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Beirut at a Crossroads

Commissioned in 1924 by Nicholas and Victoria Barakat, and lavishly built in the center of Beirut by the famed architect, Yousef Bay Aftinos, the Barakat building – featuring art deco marble tiles and hand-painted ceilings – stood as a symbol of the economic prowess of Lebanon, even in the face of declining Ottoman power. It remained so even as different ethnic refugees from all over the region settled in the city’s center, taking advantage of close commercial and political ties with European interests, especially the French. However, when civil war broke out in 1975, the Barakat became a victim of its own prime location. Directly located on the Green Line, the division of East and West Beirut, the Barakat – with its unobscured view of the street from every room – was an ideal location for snipers. As much of Beirut lay in ruin in the 1980s, so did the Barakat.

Beirut and its suburbs started rebuilding in 1991, the year following its civil war. In coming to this realization, city planners and entrepreneurs, such as Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister and founder of real estate development company Solidere, had much to take into consideration – far more than just the civil institutions that previously composed the urban structure. It had a rich center of ethnic commerce, communalism and commingling to acknowledge, and a citizenry willing to fight for it. Though the Barakat’s owners wanted to tear it down, in 1997, a group of architects and preservationists campaigned with the Lebanese daily newspaper, An-Nahar, to restore the building. Today the Barakat is one of the most powerful emblems of Beirut.

However, as a Phoenix that rises again and again from the ashes, Beirut now faces another era of rebuilding following the Israeli strikes of the last decade – this time competing with the other rising cities of the Middle East. As large corporations and developers have given rise to the downtowns of Dubai and Doha, Qatar, practically overnight, they turn another collective eye to the potential of Beirut, whose regime has been less restrictive than some of its regional counterparts. In fact, though the elder Hariri is gone, he leaves a deep imprint in the form of his son, Saad, the newly elected prime minister and the heir to Solidere.

Newspapers, magazines and travel guides from around the world have praised this development. A redesigned city center, a rebuilt marina, new pubs and various nightlife districts have brought Beirut acclaim as an international tourist attraction, named the top place to visit in 2009 by the New York Times, and listed as one of the ten liveliest cities in the world by Lonely Planet’s travel guides.

The lesson Beirutis may do well to consider was already learned 40 years ago in New York City. After World War II, Robert Moses, already known to Americans as a master urban builder, became the vanguard of an effort to renew cities, but his methods proved traumatic. Moses and New York bulldozed some of the city’s old neighborhoods for interstate highways and new residential structures that have proven riddled with neglect and conflict in the decades since.

Moses also attempted to do the same in the famous Manhattan neighborhood of Greenwich Village; residents’ protests saved the area, paving the way for artists such as Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Calvin Trillin to continue their work there. Downtown meeting areas in Beirut are also under pressure because of the drive to build new high-end residential towers and hotels, in areas where citizens of all classes were able to interact in the past. Much of the city is still old, and would benefit from new investment, but the benefits of this new construction would seem targeted for many projects into the foreseeable future.

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