Beirut dreaming

Beirut dreaming

Note: I wrote this post in early 2020–as a revolution was unfolding in Lebanon–as a way of keeping record of thoughts and photos from the time I’ve gotten to spend in Beirut particularly in the last five years. Then I sat on my hands not knowing whether I should be another white person with super unique reflections about the Middle East (somewhat endearing because probably a total of five people will read this post), then the pandemic started and everything feels irrelevant and pointless anyway, so here we are. It’s hard to see how the economic crisis that was already engulfing Lebanon is going to do anything other than deepen catastrophically with Covid-19.  Still, I hold out hope that in Lebanon as with everywhere else, the pandemic will allow us to lay a foundation for a different kind of world.

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When I found myself with some spare time on my own in Beirut in 2013–the first time I visited as an adult–I grabbed one of those old-timey paper maps and set off walking. Starting in Hamra, I was aiming for the spot on the map labeled ‘Beirut souks’. I imagined–in what can only be described as a flight of orientalist fancy–that this must be the traditional souk (marketplace) that can be found across Middle East cities from Palestine to Morocco, where residents of all kinds gather to buy anything from vegetables, sweets and soap to clothing and leather goods, in a colorful cacophony of sights and smells and [insert remainder of Orientalist fantasy here].

When I arrived at ‘Beirut Souks’ I was incredibly confused to find what appeared to be a high-end shopping mall boasting fashion boutiques from Prada to Tommy Hilfiger. I realized I had forgotten the tiny detail that most of downtown Beirut was obliterated during the civil war of 1975-1990, and the original souk was at the heart of that obliteration. After the war, the destruction of the downtown area was used as a pretext to implement a very particular regeneration plan under the tutelage of Solidere, the company of then-prime minister Rafic Harriri. Rather than rebuilding the souk as it had been before, most of the previous residential and commercial tenants were pushed out to make way for global brands and wealthier tenants, ensuring the downtown area became one geared mainly toward the wealthiest residents and visitors.

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Beirut ‘Souks’ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve since had the privilege of visiting Beirut yearly over the past five years. I’ve come to understand that downtown Beirut exemplifies conflicts over ownership and the failure of particular urban dreams that are visible across the city. While the downtown area may have once felt like a glitzy regeneration scheme, much of it now also feels like a ghost town, with numerous abandoned storefronts. Part of this is due to enforced security and road closures because of the nearby Lebanese parliament, but it must also surely reflect the failure of such an urban model to actually respond to residents’ needs.

Downtown ghost town

Across the city, power struggles are visible in the contrast between modern new-build projects and the staying power of older, often deteriorating buildings. Beirut retains a large number of beautiful (imho) old buildings exhibiting various architectural styles, sometimes many at the same time, such as traditional Lebanese architecture along with French art deco. Many of these structures are deteriorating and/or completely abandoned. Some were abandoned during the war and the owners never returned; because of Lebanese inheritance law and a lack of an eminent domain policy (if I’ve understood correctly), if the owner is not identified then the building cannot be touched. Some buildings have arguably deteriorated due to the old rental laws, which froze old rental contracts after the civil war. These helped to safeguard social diversity in historic neighborhoods, but in the absence of the state ensuring affordable housing options, the crumbling buildings are now luxury development opportunities waiting to happen.

A mixture of many architectural styles

At the same time, shiny new high-rises and luxury developments are springing up everywhere. The speculative nature of urban development is obvious: loose capital floods in, apparently a large portion from the gulf countries, leading to luxury apartment developments, which often then sit there empty, as the point was never to house people but to park money.  Such buildings would perhaps not seem so egregious if it weren’t for the fact that most of the city’s poorer residents–including hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees–have been relegated to overcrowded and unsafe housing, refugee camps or homelessness.

High-rises and new architecture contrast with old and sometimes crumbling buildings

In other parts of the city, disputes over ownership have stopped any redevelopment plans in their tracks for years. The most obvious example is perhaps the old Holiday Inn, open for a year before it was ransacked in the civil war and taken over by various militia groups (today, the Lebanese army has a base there). While many residents and developers alike want to see it demolished, it remains standing so many years later, pockmarked by bullet holes and explosions. The only thing competing interests could agree on was to take down the Holiday Inn sign, to appease the anxious hotel chain.

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The old Holiday Inn (photo by Gregor Rom)

Elsewhere, in a quiet corner of Mar Mikhael, an increasingly trendy and gentrifying neighborhood historically important to Beirut’s Armenian community, I saw the old Laziza brewery being bulldozed in late 2017. A huge pit was carved out to make way for yet another block of luxury apartments. But in the middle of the whole thing there lingered an old yellowed building, apparently unable to be torn down because the owners have not been found. I don’t know how the new development went forward, if it did go forward, whether developers demolished the building anyway, or simply built around the structure leaving an old building of traditional architecture to spoil the planned modernist landscape. (Beirut residents might know what became of this stubborn outlier.)

