A City Reborn

Reconstructing Downtown Beirut

by Amal Bouhabib

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Unlike many city centers, Beirut’s downtown is less a commercial center than an escape. To be sure, commerce is conducted here: Downtown is home to Parliament, businesses and cafes. But the area is free of the chaos – the overcrowded and lawless traffic, the cackle of honking horns and the litter and grime – that infests the rest of this once picturesque Mediterranean city. In contrast, downtown Beirut, with its uniform modern buildings, new churches, mosques, walkways and gardens, is pristine.

This is purposeful. When Lebanon’s 16-year- long civil war ended in 1990, after claiming 150,000 lives, Beirut’s downtown was just as devastated as the rest of the country, if not more so. The downtown district, also known as the Bourj, crouched over the dividing line that split the city in two, between the Christian east and Muslim west. As such, it received more than its share of bullets, shells and bombs. It quickly became a ruin.

But before the war, the Bourj had been one of the few places in Beirut where Lebanon’s different religious communities – Christian, Druze and Muslim – mixed. Elsewhere, Beirut was divided into sectarian enclaves, Muslims living alongside Muslims, Christians alongside Christians. Though the war has ended, sectarian tensions remain. Indeed, a recent study by Beirut’s Center for Democracy and the Rule of Law indicates they are worse than ever. Thus, reconstructing the Bourj, a place of common ground, has special significance for Lebanese seeking to get past confessional differences.

“[The Bourj] is special to Lebanon,” said Samir Khalaf, a professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, who has written much about Lebanon’s reconstruction. “It is a symbol of our collective pride and our shame, and we must reclaim it as a matter of urgency. If we ignore it we run the constant risk of slipping back into the abyss.”

Since the war ended, the Lebanese government, local and international companies and various aid organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on redevelopment and reconstruction. By far the greatest concentration of activity and resources is in Beirut, an effort that has its critics. Still, it is not surprising. While Lebanon’s capital spreads over only 2 percent of the country’s land, it contains half of Lebanon’s 3.8 million citizens.

A private company, the Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central District (known by its French acronym Solidere) was incorporated in 1994 and charged with overseeing the development of 19.4 million square feet of the Bourj, including 6.5 million square feet reclaimed from the sea. Solidere laid down the infrastructure, built two residential developments and has almost completed restoring the historic central district (the new gold market is scheduled to be completed next year).

Today, the company’s main task is to manage the Bourj, enforce zoning regulations, building standards and traffic codes.

Solidere is the brainchild of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. (Mr. Hariri was the company’s largest stockholder, with 7 percent of its shares.) But Mr. Hariri’s death has not slowed Solidere’s work. It continues to drive the economy; its shares account for 90 percent of daily trading on the Beirut stock exchange.

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Tags: Lebanon Melkite Greek Catholic Church Maronite Church Beirut Civil War