After a lunch in Beirut last week, my host insisted he drive me home, a distance of less than 250 metres. What made his suggestion even more ludicrous was that his car was parked facing the wrong way and he would have needed to go 100 metres in the other direction in nightmare traffic to make good on his offer. Even so, my suggestion that it really would be quicker if I walked was met with ridicule and the accusation that I could not wait to be rid of him.
You see, no one walks anywhere in Beirut, not unless they are clueless foreigners, dog-walking housekeepers or local idiots. So many people drive that those sidewalks that have not, by some strange Darwinian process, been expropriated as parking spaces or blocked by garbage skips, have “evolved” into an adjunct to one of the city’s hundreds of building sites, where the careless pedestrian can easily slip into a 50-metre hole, be crushed by a rampaging digger or decapitated by a falling glass panel.
More recently the hazardous art of walking across Beirut has been made even more treacherous by the stinking piles of uncollected garbage, which with the other deathtraps, now force the pedestrian to walk on the road for much of their journey, exposing them at the very least to being sideswiped by a wing mirror on one of the many 4x4s that navigate the capital’s many narrow roads, made even narrower by the doubled parked cars.
I was thinking about all of this one bright and sunny morning as I walked the length of Rue Gouraud, the main drag of the East Beirut district of Gemayzeh, which, as I mentioned in this column two weeks ago, went from a sleepy lower-middle class neighbourhood to the throbbing epicentre of Beirut nightlife to a sleepy upper-middle class neighbourhood with abandoned retail units in the space of just seven years.
Gemyazeh’s rise and fall was dramatic and brutal, a brilliant case study on how Beirut’s urban planning is ruled by raw market forces, which tore the heart of one of the country’s most charming districts for short-term gain, only to do the same to the neighbouring district of Mar Mikhael. Where they will go after that feeding frenzy is anyone’s guess.
And yet, I thought, anyone with any imagination would be able to see that Gemayzeh can be saved. In a city built on a hill, the flat and straight Rue Gouraud is pedestrian heaven, the East Beirut equivalent to Hamra, the only genuine high street in the capital’s west side.
I imagined it semi-pedestrianised, filled with galleries, boutiques, cafes, bars and restaurants, the sort of small businesses that are trying to eke out a living in the sterile and characterless Saifi Village development in the Beirut Central District. The new Gemayzeh would be an antidote to the malls, offering small businesses an opportunity to thrive in a laid-back environment that would be managed by a sympathetic and visionary NGO, working with landlords and tenants to preserve what is left of its period charm.
Twenty years ago it would have been possible to completely pedestrianise Rue Gouraud. It is not a main artery and the two highways that run to the north and south of it could cope, with minimal effect on the city’s traffic.
Today such a move would involve issuing permits to those residents who bought in the few new developments on Gouraud and who have underground parking. They could have access from one of the many side roads leading up from Rue Pasteur to the north.
A compromise would be to keep it open to cars but only allow trade vehicles to stop for loading and unloading, and even then only at certain times, that and a snail-like speed limit. But this would be a big ask in a city where a smoking ban cannot be enforced and where forcing drivers to stop at a red traffic light is something to be celebrated.
By the time, I reached the Church of St Anthony where Rue Gouraud leeched into Armenia Street, I realised it would never work. Before anything could happen, Beirut needs to impose a congestion charge, and that will only work if there is a decent, efficient and affordable public transport system and a civil society campaign to rid the Lebanese of the status anxiety that would stop them, heaven forbid, getting on a bus.
Now that would be progress.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton