That’s not an existential question. Well, maybe. But not today.
You may or may not have heard about the upcoming week-long event, IN MAR MIKHAEL, which will be held in Mar Mikhael (just in case the name wasn’t obvious enough). Elisabetta Pietrostefani, the Italian In Mar Mikhael project manager, and I had a chat over cappuccinos about her work with GAIA Heritage, the guys responsible for this week-long collection of exhibitions and workshops.
In Mar Mikhael is part of an EU-funded project (which is part of a larger regional program, MEDNETA) that involves 6 Euro-Mediterranean cities (Beirut, Hebron, Tunis, Florence, Valencia, and Athens).The partner in Beirut, GAIA Heritage, is a consultancy firm that applied for the project years ago through the European Union. The project focuses on urban regeneration through creative activity so the selection of the Mar Mikhael neighborhood as Beirut’s representation of a creative hub is not surprising. Each partner implements the project within their city in there own way and, together, they make up a network for exchange and collaboration between the 6 cities. The end of the project culminates in one giant traveling exhibition that would move from city to city. This exhibition would address issues that are common amongst all the partnering cities. The entire project lasts two years.
GAIA Heritage has been documenting the creative activity within Mar Mikhael since 2010. Their rough analysis was one of the first and was published in USJ’s Travaux et Jours. Since then, especially when the project was launched in January of 2014, they have really delved into MK’s development.
The first 4-5 months was purely research into what made up Mar Mikhael beginning with mapping out the different artsy bubbles that were popping up there. The issue with this was that these bubbles were never constant. As we all know, the only thing constant about Mar Mikhael is that it’s always in flux. You can go there every other day and still find a new boutique, bar, or bookstore that wasn’t there during your last visit – each with its own concept, decor, and extremely random name. GAIA Heritage’s map has come up with 71 as the number of creative activities going down in the neighborhood but I feel that this number may fluctuate by the time I finish typing this sentence. These activities are divided into alternative artforms (artists and their supporting industries), crafts, and design. Creating a printed map for a couple of streets that are home to short-lived businesses and experimental entrepreneurship can prove to be a challenge. How do you navigate in an ever changing city when no one knows street names and we all use relativity for addresses? You move the map online where it can be updated on-the-fly. The digital version of the map is still under construction.
Parallel studies on the neighborhood were also conducted including a morphological study and how the place has evolved in the last few years, how its decayed, why it’s more preserved than other neighborhoods in Beirut, and whether or not it would stay that way. A socio-economic study focused on the real-estate level, mainly the issue of a clash of generations: the old generation that’s been there for decades and the younger generation who recently moved in. With the possibility of the new rent-law being implemented, half of the residents there will not be able to afford to stay.
Their first conference in July held at Grande Brasserie du Levant addressed the different sides of Mar Mikhael: the lack of public space and the arrival of nightlife to a residential area. Right now, there are designers opening ateliers, specialty stores mushrooming in every alley, and studios setting up shop in the old high-ceiling buildings. However, with the cool artsy crowd came the thriving restaurant population and pub culture that litters the sidewalks with Almaza bottles and cigarette butts, creates traffic and noise, etc. Along with the characteristic of being in constant flux comes the question: how long will Mar Mikhael be the hotspot for the creative and the young? Will the crowd migrate to a new neighborhood like it did when it left Gemmayzeh and Monot?
From this conference, a plan was established for the next activities to be tackled within the project. A physical one being an urban intervention within MK: either renovating one of the staircases in terms of functionality or turning an expropriated green space near EDL into a garden. Approvals for these initiatives are still pending.
In Mar Mikhael as an event has 4 parts:
• Exhibitons: Behind the Object, an exhibition revolving around the process that leads up to the final product, featuring 7 creatives from Mar Mikhael (Creative Space Beirut will be there!). It will be held in the space where Nasawiya used to be. Another exhibition running parallel will be for 3 architecture schools (ALBA, LAU, and AUB) featuring their studies and solutions for the Mar Mikhael neighborhood. That one will be held at Imad Gemayel Architects premises.
• Panels that focus on previously identified problems: public space regulation and rental law. Georges Zouain of GAIA Heritage will be moderating.
• Workshops: One solution-based closed workshop for the major stakeholders of Mar Mikhael to discuss the urban interventions mentioned above and to get feedback on other concerns. Another on-going workshop is for the youth of Mar Mikhael (mainly grandkids of current residents or MK church goers) who meet once a week to come up with a plan for MK with the Design for Change program (active in 30 countries). They will be implementing it for their neighborhood within the coming months, fingers crossed.
• Tours: the weekend has two Arabic/English walking tours of the neighborhood enveloping the history, creativity, and residential aspects, starting from EDL, going through the Tobaggi garden, creative cluster, and ending at Brut.
You can sign up for the workshops and tours here.
Elisabetta also brings up the issue of the people’s reluctance to collaborate which is why Toolbox is being pushed: the 3-day workshop that helps creatives figure out how to start a business by equipping them with the right tools and knowledge. Day 3 is when creatives have to team up to create a quick prototype and present their idea to a jury.
She says she “would hate to be one of those expats who sits in the EU and never sees any Lebanese and doesn’t really understand what happens on the ground.” With that said, she seems to have quite the grasp on how things go here and tells me that, “Lebanon is a complicated place where even if you put all the right cards on the table it doesn’t necessarily mean things are going to happen.” Luckily, this hard truth hasn’t discouraged their efforts. The team hopes that this event will make enough noise so that it will have an impact on the neighborhood itself. I hope so too.