BEIRUT: Cement-splattered construction workers crowd a smelly, garlic-ridden canteen, while a pregnant cat rummages outside through a box of rotting cabbage.
The last of the customs workers have driven off after another morning of harbor chaos, making way for ritual shisha gatherings.
The Beirut Port District offers a daily picture of the city’s working class.
At night, the cover of darkness transforms the port into a destination for hulking men in tight shirts and hair gel, who slip into a basement pulsating with the backbeat of commercial dance music.
Army officers and Beirut police loiter, unbothered by the illicit club, around a government car depot a block away. And the ritual shisha circles, soon to calcify to their white plastic chairs, welcome foreign sailors hauling up in the port for the night.
Perhaps too busy to care, the people of Beirut Port remain tolerant of their myriad neighbors: sailors, customs hawks, laborers, shop owners, decrepit hotels, offbeat, late night revelers – and of recent, high-end designer boutiques.
“It’s a lot of day workers and up until 2 o’clock [p.m.], it’s crazy; our building has a lot of offices for customs; the feeling of the construction shops that have been there through the generations, the marina: the whole place has a nice feeling,” says Johnny Farah, describing the charm of the port, where he, fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz and product designer Karen Chekerdjian decided to open shop in 2010.
The port’s eclectic cross section of Lebanese society along with its rough harbor mystique charmed this handful of elite designers, who felt the place characterized their urban, avant garde brands.
Their move has since inspired three more upscale boutique owners to the port, the fabric of which is changing to become – for lack of a better word – hip.
Kayrouz claims responsibility for bringing a little upscale intrigue to the neighborhood, which he discovered several years ago while searching for his first Beirut-based ready-to-wear boutique. He then suggested joining forces with Chekerdjian and Farah to brave what was at the time a very rough part of town.
“Rabih had initially spotted the neighborhood and convinced his friends Karen and Johnny to follow-suit,” said Marie-Noelle Azar, media consultant for Maison Rabih Kayrouz.
Four years ago, the spacious boutiques were little more than dark concrete spaces, housing mountains of trash, dust and other filth. The warehouses once held massive steel construction materials and had since become defunct and dirty, Chekerdjian recalls.
“You couldn’t imagine the space,” Chekerdjian says. “I couldn’t go inside, I was afraid a rat would jump out at me.”
But through the wreckage of the warehouse, still riddled with Civil War-era bullet holes, and the powerful smells from a nearby fast food joint, Chekerdjian saw a diamond in the rough.
“I called Rabih and said it’s fantastic,” she says.
Pointing to two warehouse walls left untouched, Chekerdjian explains how the change in concrete and building materials show how the warehouse evolved over time and compares the variations in color to natural sediments revealing the age of a rock sample.
“The space was black and muddy, it was dark, dark, dark, but I saw this wall,” she says.
She points out another piece of the wall where an enormous square hole had been roughly filled by cement. When the warehouse stored building materials, the hole accommodated steel rods too long for the room.
Helim Fayad, the current owner of the warehouse and office space that consumes an entire city block, has also played an essential role in revitalizing the neighborhood, the designers say.
Fayad’s family built the warehouses in the 1930s to house construction materials. He had been reluctant to rent out the space; that is until the designer threesome approached him with their plans for bringing pricey designer goods and a resto-pub to the street.
“Mr. Fayad was very enthusiastic about the project because it totally transformed the building,” Chekerdjian says. “He understood the power of what we could do to transform the whole area.”
Today the main drag leading down to the harbor houses Farah’s restaurant Lux Café, an attractive haunt that helps clean up the street’s rougher corners – namely a seedy-looking guesthouse, a club that’s namesake is a lurid double entender and a smelly canteen that almost debunked the whole project.
Bare right before Lux and there are the three design boutiques. Where dust-coated, bare block walls once stood, Maison Rabih Kayrouz houses a 1920s-era inspired gallery with inlayed flooring, brass and sycamore detail and tall mirrors.
Chekerdjian’s rough warehouse walls complement a contemporary gallery full of minimalistic bronze wares, ceramic flatware, locally made food stuffs and concept furniture.
Farah’s IF Boutique fills a massive showroom of its avant-garde designer clothing and accessories, from Farah’s own leather goods to European luxury shoe makers.
Since their opening, Fayad’s daughter Nicole opened a luxury tea shop, Awan Tea; a pair of designers opened a jewelry-and-designer-product gallery at the top of the Port Road; and in a neighboring part of the port, Oddfish concept store sells a mash-up of clothing and home accessories from independent contemporary designers.
The contrast between elite, upscale shopping and foot traffic comprised mainly of Syrian and Lebanese laborers is sometimes the stuff of comedy.
IF sells a brand of Italian vegetable-leather shoes, some of which are machine washed to look worn and vintage. Pointing out the window display of luxury men’s footwear, Sin, the store's manager, says a group of Syrian men walked into the store once to inquire about the price of the used shoes in the window.
Those shoes were not used, but in fact, priced upward of $800 per pair.
“The pleasure for us is not in the price but in the appreciation of craftsmanship,” she said.
Despite the growing presence of upscale shops in Beirut Port, the designers maintain that they’re not interested in full-blown gentrification or of uprooting any of the daily harbor and construction work that gives the district its grungy, urban appeal.
“There’s a mixture here of poor and rich people coming to the port, everyone: the sailors, the laborers, the whores,” Chekerdjian says. “It’s nice to have this mixture. People here don’t like being mixed – but there’s potential.”
The mixture, several of the designers say, is what gives the port a natural urban beauty more authentic and layered than at the high-end shops in Solidere – a piece of old Beirut, they say.
Looking toward the future, Farah says he hopes their embracing the port will inspire others to embrace it: “You never know what we will end up with. But we have to say, from my experience, in the past two years is not doing bad. It has charm.”