There is something uncanny about the way in which people the world over talk about the decline of community. Whether one goes to the boroughs of East London that are undergoing ‘regeneration’, to the shrinking villages of ‘post-socialist’ Eastern Europe, or to Beirut’s vibrant streets buzzing with nightlife, one can encounter an almost identical narrative of communal decline: things aren’t what they used to be before; there is no sense of community anymore; people only care about personal gain, not about one another. These narratives often coexist, without any sense of contradiction, with claims that express the exact opposite sentiment: there is a very strong sense of community around here; I know all my neighbours and we get along well; people in this area care for one another, and so on.
Over the past year, the RELIEF team has carried our research in Hamra to understand what prosperity means according to local views. This has involved talking to people about the positive and negative experiences of life in the area, and asking them to define what the good life means for them.
…both older or younger generations see Hamra as an exceptional place within Beirut and Lebanon. Hamra is, they say, a unique place with a unique identity.
The key issues that were consistently brought up are hardly surprising: residents of Hamra care about education, health, good quality jobs, a sense of community, affordable services and utilities, public spaces, and many other things that make life anywhere worthwhile. What we also learned in our research, however, is that both older or younger generations see Hamra as an exceptional place within Beirut and Lebanon. Hamra, they say, is a unique place with a unique identity.
…Hamra is a diverse place, where everyone gets along regardless of ethnic or sectarian affiliation. Nobody cares about the other’s identity, people often proclaim
There are two main reasons for this uniqueness. First, Hamra is a diverse place, where everyone gets along regardless of ethnic or sectarian affiliation. Nobody cares about the other’s identity, people often proclaim; most residents get along, they are one community and they have been like this even in times of war.
Second, Hamra residents take enormous pride in the neighbourhood’s history as a hub for education, culture, and intellectual and social life. With the country’s two best-known universities located within a short walk, the neighbourhood is a hotspot for student and academic activity, not just in the classrooms, but also in the cafes, restaurants, and shops.
Diversity and social vibrancy are part of Hamra’s identity - they are what makes Hamra a unique place that people can love and be proud of.
Researching the role of business, however, has revealed to our team just how important local enterprises are for the neighbourhood.
While there are a number of successful, locally-owned businesses, including cafes, restaurants, and boutiques, there are many others that are struggling. Closed down shops are not a rare sight, and as our interviewees suggested, many enterprises can only afford to stay open because they pay “old rents” that prevent property owners from charging large sums.
This difficulty faced by small businesses is a matter of collective importance, and not just the individual hardship of struggling business owners. Locally run enterprises have a lot to contribute beyond what they sell. A shop is not just a place to buy things if its owner puts a bench outside that anyone could sit on and chat to customers and passers-by. A boutique that sells gifts doesn’t just sell gifts if neighbours can visit for a coffee without pressure to buy something.
“this is a social place. I speak to my neighbours out here, we have coffee together. It is not just for clients.”
As one owner said, “this is a social place. I speak to my neighbours out here, we have coffee together. It is not just for clients”. Another owner made a similar point when she told us about the small events she organised once for people on the block: “I used to do cheese and wine during Christmas. I also used to do coffee events – we would have Turkish coffee and a fortune teller would read it.”
These shops, beyond the services they provide, are spots for hanging out where people can feel connected to their neighbourhood. They offer familiarity and intimacy, and they are inviting in ways that big corporate outlets aren’t.
Finding spaces to socialise is hard in Beirut, unless one is willing to pay for a seat at a cafe.
This is particularly important in an urban context where public spaces are in radically short supply, with sidewalks that are narrow and often unwalkable, and with public parks that are few and far between. Finding spaces to socialise is hard in Beirut, unless one is willing to pay for a seat at a café. Local businesses who know their neighbours offer an important substitute to Beirut’s scarce public spaces, but the problem is that they need to make money too. A woman who runs a boutique expressed this with a half-joking anecdote: “You know how sometimes there are signs on shops that say We Are Hiring? I have seen signs that say We Need People to Come in and Buy”.
With the lower costs of online shopping, extortionate rents, and squeezed consumer incomes, demand for local businesses is running low. But what we shouldn’t forget is that there’s more to life than things, and there’s more to business than selling and buying. The difficulties that Hamra’s shop owners face are not only an economic challenge for the owners themselves, but a challenge for the whole neighbourhood and its ability to thrive. If one wants to support Hamra, then she or he needs to support the businesses that for so many decades have made Hamra what it is.
By Nikolay Mintchev