Errors of the past, shadows of the present
09/09/2020 by Elie Saad, Local observer
As I am writing this article, trying to force myself to work in order to forget about the calamity that struck us, the number of victims stands at 181, more than 7000 injured, 300 000 homeless, and 40 still missing under the rubble of the city that once was their home.
The government has resigned, and the future of the parliament is uncertain. The already biggest economical meltdown in the country’s history and the COVID pandemic suddenly became secondary. Because on August 4th, 2020 at 6:08 PM the meltdown became too literal. The port explosion sent the whole country trembling in a 4.5 earthquake on Richter scale that was felt in neighboring Syria and Cyprus. The shockwave of the explosion leveled dozens of buildings, mainly historical ones, to the ground among them the windows of half of the city. (according to the latest report as of the writing of this article we have 30 to 40 buildings that were destroyed and 40 000 damaged). 601 Heritage buildings were destroyed according to the Minister of Culture and around 70 of them are under the threat of being demolished for public safety reasons.
A quick look at the maps shows that the sectors located in east Beirut took the heaviest blow since the grain silo managed to block part of the shockwave thus protecting the other half of the city. In the following article, I will examine the repercussions of the blast on the built heritage to raise awareness and, hopefully, protect what is left by avoiding the post-civil war errors. In a later article, the evolution of Beirut’s port will be reviewed in detail, but for the sake of understanding the context, it will be briefly examined now
Beirut was always known for its strategical maritime location; the port historically played a huge role in the development of the city from Roman times till the Ottoman and the French eras.
The port was initially located in Beirut Intra-Muros. In 1887, under the Ottoman rule, the authorities granted the French company “Compagnie du Port, des Quais et des Entrepôts de Beyrouth” the right to expand the port and relocate it. The relocation took place to what is now known as the port and several expansions took place in the following decades. In the 30s the port saw a major expansion with the construction of the “Second pier” followed by another one in 1962 of the “Third pier” and lastly in the mid-60s the “Fourth and Fifth pier were built”.
During the civil war, the port was heavily damaged, at the time created their own “port” as a replacement to the destroyed one. The most notable of those “ports” were the “Khaldeh port” for the Druze, the “Ouzai port” for the Shiite, and the “Jounieh port” for the Christians.
After the end of the civil war, the port saw a major rehabilitation and several expansions to its free economic zone. The managing authority was not appointed for the past dozens of years due to political infights thus undermining its effectiveness and long-term development.
A remarkable structure to note is the grain silos. The silos were built in the 1970s and were a donation from Kuwait with the support of Palestinian Lebanese businessman Yousef Beidas. They were designed and built by a Czech company and, ironically, they survived the entire civil war with only minor scratches to their surface, even withstanding the big port explosion of the fuel storage facilities in the late 80s, but destroyed in peacetime the Beirut’s explosion.
Lessons from a lost heritage, from SOLIDERE to public policies
The old city, specifically the downtown area, lost its identity a long time ago. Not because of the explosion but because of the rehabilitation and reconstruction process that took place in the 90s following the civil war. At that time, the decision was to create a stock company to reconstruct the torn downtown. A company was established in 1994 with a special public-private partnership statute and named “SOLIDERE” “Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction du Centre-ville de Beyrouth” (English: The Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District). The company created the master plan and building regulations upon which the center reconstruction was based on. In these plans, a large portion of the old and traditional buildings of Beirut were destroyed to create space for more high-end modern buildings to attract investors, in the hope of creating Beirut an international and regional business city. Owners of the lots, buildings, or renters of the area were given shares in the company, Stock A, to compensate them while stock B was directed for investors. According to officials, this was due to the inability of the owners to undergo the repairs in the timeframe and under the guidelines of the company. Some owners managed to protect their buildings and eventually retaking them, but this was after a long and exhausting legal process. Several cases of injustice were reported during the compensation process as well as the monopolization of SOLIDERE to former businessman and PM Rafik Hariri (Although legally an individual or a legal entity is unable to buy/own more than 10% of the shares of the company). SOLIDERE should have ended in 2019 but the Lebanese parliament renewed its status till 2029. The company, as well as loose laws and governmental actions, were responsible for the loss of not only the built heritage of Beirut but also the social and economical aspect of the downtown rendering it an elitist and militarized zone.
Unfortunately, SOLIDERE is not the only example in Lebanon for heritage systematic destruction, laws are generally loose with several loopholes regarding heritage making it harder to protect the built heritage. The most notable example is the destruction of old buildings that are already classified, or awaiting classification, by damaging the structure of the building. Typically, the story goes like this : buildings are emptied of sellable items, furniture, doors, tiles … After this individual enters, usually at night, the empty buildings and damages several structural columns and walls leaving the buildings barely hanging. The building collapses due to the weather or time and sometimes is being destroyed for public safety reasons. A skyscraper is erected on the same lot while merging several other lots, to gain a higher exploitation ratio. This scheme is noticeable in several areas, especially Mar Mikhael and Gemayze, the two main damaged areas in the 4th of August explosion. This scheme is encouraged by the fact that the zoning of Beirut gives the highest exploitation ratios to the areas with the dense heritage, thus making it highly beneficial for investors to demolish the old buildings to construct their towers.
The combination between the lack of proper laws to protect the heritage buildings/areas, the urban laws, and plans that grants the highest exploitation ratio to the old areas of Beirut, the hardening economic situation and the collapse of the local currency, the lack of proper education regarding heritage and now the port blast put the built Lebanese heritage in an extremely critical situation.
Some international initiatives were already launched to repair the damaged buildings, the Lebanese government already stepped in with some shy measures that will hopefully be implemented, which forbid selling lots and buildings in damaged areas. The General Directorate of Urbanism already placed the two areas “under study”, thus by Lebanese law prohibiting the issuing of any new construction permit. But without a coherent general plan of relief, support, and reconstruction of the areas the fear remains that all these measures will remain on paper.
The August 4th explosion will surely be carved in the collective memory of the Lebanese people. A memory usually forgotten and kept under the rug, hidden in order to be forgotten. This was the strategy of the Lebanese government and society throughout the years and calamities, neglecting any need for memorials or education related to disastrous incidents of our history. From 1945 till 2020 the Lebanese history has not been taught in schools or history books. The civil war, the most noticeable historical event in recent Lebanese history, is not remembered in even one memorial, park, or statue. The latest explosion left the nation without a capital, but hopefully, it will not be left to rot in our forgotten history.
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