The other side

How highways divided Beirut’s neighborhoods

Photo by: Khalil Hariri

Mar Mikhael usually evokes images of a buzzing nightlife and hip restaurants; what few of the neighborhood’s visitors realize, however, is that there is more to Mar Mikhael than Armenia Street. Even fewer are aware that Mar Mikhael is not bordered by Charles Helou Avenue, but that it in fact splits it in two. 

Located in Medawar in east Beirut, Charles Helou Avenue was constructed in 1958 to link Beirut’s northern entrance to the Beirut–Tripoli highway. Highways and roads were central to planners’ attempts at shaping the city and managing urbanization. In fact, prior to the 1964 master plan for Greater Beirut, written by the French architect and urban planner Michel Ecochard, the only plan that was approved by the government was the 1954 one, which was a little more than an network of intersecting roads with no zoning regulations and high densification factors.

Ecochard himself was famous for his numerous highway projects, the most famous of which is the Lebanese coastal highway, built in the 1930s. He thought increasing the vehicular capacity of existing roads would facilitate the transport of workers into the city. This modernist approach to planning was common in the West in the first half of the 20th century; engineers conceived highways according to traffic trends to maximize the efficient circulation of goods and people.

Torn communities

In theory, highways reduce transportation costs, allow for specialization in production, and enable regions to develop a competitive advantage. In practice, however, in addition to producing congestion and pollution, highways hollow out the communities they cross through. There is also evidence that suggests that highways are disproportionately routed through underprivileged neighborhoods. In the United States, former transportation secretary Anthony Foxx has claimed that most of those displaced by highway projects were low-income African Americans. Road projects destroyed 1,500 buildings and 200 businesses in the now-vanished neighborhood of Brooklyn in Charlotte, North Carolina, while inner-city highways led to a 30 percent decrease in the population of Syracuse, New York.

Similarly, the construction of Charles Helou Avenue meant that the efficient circulation of automobiles was prioritized over the wellbeing of Medawar’s communities. Parts of Nour Hajin, an Armenian camp in the north of Mar Mikhael, were wiped out as the camp shrunk from 25,000 to 18,000 square meters. The Saint Therese Church was demolished to make way for the avenue. The avenue also stood as an obstacle for those living north of it, as they were now blocked from reaching Mar Mikhael Church by foot.

Residents of Mar Mikhael’s port side recalled in the first few decades after the avenue was built  that hundreds had died attempting to cross the avenue over to the other side where most shops, such as convenience stores and butchers, were located. According to the same long-time residents, those crossing the avenue were also easy targets for snipers located in towers in nearby Saifi during the civil war, further disconnecting the two sides. The only pedestrian bridge linking the two halves of Mar Mikhael was built more than 30 years after the avenue itself.

To cross from the south side of Mar Mikhael to its north side by car, one has to drive to Corniche El Nahr, turn westward near Forum De Beyrouth, and drive along Charles Helou Avenue. This means that the north side is not only hard to reach by foot, but also by car, especially during peak hours. Residents explained how the north side of the neighborhood is now an “isolated island.”

The only pedestrian bridge linking the two halves of Mar Mikhael was built more than 30 years after the avenue itself

This isolation has had drastic impacts on the economy, identity, and development of the north side of Mar Mikhael. It has remained strictly linked to port activities, as most firms located in the area belong to the logistics and transport sectors. In its southern part, on the other hand, Mar Mikhael has witnessed drastic economic changes, as it has attracted pubs and restaurants, alongside the arts and crafts industry, transforming into one of the city’s major nightlife hubs. The only high-end restaurant that opened in the north side was Harbor 201, which recently went out of business. This is despite land prices being considerably cheaper in the northern side due to the difference in demand.

The stark contrast in economic fortunes between the two parts has also led to a difference in their identities. Whereas the southern side has attracted expats, foreigners, and young professionals, the north side has witnessed an exodus of its younger generation, leaving mostly long-term, impoverished, and elderly residents in the area. The only school in the area closed four years ago, according to one of the area’s mukhtars, or local officials.

People not cars

As Charles Helou Avenue undergoes renovation, the junctions leading to Mar Mikhael have been blocked, further isolating the north side from the rest of the city. Despite promises from Beirut’s governor to build a bridge or a tunnel that connects the north side of Mar Mikhael to Geitawi, the area has failed to attract developers, as evidenced by its numerous empty lots in the area. Northern Mar Mikhael’s isolation also seems to have amplified the negative externalities of the highly polluting Sukleen, Sukomi, and port trucks. Things are only expected to get worse for the area if a waste incinerator is built in nearby Karantina. 

As Beirut continues to choke on car traffic, Dr. Mona Fawaz, coordinator of the Masters in Urban Planning program at the American University of Beirut, explains that “car mobility has reached its limits, and it’s time to rethink the role of highways.” Not only have inner-city highways become outdated, but they also encourage the use of private cars. Despite that, city and state officials continue to push for projects like the Fouad Boutros highway that would cut through dense neighborhoods. State officials have resorted to the outdated 1964 Ecochard plan to justify the highway, and the municipality is already expropriating land even though the environmental and traffic impact studies are still ongoing. In fact, Fawaz says that the impact studies may not have even taken place without pressure from civil society, despite the fact that the law states that highway projects cannot be executed without them.       

There are other examples of bridges and highways that have had a negative impact on their surroundings in Beirut, such as the Yerevan bridge in Bourj Hammoud and the Hawd Al-Wilaya bridge in Basta, which also cleared neighborhoods in two. Through the effect of the multiple highways and bridges that cut through its neighborhoods, Beirut has been shaped by the needs of its cars rather than its residents. To counteract their effects, improving public transportation and promoting walking and cycling are essential to turn Beirut into a more livable and vibrant city.    

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