Poor Beirut neighborhood's facelift only skin deep

An art project in Beirut’s Ouzai neighborhood is bringing color to the area, but urban planners are not impressed with what they see as a simplistic approach to its complex legal and economic problems.

al-monitor A man walks past houses, painted as part of the 'Ouzville' project, Ouzai, Lebanon, Aug. 19, 2017. Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images.

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lebanese economy, lebanese society, beirut, economic development, sustainability, art, civil society, urbanism, street art

Sep 22, 2017

Houses and other buildings in Ouzai, a poor southern neighborhood of Beirut near the airport, have come alive with color since Ayed Nasser set his heart on rebranding his childhood neighborhood. Nasser, a Lebanese investor and co-founder of real estate company Loft Investments, has attracted both praise and criticism with his Ouzville project.

“We only care of our origins, our religion, our political affiliations, but not our streets,” Nasser told Al-Monitor during a Sept. 16 visit to Ouzai, a neighborhood often associated with violence and crime that is currently bustling with artists and children painting the walls. “This place has been abandoned by politicians and people thinking only about their own interests,” he said.

“I wanted to beautify and unify Lebanon, break the stereotypes of physical Lebanese divisions. I created the name Ouzville for people to start looking at Ouzai, an abandoned place that, after a few months of work, began a big change in the country that everybody is talking about. I have actually been contacted by other municipalities like Chiah and Burj al-Barajneh to explain the process.”

Nasser’s project also aims to clean up the streets. The idea came to him during the garbage crisis of 2015. “It’s pretty much street art from garbage,” he told Al-Monitor. “People here are used to others cleaning their streets, so through art, I pushed the residents to clean up their own streets, because they can only rely on themselves. Not in their party, not in God, but themselves.”

The whole project cost more than $100,000, which Ayed Nasser paid himself. “Some people asked if it wouldn’t have been better to give food to the poor directly, but I think that poor people should stop making that many children in the first place,” he said. “It’s not up to me to feed their children; they have to manage by themselves.”

Ouzai residents are mostly satisfied with the project. Fouad, a local shop owner, told Al-Monitor, “Everybody is happy and the streets are cleaner. Nothing could have been done better because money disappears, but painting stays.” Another resident, Ichraq, said, "Here, people are poor. They can’t make their house beautiful like this so they are happy with the new look, especially the children.” Fatima Jaber, one of the children helping artists Grace Moucharafieh and Shireen Abou Khalil, expressed her enthusiasm to Al-Monitor: “I like to come to help and paint. I want to fix the area and then Lebanon step by step, and even if I can’t give a lot, I do what I can. I want Lebanon to be somewhere everyone wants to see and visit.”

Despite these positive comments, an article in the Middle East Eye showed that there were others who are critical of the project, such as Fadia Yared, owner of a parcel of land in Ouzai that is illegally occupied: “He is promoting an illegal situation; people have to be aware of this. Even tourists have to know that Lebanon is not just about fun and parties — there are real issues here.”

As Yared points out, Ouzai is actually an illegal settlement. “The Ouzai beach was occupied by high-end beach resorts that privatized this public area in the 1950s,” Mona Fawaz, professor of urban studies and planning at the American University of Beirut, told Al-Monitor. “A little further inland, a few houses had also been built as of the 1950s. They were the homes of low-income rural migrants and a few local families and developed largely in the form of so-called ‘informal settlements.’”

Many of the houses of the working class are built in violation of urban and/or property regulations not only in Ouzai but other parts of Lebanon, because they could not afford to buy or rent a house otherwise, according to Fawaz. During the civil war, the situation got worse, as families fleeing violence came and occupied available lands to build houses there.

In 2003, the Elyssar project, a development plan for Beirut's southern neighborhoods, was created to recognize these people's rights and provide them with safe and legal housing. “Through it, the ideal scenario would have been to relocate residents in such a way that they could have safe homes and work, while the seafront would be opened to common use,” Fawaz said. “Unfortunately, the lack of political will in all the successive governments to recognize low-income populations as citizens and engage them in actual development projects has meant that no concrete action was taken.”

The professor finds the Ouzville project “positive in de-segregating the area” and changing the image of violence by which Ouzai is typically known, though she expressed concern that the city’s coast remained private property. “My opinion as an urban planner is that something radically different is needed, and it will certainly cost much more than $100,000. It also requires the active participation of central as well as local authorities,” she told Al-Monitor.

According to architect and urban planner Abir Sasso, who is part of the research and performance collective Dictaphone Group, the Ouzville project addresses a very small part of the whole Ouzai problem, and it is simplistic to expect to solve a complicated urban problem with a beautification project.

“[The project] is disconnected from larger issues such as the fishermen port, access to the sea, infrastructure and poverty,” Sasso told Al-Monitor. “Also, it is a bit condescending to assume people were not already taking care of their own place. Since it’s an informal settlement, there is no public management of cleaning or garbage collection, so they dealt with it themselves.”

Critics agree that Ouzai deserves more than paintings, like sustainable development projects that would need to be maintained by the local community itself. “Economic development projects could revive the neighborhood without a constant flow of money,” Sasso added. “And why do we need to brand it as something else so people start accepting it? Maybe we need to focus the narrative on the history of such places and bring policy-makers to establish a plan to deal with informal settlements.”

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