BEIRUT: For a certain crowd who for the past couple of years have made Hamra their preferred watering hole, spending their nights drinking and dancing in the area’s plentiful restaurants, bars and clubs, the announcement Tuesday that electro club Uberhaus would be closing its doors for good was the final nail in the coffin. Beirut’s party scene is notoriously transitory, its epicenter moving from one area to another every few years. In a pattern echoed around the world, the investors follow where the young crowd leads them, resulting in the systematic gentrification of undeveloped neighborhoods.
The process of urban gentrification witnessed in Monnot in the 1990s, Gemmayzeh in the early 2000s and Hamra over the past few years is already underway in Mar Mikhael, much to the delight of developers and the disgust of local residents faced with increased traffic, late-night noise and skyrocketing rents. But what does this mean for Hamra?
“Hamra is dead. There is no one in Hamra,” says Nemer Saliba, a co-owner of Uberhaus. The club held its official closing party Friday, at which the owners announced the opening later this month of their new venue Nacht, situated in an industrial area in east Beirut.
“The volume of people that used to go out in Hamra is just not there anymore,” confirms Nawaf Beydoun, the general manager of Mindset Holdings, the company in charge of Hamra’s 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. bolt-hole Bodo. “Even on Fridays and Saturdays, the Alleyway – which at this time last year used to be one of the busiest streets in the whole of Lebanon when it came to nightlife – is close to empty.”
There are several reasons, Saliba says, for Hamra’s demise as the city’s premier nightspot.
“The first thing is that the economic situation in Lebanon is bad, and the amount of Syrian [refugees exacerbates the problem],” he says. “The second reason is because of Mar Mikhael. Monnot died – Gemmayzeh killed it. Where Hamra killed Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael is killing Hamra. Third is the bomb threat ... people are afraid to go to [this] area.”
Beydoun labels the country’s precarious security situation as the primary culprit, speculating that it is not boredom but fear that has driven customers away from Hamra.
“People going on TV saying ‘there might be a bomb here or a bomb there’ – that scared away a lot of people,” he says. “There are university students whose parents do not let them go out in Hamra anymore because of all the rumors.
“People do not feel secure so they tend to go to places where there are no rumors of bombs – yet. That’s why you see a lot of the crowd that used to go to Hamra moving to Uruguay Street in Downtown or to Mar Mikhael.”
Bodo opened a branch in Mar Mikhael in August last year and another in Uruguay Street in December. Beydoun insists that Bodo Hamra is still popular and is in no danger of closing, but admits that overall the area is changing.
“We see quite a few people from the old crowd that do not go to Hamra anymore,” he says.
Raed Habib, the owner of Beirut fixture De Prague, which opened on Makdessi Street in 2005, says that most of the problems now driving customers away from Hamra are a direct result of its sudden upswing in popularity in 2011.
“For years, Hamra used to be very much a local neighborhood,” he says, “with local customs and local customers. Today, Hamra has gone public and become a commercial area, and this is not necessarily such a good thing, in my humble opinion.
“The negative factors come with the multiplication of people. When you have four or five bars in an area and suddenly we are talking about 180 outlets, that makes a big difference [to] safety concerns, traffic concerns. ... Hamra is not very safe anymore. ... There have been incidents like stabbings, fights, car accidents, pickpocketing. When you’ve got thousands of people coming every night it makes a difference.”
One of Hamra’s veteran barkeepers (who asked to remain anonymous) concurs. Having worked in the same bar since 1997, when his place was one of only three establishments serving alcohol in the area, he recalls that when business first picked up in 2007 everyone benefited from the influx of customers drawn to the area’s burgeoning scene.
In recent years, however, the number of venues multiplied beyond all proportion, he says, while the number of customers remained stable. He cites the speedy growth of venues in the narrow street between Hamra’s main drag and Makdessi Street, known as the Alleyway.
Home to a single bar in 2008, by 2012 the Alleyway was lined from one end to the other with competing establishments. Crowds of people spilled out into the streets every evening, shouting to make themselves heard over the din of competing sound systems. The proximity of the bars, coupled with the introduction of the smoking ban in September 2012, encouraged customers to drink outside, he says.
Amid rumors that several previously popular bars in the Alleyway are to close down in the coming weeks, it is this culture of street drinking that he blames for the venues’ failure to remain profitable. Rather than paying bar prices, he says, people began buying their drinks from liquor stores and mingling with the crowds undetected.
The situation may look grim – indeed popular blogger Gino published a post Tuesday entitled “Hamra is Dying. Uberhaus Closing on Friday Confirms It,” – but there are mitigating factors.
While the young crowd – many of them university students – that used to frequent Makdessi Street’s cocktail joints and down shots in the Alleyway’s packed concept bars may have moved on to Mar Mikhael, quieter establishments with a more mixed crowd remain popular.
Bars that predate Hamra’s 2011 boom have for the most part managed to retain their loyal regulars. A case in point is De Prague, which came close to closing last summer after being negatively impacted by the smoking ban, among other factors. Habib decided on a stay of execution at the eleventh hour, after a group of dismayed regulars organized a sit-in at the restaurant and turned up on his doorstep begging him to change his mind.
“We’ve made a lot of progress [since then],” he says. “We’re happy with the outcome and we hope that our decision not to close down was a good one. Things have picked up, but this is not [true of] Hamra generally, this is just De Prague.”
One area that so far seems unaffected by Hamra’s changing demographic is the Estral building’s clutch of bars, which attract a diverse crowd of all ages. Although one is set to close its doors in the coming weeks, it is not dwindling customers but the increase in rent caused by the venue’s enduring popularity that is causing the bar-cum-restaurant to relocate, The Daily Star learned.
Not all investors are convinced that the area’s popularity has waned. Kamel Zarifeh, Operations Manager for Concepts in Motion, who own Checkpoint Charlie in Uruguay Street as well as Big Shot and Feb. 30 in Hamra’s Alleyway, dismissed the recent quiet spate as “the usual ups and downs of the business.”
The company is opening a new ’70s and ’80s-themed venue, Walkman, at the end of the Alleyway in a few months. “There’s a new building with about six or seven other outlets coming up,” he reveals.
Beydoun, too, is confident that Hamra’s time in the limelight is not over. “I do have hopes for Hamra,” he says. “After the new government is formed I see potential growth. I don’t think it’ll go back to the way it was one-and-a-half years ago, but I think it’ll go up at least 20 or 30 percent from how it is right now, because right now is just disastrous and people are scared.”
Whatever the future holds for Hamra as a nightlife center, the area has much more to offer than bars, as “Beirut Report” blogger Habib Battah pointed out in a response to Gino’s online eulogy.
Home to two universities and a unique blend of residents from different denominations, Hamra is a destination as much for its shops, restaurants, art galleries and relaxed nargileh cafes as its bars.
While the side effects of gentrification – increased rents, traffic and competing businesses among them – have affected the area in the past few years, it retains a unique character and diversity that seems likely to save it from the genteel obscurity that has blighted Monnot in the wake of its days as a party destination.