Activists harassed as demolition continues in Gemmazye

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Demolition works today in Gemmayze. Source: Save Beirut Heritage

Despite a cessation order posted yesterday by Beirut’s governor, demolition works have continued today at a historic Art Deco building in Gemmayze. One activist with Save Beirut Heritage sent me these pictures and told me he was threatened by the site’s foreman today for taking them.

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Save Beirut Heritage

According to the SBH activist, the foreman began by cursing his mother and sister– with the typical vulgar references. Then he recalled that he had seen the activist–who frequently documents heritage demolitions for SBH– at another historic building being torn down in Furn el Hayek, also documented on this site.

He said: “I wish we would have put you in a van when I saw you there. We should have taken you somewhere and beat you up,” the activist recalled.

The SBH activist said the altercation began when he took a picture of this artist conception of what the new building will look like. The image shows a completely different building that appears to have retained nothing of the original structure. The height has also been changed from the current 4 floors to at least 10 floors:

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Save Beirut Heritage

 

Such an image appears to contrast the brief bit of jubilation among citizens and activists yesterday when the governor posted the cessation order on his Facebook page after coverage of the demolition, both by The Daily Star and this blog.

But how could the old structure be protected if an entirely new– and much larger– structure is to take its place?

The activist I spoke to was not the first to say he was harassed at this site. A licensed architect had reportedly visited the Deco building recently and went to have a look at the demolition orders posted on its outer walls. The architect told this story:

“The foreman asked me to leave when I was looking at the papers. I refused saying anyone has a right to read demolition permits posted on a building, particularly a licensed architect and member of the Lebanese architect’s union. The foreman asked for my ID and tried to grab it. Soon after, I got a call from the union with the foreman claiming I threatened a union action against the building!”

Can you imagine how much power this developer must have to get a bureaucratic Lebanese union to react so quickly?

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Tiles removed from art deco building today. (SBH)

 

A close read of the Governor’s cessation order indicates that work on the “eastern” part of the plot must be stopped. However works on the western part were allowed. This means the building is actually composed of two parts. The corner section–which activists say dates back to the earlier part of the century– and the section left of it on Rue Gouraud, which is apparently a later addition from some time around the 1940s.

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SBH

Here’s a closer view of the Western section:

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SBH

Yet when I visited the site last weekend, both buildings were cloaked in green demolition nets and barricades have been put around the sidewalks and curbside parking of both buildings. And once again, the artist conception doesn’t appear to preserve either part.

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Metal barricades extend around both buidlings

Activists and citizens will have to stay vigilant on this issue to make sure the corner building is not demolished. But who will hold the owners accountable in case they threaten people for taking pictures or reading legal permits posted on the building?

It’s actually not surprising to hear about developers harassing journalists and photographers. I was physically assaulted last year for taking pictures at a major construction site that concealed ancient ruins. How long will Lebanese developers remain above the law?

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Interior shot with Deco stairwell. (SBH)
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Old tiles still untouched on this floor. (SBH)

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Update: The architect who was harassed agreed I could use her name. She is Abir Saksouk-Sasso.

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