Gentrification and the fight for one’s home

In one episode of CSI Miami, the group of skilled detectives have to deal with a crime at a neighborhood under ‘planned’ gentrification. The government was evicting inhabitants from their homes, paying half the property price and selling it to a development company to build a hotel. The law-respecting squad then finds itself in an ethical dilemma: does it allow the eviction and follow the court decision, or does it fight it for the sake of disinherited powerless families? And if the law is allowing for such an action to happen, could the law be wrong?

This is not different from what is happening across Lebanon. When land owners around Beirut Downtown cut electricity and water to evict renters, when land prices shoot up to 10,000$/meter, and when we see the poor of the Beirut driven out to Aramoun and Naameh with no safety nets, we realize that these are blunt cases of gentrification– a well-planned draining of city dwellers.

The first thing to be demolished by gentrification is the neighborhood. What is a neighborhood? It’s when people form a community, when they become familiar with each other, sharing interests along with food, care and afternoon coffee.

In my own neighborhood, in the old city of Sour, old women aren’t capable of fighting gentrification. They don’t know what it is, and they can’t really put their finger on what is changing their place.

Most of the old women who live around here – and they are mostly women because they tend to live longer than men, are middle aged and older. At least the ones I know live alone; they are either unmarried or have witnessed their kids move out to find jobs outside Sour. After the 2006 war and the invasion of UN and NGO employees and professionals, these old ladies found a financing source in renting their houses. Some of them built an additional room in the garden, others allocated a room in their house, while some had their children move out of the house and find a flat outside Sour so they could lease room or more in their homes.

The new comers, on the other hand, are generally foreigners or city-dwellers, young, with a higher education and of higher economic status. Their presence leads to imposed new urban places (cafes, bars, luxurious hotels…), as the city is changes little by little to adapt to the needs of the guests. And this is what we recognize as the process of gentrification, whereby “poor and working class neighborhoods in the inner city are refurbished by an influx of private capital and middle-class homebuyers and renters” (Smith, 1996, p.7).

There isn’t an accurate Arabic word for gentrification. The best I could find is ‘tahjir’ (تهجير ), which is too general and doesn’t carry the socio-economic reasons behind the process. Even in the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), the ‘international development agency’ which is supposed to work on promoting ‘equal opportunities’, doesn’t proclaim gentrification as a menace for the subsistence of disadvantaged communities.

One of my friends argued ‘this is how it works. This is the story of evolution in cities’.

But not at this rate: not this fast, not without a resistance from the original community and not with such hegemonic consumerist zeal. This new wave of “evolution” of the city “ is far more systematic and widespread” (Ilkucan and Sandıkcı, 2005). In ten years or so, these old ladies of the Sourian city will be gone. Their children have long ago left the place, the empty houses will be then amazing assets for hotels, hostels and bars. Who will live there?

History, heritage, traditional architectural styles, and the way people use a place and the existing social relations are therefore entirely twisted by the new incomers. I dare not call them a community because of their transience.

They are transient because they live here for a period of a few short months to three years as their contract might require; and because of their backgrounds and lifestyles, they don’t develop the sustainable social relations which might allow them to ‘belong’ to this place. And because of their status in the socio-economic hierarchy, they don’t generally desire to belong anyway.  Instead, they are inclined to impose their own cultural background and block any possible dialectic.

What is created is a neo-liberal space par excellence. A place empty of its original owners-dwellers, a place stripped of its use and staged in an aesthetical commodified performance for the tourists and foreigners to be ‘wow’-ed.

I am aware that most of our culture has become like that. We feel happy, civilized and Phoenician when the white man takes out his camera and clicks it at the sight of limestone walls.

One example of how it works is what happened to the old building in front of the American University of Beirut main gate on Bliss Street. The building houses a copy center, a language teaching center and most importantly Abu Naji, the famous small grocery shop whose owner knew all those who went to the university. The building was bought by a developer who closed down Abu Naji and will be opening a TSC in its place. So the family-owned local shop which developed relationships with thousands of students every year will now be replaced by the multi-million dollar franchise lacking any human relation with the customer and treating its own workers on modern slavery terms.

Going back to the CSI team, we see Horacio’s scrupulous conscience having to choose between following the law or defending the families against private property and the law of the market. We are in the same situation here. The squad ended up guiding the families through court hearings and celebrating the victory of the poor against the private real-estate monster.

But it doesn’t always happen this way. And in Lebanon? Do you seriously want to know how it happens and start guessing who would win in such a fight?

We have the same choice though. Standing with rule of the law, believing that what law decides must be right, or hearing the stories of these people and acknowledging the legitimacy of their cause.

References_

1-      Smith, Neil ‘The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City’, London: Routledge. 1996.

2-      Ilkucan, Altan and Sandıkcı, Özlem ‘Gentrification and Consumption: An Exploratory Study’ , Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 32, 2005.

Additional readings_

http://globalvoicesonline.org/2009/08/11/puerto-rico-the-battle-over-public-lands/

http://www.isreview.org/issues/44/whokilledNO.shtml

http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v32/acr_vol32_137.pdf

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