BEIRUT: A few years back, word started to spread about a new hip part of Beirut. Gemmayzeh and Hamra had become overcrowded and the nation’s party people were looking for the next “in” spot. Step forward, Mar Mikhael.
Traditionally an industrial and residential area, Mar Mikhael began attracting major nightlife traffic around 2010, when a series of pubs and restaurants popped up.
But it has evolved way beyond just a nightlife hub; Mar Mikhael has since carved a niche and manifested itself as a creative district, where services like pubs and restaurants are straddled by clothing and furniture stores, arts & crafts workshops, and a plethora of other design and alternative art spots – from feminist cafes to Spanish book stores to hipster jewelry spaces.
But as any Beiruti – whether established or first-time visitor – will know, finding these places on their nameless streets is not easy. Now, they are all in one place: a map.
This map, labeled “Mar Mikhael Creative District,” plots out the Alternative Art Form, Crafts, and Design spots in the community. Additionally, churches, mosques, cemeteries, parking lots, police stations, hospitals, the Lebanese Electric building and the Mar Mikhael train station are also depicted, along with green spaces and the various colorful staircases that connect to the upper residential buildings of Geitawi.
The map was designed as part of an initiative spearheaded by Gaia Heritage, with Agenda Culturel, and funded by the EU.
In 2010, Gaia Heritage surveyed Mar Mikhael and was granted funding to study the role of the creative industry in regard to urban regeneration – in historic or forgotten places.
But with many cultural hotspots popping up in and around Beirut, why has Mar Mikhail been chosen as the place for such an initiative?
“Mar Mikhael is one of the last neighborhoods in Beirut still functioning as an area where poor and rich, cultured and uncultured, big and small communities live together,” said Georges Zouain, the head of Gaia Heritage.
Gaia is now working on helping young Lebanese artists and creatives develop and improve their abilities in order to ensure Mar Mikhael continues to prosper. They are doing this by bringing them together through a variety of workshops, exhibitions, and round tables run from Jan. 16-24.
“We want to improve the quality of life without destroying the area,” Zouain said. “This is the only area in Lebanon where a cluster of creativity is developing in a natural manner without it coming from the top.”
A “natural manner” means that much of Mar Mikhael’s creative space has grown organically due to ripe conditions, in contrast to areas such as Hamra’s Alleyway and Uruguay Street, which saw developers move in and create a party spot aimed at big business.
Zouain says Mar Mikhael can act as an internal example for all of Lebanon, where historically the economy has been driven by more traditional means such as banking, commerce and real estate.
“Lebanon has been overtaken by other Mediterranean countries and Beirut is among the last place where traditional economic [principles] are kept,” Zouain said.
He listed Istanbul, Marseille, Barcelona, Genoa and other Mediterranean cities as examples of places where contemporary art plays a leading role in the economy. These cities themselves seem to be following examples of trends set in places like New York City.
In order to reach that level, Zouain suggest areas in Lebanon “need rules and regulations and support by the state.”
To get a hold of the map, visit http://medneta.gaiaheritage.com/session02/ or Facebook/MarMikhaelCreativeDistrict.