The old Laziza brewery, and the surrounding block which was demolished except for a stubborn yellow building.

This is my first new year in five years not spent in Beirut and I’m in no position to properly comment on the incredible revolution unfolding in Lebanon, that began in October 2019. Suffice to say I was not expecting it, considering that there always seemed to be so much apathy towards politics in Lebanon–understandable considering the decades of corruption that have meant that seemingly simple things like continuous electricity and reliable trash collection have never been guaranteed.

But now the streets are being taken over with protests and occupations (and in classic Beirut tradition, epic dance parties) demanding an end to corruption and a more democratic political system. The movement has been reclaiming the city’s privatized spaces. A different dream is emerging. In this moment, it seems possible that maybe Beirut’s glitzy exclusive buildings and enclosed spaces are not a harbinger of the future but will become, like the crumbling Holiday Inn, a relic of the past.


For further exploration:

Ronnie Chatah’s walking tour is one of the best things I’ve done in Beirut and is where I learned many of the things in this post. Hopefully the tours will be up and running again soon: https://www.bebeirut.org/walk.html

Citylab: Beirut’s Protest City is a Rebuke to the Privatization of Public Space: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/10/lebanon-anti-government-protests-beirut-martyrs-square/601180/

Article about the flattened Laziza brewery and planned luxury apartment project: https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/07/24/farewell-lebanon-s-first-brewery-beer-beirut/

Gregory Buchakjian is a Lebanese artist who photographs and documents abandoned buildings in Beirut, whose work has been exhibited at the Sursock Museum and elsewhere : http://www.buchakjian.net/installation/abandoned-dwellings-inventory/index.html

Aljazeera documentary on the Holiday Inn and Lebanon’s civil war: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DTGFcjRrQ4&t=635s

Recent Vice video about Lebanon’s economic crisis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHiuyUiUAp8

Does property serve a social function? Re-imagining real estate in Brazil and beyond

Does property serve a social function? You might think the answer is “yes, of course”. The purpose of a house, for example, is to house people, to serve as a space in which to create a home. These days, though, it seems that houses are more often used as a financial good rather than to serve a direct use like that of providing shelter. This is evident in the vast international system by which land and property are bought and sold according to the supply and demand of the “property market”. In many national contexts, you cannot really be secure in your housing situation until you own your own house. This in many ways dictates patterns of urban development: people will buy or rent property in areas where the property value is low enough that they can afford; meanwhile, wealthy developers have every right to buy up property and profit off of it as they see fit—after all, they paid for it.

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But this is not an inevitable process; in fact, it reflects only one interpretation of what we call “property”, one that fulfills a trajectory of urbanization that seems near impossible to challenge. It is therefore not surprising that the concept of the “social function of property” whereby property must fulfill a social function and cannot merely be used for profit, is increasingly taken up by social movements fighting for the rights to land and housing around the world.[1]

São Paulo is one city where the contradictions of the “property market” are especially apparent, and groups contesting the situation particularly active. The housing deficit is currently estimated to be at 230,000 homes.[2] Meanwhile, there are hundreds of vacant buildings in the city center. In response to this, dozens of sem-teto or “roofless” movements have formed, demanding the right to secure housing and undertaking occupations of vacant buildings to draw attention to the housing crisis. These occupations not only highlight the current urban reality of unequal property ownership, but also put into question the very concept of property.

The private ownership model of property

In his work Unsettling the City, Nicholas Blomley highlights the hegemony of what he calls the “ownership model” of property, where there is generally one definable owner to a clearly delineated piece of land, and property almost exclusively means private property. Private property indicates a certain form of power that seems to have “an independent, nonstatelike quality”, as the idea that someone can exclusively claim a parcel of space is taken for granted.[3] This model came to dictate what kind of property we are supposed to value–i.e., private, owner-occupied, etc.–which in turn raises the overall perceived value of this kind of property, in a process seen as uncontestably determined by “the market”. But only those who are able to buy into this market get the right to property.

