with Armenian families. Now there are two.”
The neighborhood’s story of demographic change is a complex one. Some house-owners left their properties in the hands of more modest families – sometimes servants – to keep them safe. As the conflict dragged on, many palaces were occupied by squatters.
Zoqaq al-Blat’s proximity to contested Downtown Beirut and the Green Line separating east from west Beirut saw a parade of militias assert themselves there. The pock-marked facades of the Ottoman-era palaces offer a stark reminder of the violence that occurred.
“Now it doesn’t even reflect the area I remember,” says George Khoury. An animator at Future Television, Khoury grew up in the quarter and remained there throughout the Civil War before relocating to Ashrafieh.
“There used to be a leafy walkway, linking the bottom and top of the neighborhood with flowers and cacti,” he recalls. “There were local bakers and greengrocers. Now, even the street structure is different. Cities change whether you like it or not, but it is sad when the culture and identity of an area disappears.”
The want of effective and comprehensive heritage conservation policies has meant that demographic change has had a devastating effect on the architectural heritage of the neighborhood.
In October 2011, Zoqaq al-Blat’s 19th century “Akar Palace” on the corner of Spears Street and Abdel-Qader Street, was illegally demolished, despite it being within a designated conservation area.
“It’s as if we have something as valuable as Baalbek right here in Beirut but they do not care,” says Lily Abi Chahine, a 27-year-old area resident. “Sometimes I feel like I should have been born in a different era.”
Former Culture Minister Salim Warde repeatedly denied the owners’ requests for a demolition permit. The impressive mansion was almost completely destroyed anyway, leaving only the front façade.
“If there’s no proper punishment what is going to dissuade people from ignoring the conservation list?” Giorgio Tarraf, President of Save Beirut Heritage, told The Daily Star at that time.
Michel De Chadarevian, an adviser to current Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun, criticized the house’s owners, saying that they were driven solely by “commercial” motives and had no respect for the architectural integrity of the building.
Boudisseau fears that as land prices continue to rise, Zoqaq al-Blat’s architectural patrimony will be increasingly threatened. He notes that, on paper, residences such as the Ziadi Palace – just up the street from the Akar Palace – do not face imminent destruction, due to their listed status. Yet the destruction of the Akar Palace provides a stark reminder that reality need not conform to the law.
“Owners are sad to have properties like that because their listed status prevents their demolition. So they are stuck in a gray area where they can’t sell the land and make a massive profit but nor do they have the financial resources to renovate such properties,” observes Boudisseau. “Demolition? Well, there are often no repercussions.”
Across the street from the ruin of the Akar Palace lies the Heneine Palace. Its most recent inhabitants have been several families displaced from south Lebanon, but the structure’s social history is as varied and venerable as that of the quarter itself.
It was reputedly built by an exiled Russian prince in the 19th century – who gave its interior design a more Orientalist flavor than the palaces built by Arab notables.
The gorgeous derelict palace later housed the American Consulate in Beirut and was the residence of Salim Moussa Achi, the Lebanese writer, philosopher, mystic and connoisseur of fine arts who is better known by his pen name, Dr. Dahesh – after whom a museum in the heart of New York City takes its name.
Residents of Zoqaq al-Blat have become increasingly worried the Heneine Palace too faces illegal demolition. Over the last six months a hole in the facade has exposed the interior to the elements. Residents have reported strange nocturnal activity in the area.
“In the demolition of the Akar Palace people would come at night to gut the place of such valuables as Venetian tiles and marble columns. Then they would damage the structure itself,” says Abi Chahine. “I fear they are doing the same thing here – to damage the structure to the extent it becomes a danger to the public and they can demolish it.”
Like Tarraf and Boudisseau, Abi Chahine is skeptical of the government’s ability to persecute those who break the law.
Josef Haddad, of the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage, has accused politicians of being in league with property developers.
“Even if a politician is transparent and clean,” Haddad told The Daily Star earlier this year, developers “can influence those around him. Any high-rise will generate at the very least $300 million. It is easy to throw in a $1 million bribe.”
When the Culture Ministry has an annual budget of less than $3 million – 0.0018 percent of annual government spending according to De Chadarevian – any chance of state-sponsored restoration seems like a pipe dream.
“Currently there is no solution to this problem,” Boudisseau says. “It is not enough to simply like old stones.”