New signs remind revelers that people live in Gemmayzeh, too
By Dalila Mahdawi
Thursday, November 20, 2008
BEIRUT: Blue signposts declaring that “Gemmayzeh is a residential area” sprouted up all along the popular nightspot’s main road, Gouraud Street earlier this week. The metal signs follow months of growing friction between the area’s residents and bar owners over noise levels, the lack of police presence and access to parking places.
Every weekend, thousands of cars cruise down Gemmayzeh’s narrow roads in search of parking spaces, causing heavy congestion. By midnight, Gouraud Street, a mere 730 meters long and home to dozens of bars and clubs, is positively throbbing with life, and the sound of drunken party-goers, car horns, music and over-enthusiastic valets fill the air. With a serious lack of parking spaces available, people park their cars wherever they find a space, often illegally, or in nearby neighborhoods.
Aida Azouri, a resident of Tabaris, south of Gemmayzeh, said party-goers were transforming her area into a parking lot on a nightly basis. “It would be better for everyone if they pedestrianized” Gouraud Street, she said, “or at least banned cars there after 9 p.m.”
Following a sit-in by disgruntled residents in March over what they dubbed the “hijacking” of local parking spaces and unbearable noise, Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis shut down over 20 bars said to be operating without licenses and imposed a curfew on the remaining establishments.
On April 14, those curfews were officially dropped, and although agreements were drawn up between the government and Gemmayzeh establishments to ensure the neighborhood was kept quiet for its sleep-deprived residents, the long-standing dispute soon resurfaced.
“We love Gemmayzeh, but we’d also love it to be a bit quieter after midnight,” said Huguette Sfeir, who has lived next to Gouraud Street’s busiest cluster of bars since 1983. “Thursdays to Saturdays, it is very noisy until 2 a.m.,” said Sfeir, who admitted she used to throw eggs and water at raucous pedestrians. “I would like those people making noise to come to my house so they can hear what I hear.”
But while Sfeir wanted a quieter neighborhood, she had reservations about how effective the signs were. “I thank the Beirut Municipality for putting up the signs, but actually I think they’ve wasted their money,” she said.
What is needed in Gemmayzeh is a police presence, added Sfeir. “Two weeks ago, there were two women fighting late at night, beating each other up and shouting. Last week, there were people with pocket knives fighting.” During both incidents, the police were nowhere to be seen.
Makram Zene is president of the Committee for the Development of Gemmayzeh, which comprises Gemmayzeh bar owners and residents, and owns a number of the area’s bars and restaurants. Echoing Sfeir’s sentiments, he said that while the signs were put up “to make people aware” of the area’s residents, “people will not really respect what the signs mean unless they are enforced by the police.”
For things to improve in Gemmayzeh, said Zene, immediate action on two vital points had to be taken. “The Municipality [of Beirut] has to open the Charles Helou parking lot as soon as possible, and traffic police have to be present in the area … We need the police here to regulate traffic and maintain security.”
The Charles Helou car park, an unsightly three-story building at the edge of Gemmayzeh, was built in the 1980s to serve the Beirut Port and the nearby areas of Saifi, Medawwar and Martyrs Square. But it has since stood derelict, with only the structure’s facade functioning as an unofficial bus terminal. Rerouting parking from Gemmayzeh to Charles Helou “would bring money to the municipality,” which owns the lot, said Zene. “The [acting] governor [Nassif Kalloush] is working on it and we ask him kindly to hasten the procedures because we are sure it will solve 50 to 60 percent of the area’s problems.”
When contacted on Wednesday by The Daily Star, the head of Beirut Municipality Michel Assaf said that “Gemmayzeh was of course a residential area not intended for pubs and restaurants,” but declined to comment on future Municipality policies in the area or the Charles Helou parking lot.
Meanwhile, as the bickering between residents and entrepreneurs continues, Beirut’s Hamra district, rapidly growing as a rival to Gemmayzeh, looks set to benefit. Most recently, Molly Malone’s, a bar that had been long-entrenched on Gouraud Street, moved to Hamra, leaving behind at it’s former premises only an angry banner complaining that annual rent had jumped from $30,000 to $130,000. With demand for property in Gemmayzeh at an all-time high, rent has sky rocketed.
Another resident sit-in is slated for 23 January, said Sfeir. The priority is to push for a solution to Gemmayzeh’s parking problems. “We are going to block the road to push for Gemmayzeh’s parking spaces to be only for the use of its residents. Rules must be made,” she said.