People did not always conceive of property in this manner. This particular understanding of property arose to prominence out of a desire to provide order to the city, beginning with the colonization of land. Indigenous groups did not usually conceive of property in the same way as their colonizers, and so a new, more regulated, interpretation of property was necessary in order to physically “settle” the land: “the colonization of land, the physical substance, could not have proceeded without the simultaneous colonization of property, the mental structure for organizing rights to land.”[4] Adrian Blackwell describes how this ownership model then enabled property to be carefully partitioned and therefore easily exchanged in a capitalist market:

The secret of capitalist property lies in the way in which the most grounded and immobile of things—land—can be made to move through its financialization and exchange-ability, while this same property is rendered absolutely solid, reified, as each absentee owner decides who can and cannot enter it.[5]

Thus property has come to be viewed as a parceled good to be bought and sold. Brazilian scholar and planner Raquel Rolnik argues that housing is viewed increasingly as an investment asset in a globalized financial market, rather than as a social good. She explains how, rather than a means to distribute wealth, housing has become a “means to wealth”, where “the value is the possibility of creating more value, which depends on the speed and number of transactions capable of generating value appreciation”. While ideas of housing as commodity confronted various national welfare models in different national contexts, many governments around the world have mobilized a range of policies to “extend market discipline, competition and commodification”.[6] The result has been urban enclaves created for the wealthy and international elite, with the poor confined to peripheral areas (or, in the North American case, “inner city” areas), often with limited basic services and employment opportunities.[7] Clearly in Brazil as elsewhere, this has meant the growth of informal settlements, forming part of an agenda which Rolnik asserts is “to create an urban scenario where the poor don’t exist and at the same time ‘unlock’ the value of land”.[8]

Viewing property and the real estate market as natural and self-evident has a de-politicizing effect. It masks the actors and social processes involved in deciding the “value” and accessibility of property. It assumes that the value of property lies only in its exchange value, and that this value is to be decided by the “market”. It makes it very difficult to imagine that property could be understood in any other way.

Continue reading “Does property serve a social function? Re-imagining real estate in Brazil and beyond”

If Habitat III wants to uphold the right to housing, it needs to address financialization

This post was originally published on the Development Planning Unit blog on 11 May 2016.

At the start of April, a number of civil society groups, members of NGOs and activists from across Europe met in Barcelona for the European meeting of the Global Platform for the Right to the City. This was in part to complement the Habitat III meeting on Public Space that was to take place later that week. Habitat III will be the third installment of the UN conference on human settlements, held every 20 years. At this Global Platform meeting in Barcelona, priorities relating to the ‘Right to the City’ in Europe and strategic aims for Habitat III, to take place in Quito this October, were discussed.

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Global Platform of the Right to the City meeting in Barcelona

One of the main issues that emerged in the Global Platform meeting was the financialization of real estate. Financialization can be defined as a “pattern of accumulation in which profit-making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production” (Aalbers 2009, p. 284). The financialization of housing refers specifically to the linking of housing markets with finance markets, where housing is viewed primarily as a financial good. This is what allows banks to speculate on land and housing, which causes house prices to rise far beyond what most people can afford. The linking of mortgages with financial products, especially in the United States, was a central factor in the 2008 economic crisis that had catastrophic effects across the globe.

In a working group on the topic, participants exchanged experiences of how financialization has manifested in their respective countries. A member of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for people affected by mortgages) in Barcelona summarized the particularly dire situation in Spain, where over 400,000 evictions have taken place since 2008. While each European country has its own unique context, many common themes emerged, such as speculation, inflated housing prices, empty homes, the selling off of social housing, and an increase in evictions and displacement. These phenomena were linked to a systematic eroding of regulations that have allowed the financial sector to exploit housing for profit. Continue reading “If Habitat III wants to uphold the right to housing, it needs to address financialization”

Kill the bill!


Thousands of people were out on the streets of London Sunday to protest the horrific housing bill which is currently being rushed through parliament (article in the Independent here). As an outsider to the UK nearly three years ago I was initially struck by the institution of social housing which seemed much more vast and ingrained than in other contexts that I knew. Then I began to understand the many ways in which social housing (or council housing as it is known–referring to the local council in charge of each  administrative area) in the UK is being steadily undermined. Namely, existing social housing is being sold off for private renting, no new social housing is being built, and discussions now center around “affordable” housing which falls on the whim of private developers to provide, which they usually don’t, and which is allowed to be up to 80% of the market rent. Now, this bill really seems like the nail in the coffin of social housing in the UK, rendering housing even less accessible to both council tenants and private renters. I don’t even understand how such a bill, that caters entirely to ensuring private developers make as much money as possible, has managed to pass so quickly through parliament (detailed explanations of the UK legislative system are most welcome).

The #KilltheHousingBill campaign has produced a great video explaining the housing bill.

Last week the Radical Housing Network also produced a spoof newspaper of the Evening Standard–they call it the ‘Standard Evening’, which was distributed at tube stops all over London. The paper, which detailed what London would be like many years in the future if this housing bill passes, can be accessed online here.

cartoonIf you live in the UK, please sign the petition: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/stop-the-housing-bill

Let’s kill this bill!