As part of the In Mar Mikhael event, two walking tours were given this weekend. I went along for the afternoon activity this Saturday thinking that I knew a lot about the neighborhood I spend so much time in. Seriously, Google thinks I live in Mar Mikhael because I’m in Ashrafieh (work and play) so much. Turns out, there’s more to this place than I thought.
The beginning, EDL
The tour began in front of Electricite du Liban where we were divided into 3 groups departing every 10 minutes. Since I opted for English, Elisabetta was our guide, and started with a brief intro about the Brazilian-influenced EDL building. It was built in the mid 1960s, designed by a Lebanese architect, Pierre Neema.
From EDL walking toward the rest of MK, there is a new geometric modern building with a green wall on one side, home to Gallery Tanit. This building is the only one that respects urban law because of the existence of a sidewalk. Most developments disregard this and it results in what I call “l’extinction du trottoir,” leaving us to navigate between parked cars hoping we’re not pummeled by a service driver. From this spot, you can see the three different forms of architecture found within MK: 60s, modern, and classic French. Across from this mammoth is an old house of two architectural styles conjoined with a common stairwell, a practice that shows there used to be consideration for economy of space.
Behind these lovely old homes is the Tobbagi Gardens, a private space that is open to public visitors. It’s made up of terraces and planting areas and is the biggest green space in MK.
Sadly, the gardens are now at risk. If the Fouad Boutros Highway Project is implemented, the gardens will be destroyed; the neighboring building next to Mr. Tobbagi’s has already been expropriated. The only other green space in MK which is across the road has also been bought and will soon be gutted & developed. Besides the fact that these buildings are solid representations of our heritage but are being knocked down like stacks of Jenga pieces, the Project’s urban planning is outdated, inefficient, and unwanted to begin with. For now, the Project is on hold because of the local and international media coverage but no one knows how long that will last.
The walk continued to the colorful Massad stairs that were featured on Vogue.com the other day. This staircase, painted by the Dihzahyners a few years ago, are semi-private semi-public and the place where a Save Beirut Heritage sit-in was organized. I hate to say it but the stairs have undergone a lot of weathering since their first coat of paint. Besides being a site for activism and artistic expression, the stairs also serve to connect the residents of upper Ashrafieh with Mar Mikhael. For example, St. Georges Hospital employees and visitors can use it to jump into a bar for happy hour after a long week since the hospital sits up the street from the top of these stairs. Be careful at night though; sometimes there are punks chucking eggs at unsuspecting pedestrians below.
Mar Mikhael used to be a predominately Armenian neighborhood. In the 1920s, the Armenian population shifted over from Qarantina and still make up a big portion of the residents living there now. The area is in full gentrification with the arrival of the new generation who are transforming Mar Mikhael into a bustling creative hub. Of course, with them comes the gastropubs and boutiques that the artsy crowds with purchasing power attract.
The walking tour’s sole purpose was to show us that Mar Mikhael has different facets but it was originally a residential village. If you walk into the alleyway where Vanina has opened its first shop, you can continue into an open courtyard of neighbors that still live like the days of old MK. Some buildings have been restored (mainly to be home to new restaurants like Les Fenetres) but the majority of property owners find it easier to sell than to salvage and/or fight the developers. That, and it’s more profitable for them on a personal level.
We popped out from the Les Fenetres entryway to walk down the Internazionale alley. Nasawiya’s old location is where In Mar Mikhael is having their Behind the Object exhibition till the 24th of this month. After making this quick stop, we walked down to Pharoan St. Don’t feel bad if you have no idea where this is because I didn’t know it had a name either. Pharaon St. is the street where PaperCup and Frosty’s Palace are. If you’ve ever been to Mar Mikhael, you probably know which street I’m referring to now. If not, you should check out both places. The owners are sisters. Have a coffee and grab a book then walk across the street to inhale a burger and milkshake.
This strip of shops and specialty bookstores make up the “creative cluster” where all owners have made a joint decision that no bars will open on the street there, keeping it quieter than the other crevices of the neighborhood. Next to Papercup is the Maroun Naccache Theatre, the first in Beirut and where they put on Moliere productions. The church on the same road is where the neighborhood got its name. The church was originally in Qarantina. The women felt uncomfortable by the presence of soldiers there so they relocated to its current location in 1855 and, like much of Beirut, it was destroyed then reconstructed several times to make it bigger. The last works date back to 1972 and it has been the main place for community congregation ever since.
Train Station and Bus Warehouse
Mar Mikhael is also home to one of the main train stations that was used when we had a railway that ran along the coast to the north. Rather than create museums or public spaces out of relics that link back to our past, it seems we only know how to reinvent our dilapidated public transportation systems into nightlife venues. After the old train station of Mar Mikhael was used for multiple DJ events, it was morphed into a high-end bar by BO18 management. The abandoned bus graveyard/warehouse is Uberhaus’ station for their indoor electronic raves while Garten is closed until the summer.
Collectif Kahraba’s Aurelien Zouki met us halfway up the Vendome Stairs to talk about Nahna wel Amar wel Jeeran, the yearly festival that happens there. With a name meaning “us, the moon, and the neighbors,” the festival is comprised of visual/musical performances and public interventions in a public space. Through this, they promote collaboration between different fields who join forces to create a neighborhood event. The collective sees itself as a theatre company that puts on free accessible cultural events that involve the residents of the neighborhood in the planning and whole production. For example, Nawal and Camille, two old neighbors on the Vendome Stairs, participate by composing songs and cooking food for the audience and host guests. Once, a puppet performance was done on the building rooftops; the puppets were based on the known neighborhood personalities like Nawal and Camille.
All these attempts at inserting cultural practice into our daily lives is at risk when homes are replaced by towers. The way the community interacts changes because they function like a village. Breaking this dynamic through modern urban development kills the human aspect of the community.
One intervention done is the bench found at the halfway point of the staircase. Designed by Christian Zahr, he saw that there was a need for a “break” on the way up the steep climb, especially for the elderly that live in the homes of this part of Ashrafieh. The bench that is built like a staircase itself pokes fun at the fact that there’s no public institution taking care of the residents’ needs or the public space of the city.
Grande Brasserie du Levant
Located on the Badawi half of the area, the Brasserie opened in the 1930s and was the oldest brewery in the Middle East. It was where Laziza Beer was made. The brasserie as “La Grande Brasserie du Levant” was closed in 1995 but an entrepreneur used it to produce a beverage at a later stage. With little success, it finally closed in 2003. There have been talks to transform it into lofts or a cultural center but no official decision has been made due to a dispute between the owners. This was where GAIA Heritage held an exhibition last July featuring the work of 15 creatives.
Other MK Fun Facts
- The graffiti portrait done by Phat2 at the Mar Mikhael Gas Station is of his sister
- Internazionale was a garage between 1954-1970s
- The army barracks facing the Grande Brasserie were built by the French
- Brut l’atelier is an open workshop where you can go use their tools and workspace to collaborate and/or assist on handmade projects
- Across from the Brasserie is a colorful staircase leading back up to an alley by the Vendome Stairs. There used to be a festival there every year until the organizer passed away.