Uruguay Street Drinks to Drown its Past

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Sparse authenticity and very little of the area’s original identity as a central point in society still remain. (Photo: Haytham elMoussawi)

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Last Friday night boasted to be Uruguay Street’s one year anniversary; the bestowal of a first birthday that suggested the downtown Beirut street had come into existence only so recently.

The anniversary event in fact was to celebrate a year passing since Uruguay Street was launched as a nightlife destination development project. When asked, none of Friday’s visitors to the stretch, which now sports a line of internationally themed bars and bistros cramped side by side, had any notions of the tapestry of its nearly century-old history under that name.

“There was nothing here before. It was dead,” was the unanimous response.

Uruguayan Ambassador to Lebanon, Jorge Luis Jure, attended the anniversary event, all smiles. Of those present, he seemed the most aware of the area’s past. According to Ambassador Jure, the street was originally named around the 1920’s when large numbers of Lebanese families immigrated to Uruguay. The street led the way to the port, connecting the two worlds.

Of the street’s recent face-lift, he said, “It’s remarkable they have rebuilt it in this way. It is now a center of life and happy times.” Scanning the neon signs and tightly packed tables feeding an ersatz atmosphere, this does not feel like a center of real life at all.

The bars are occupying what was until 1975 a textiles souk, a popular market that sold fabric by weight, hence earning the name al-Oukiyeh Souk, or the 200 grams souk. It was one of around 40 specialized souks constituting the popular market that was central Beirut, the common space and meeting point for Lebanese people as well as merchants and customers from across the Arab world.

Raya Daouk, president of the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon described the area saying, “It was a mosaic of cultures. It was a window onto all the Lebanese people.” The popular souk was teeming with life. “The whole Arab world would come to the market on Fridays. Lebanese people would come from all over, people from the mountains to sell their apples, or meat, everything. And people would come from Damascus and Jordan and further to buy their goods,” she said.

Today, the one year anniversary party and the glossy revelers belie the age and cultural history of the street. Though certainly populated with customers, the street still conforms to the sterile, implanted feel of the entire downtown area that can only be said to represent and gratify a very small percentage of the population.

In the aftermath of the long civil war, central Beirut became the site of an aggressive development project. In 1991 parliament passed Law 117 which decreed that the property rights of the original owners and tenants of downtown Beirut would be transferred to the private stock company Solidere which was commissioned to reconstruct the district.

In return the owners and tenants received shares in the company that corresponded with the value of their properties, though these shares transpired to be near worthless. Needless to say this was done regardless of the wishes of the thousands of families whose homes were in the area, nor the many thousands more that dreamt of resuming their businesses in the old souk.

While the war had damaged and scarred much of the area, the majority of the buildings only required superficial restorative work. Solidere, however, proceeded to raze nearly all of the buildings in the area, preserving merely some facades; erasing central Beirut’s past to make way for its personal fantasy of what the city should be.

Solidere’s vision for the redevelopment of the area envisioned catapulting central Beirut to compete with the other commercial centers in the region, “with a progressive outlook and regard to the needs of contemporary life and business,” according to the company’s website. Although the company claimed to be protecting the cultural heritage of the area, and archaeological treasures were indeed preserved, sparse authenticity and very little of the area’s original identity as a central point in society still remain.

Uruguay street is a classic example. Ahmad Ibrahim, member of the Association for Tenants and Owners who are fighting Solidere for the rights to their properties that were so unceremoniously appropriated from them, owned a building overlooking Uruguay Street. “My father opened our textiles shop in 1950. The business easily fed our family of 13 until we had to close at the start of the war in 75.” The bustling area was where all members of society would come to buy material, mingling with the merchants who would trade through the nearby port.

In 1994 the building, still intact after the war, was bulldozed down by Solidere, the land was sold, and the al-Nahar (newspaper) building was built atop its memory. The old Oukiyeh Souk was converted in office spaces which failed to attract businesses and the once vibrant popular commercial district was hauntingly deserted.

Last year, in a development project hoping to create revenue for Solidere, the buildings with their old souk facades were leased to bar and restaurant owners with a vision to contrive a new nightlife destination. The street’s old, pre-war name was revived, “Branded in such a way as to conserve its identity,” said Marwan Ayoub, managing partner of Venture Hospitality, the developers of the area.

What has been preserved is at best a superficial reflection of the architectural face of the street, but its character and more importantly its role in the fabric of society, has been forever erased save for in the minds of those who choose to remember.

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