Taking a Walk in Mar Mikhael

IMG_1856

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.

IMG_1846_2

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.

IMG_1799_2

Tobbagi Gardens

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.

IMG_1806_2

Mr. Tobbagi talks to us about the Fouad Boutros Highway Project

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representations of our heritage but are being knocked down like stacks of Jenga pieces, the Project’s urban planning is outdated, inefficient, and unwanted to begin with.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.

IMG_1849_2

Massad Stairs 

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.

IMG_1839_2

Vanina

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.

IMG_1853_2

Pharaon St

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.

IMG_1825_2

A facade leftover to be incorporated into a new tower

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.

Vendome Stairs

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.

IMG_1832

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.

IMG_1827_2

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.

IMG_1855_2

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.

IMG_1857_2

What’s In Mar Mikhael?

Screen shot 2015-01-13 at 12.43.30 AM

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.

969-1 Gaia _ 2014-10-20 _ Recto - Web

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.