BEIRUT: In a city where green spaces are scarce, some people fear that a planned parking garage at a public garden will destroy one of the few public parks in the Lebanese capital.
On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of neighbors, environmentalists, civil society activists and regular citizens – from children who play in the park to seniors who spend their afternoons sitting on the benches – got together to voice their objection to the parking garage.
“This is not a good project. They should think about the people first,” said Benjamin Damirjian, a 75-year-old who lives nearby and has been going to the Jesuit Garden every day for as long as he can remember. “I come to smell the fresh air and see the kids play.”
The plan, announced by the Beirut Municipality two weeks ago, is to have underground elevated parking for around 600 cars beneath the centuries-old Jesuit Garden, something they say is badly needed because of a lack of parking spaces in the area. It is part of a larger plan to build a motorway that would cut through Geitawi.
But opponents to the project say that even if the parking lot is underground, the 30-meter, hundred-year-old pine trees with their long roots would not survive, the vibrations from the drilling would harm the ruins of one of Lebanon’s oldest known churches, the construction period would cause tremendous noise pollution, and once the project does reach completion they worry about congestion and roadblocks in the mainly residential neighborhood’s narrow streets.
Beirut’s Jesuit Garden is a small but important part of Beirut’s history and landscape.
Taking up an area of one city block, the public park with old pine trees towering over neatly trimmed bushes is built on the site of ancient ruins, including Roman columns and Greek mosaics.
In the 1600s, the Jesuits arrived in Lebanon, where they opened schools, including ones near the ancient church. In the 1960s, the garden was given to the Beirut Municipality. Today, the Jesuit Garden has a small library with 7,500 books in Arabic, French and English.
It is in part the unique history of this venue surrounded by tall apartment buildings that has set off a sentimental nerve in people who don’t want it to succumb to the same kind of development that the rest of the city has.
By 4 p.m., the time set by the Facebook invitation, “Protest against the demolition of Jesuit Garden,” around 300 people had arrived at the park.
Demonstrators were holding signs in French, English and Arabic that read “We will not pay the price of your bad planning,” “The people want the overthrow of parking,” and “Cut pollution, not trees.”
Activists from NGOs handed out fliers about the loss of public spaces in Beirut as well as the history of the ancient church that dates back to the Byzantine period.
One by one, activists and neighbors stood up on a stage and passionately explained why they were against the project.
Fadel Fakih, an environmental campaigner at the NGO Green Line wondered why the Beirut Municipality had not yet released the exact plans for the parking lot.
Old-time residents talked about their memories of going to the park, and a young boy took the microphone and said he was against the project because he uses the park to play with his friends.
Meanwhile, others were taking the opportunity to enjoy the park the way they normally would. Children were playing on the slides and swings, and old folks were sitting on the benches enjoying the sunny day.
And throughout the afternoon, a dedicated volunteer gave guided tours of the garden’s ancient ruins.
Charles Hayak from the NGO Biladi, which has been bringing schoolchildren on visits of the garden for the past 10 years, explained how sailors built the church where they were now standing.
He said, “The best way to peace is to learn about our common history.”
As the demonstration was winding down shortly after 6 pm, Fakih said, "This is a simple campaign to protect the garden. The parking garage needs to be stopped."