Pick up an old postcard of Beirut in its pre-war days and you will see a vibrant and picturesque Mediterranean metropolis. The city portrayed has pristine shores, lined with chalets and dotted with people enjoying a long stretch of golden sand just south of the city. Known as the beaches of Saint Simon and Saint Michel, this part of the shore used to rival the famous and ever-popular Saint George’s. In contrast to this central beach club, Saint Simon and Saint Michel were located directly outside the city and represented unspoiled territory.
But, those days are long gone and circumstances are different now. Today, a stark spatial distinction creates a new reality in terms of significance and use. The same stretch of land that used to be an unblemished and popular getaway for casual recreational enthusiasts, is now home to thousands of informal settlers. Displaced from their homes in southern Lebanon by the civil war, they have been living in the area ever since. During these years, networks of haphazardly built concrete homes have been constructed, and the district has grown both north and south. Today, it composes a relatively large enclave extending from Beirut’s only public sandy beach Ramlet el Baida, through to the larger informal settlement of Ouzai, and down to the airport on the southern tip of the city peninsula.
This sort of informal settlement is deemed illegal, a fact that has stigmatised the physical being of the neighbourhood as well as its inhabitants. In fact, any construction that is directly situated on the sea is illegal according to Lebanese law, meaning that this applies to 5-star resorts as well as informal housing. In reality however, the former is largely overlooked while the latter is considered a problem. The result is a disturbing kind of juxtaposition: only a few minutes by foot from the Saint Simon district, on the very same stretch of sand, you find yourself at the gates of luxurious hotels like The Coral Beach and Kempinski Summerland.
Only a few minutes by foot from the Saint Simon district, on the very same stretch of sand, you find yourself at the gates of luxurious hotels like The Coral Beach and Kempinski Summerland.
In terms of urban character, the inhabitants of Saint Simon have managed to create a very specific style of living. While Beirut’s architects and city planners have grown obsessed with high risers, and the city turned increasingly inaccessible for low-incomers, Saint Simon provides housing which is only two to three floors high and comes about very cheap (yet also very unsanitary). The houses are set right on the Mediterranean: walking from the main road in neighbouring upscale Jnah and down to the seaside, there is no direct link to the water as these small-scale structures block direct sea access.
To reach the beach, you must walk through dwindling internal passages and tight streets that move down a slope. Due to the hill-like terrain, the houses are built directly on the sandbanks and direct their openings to face the sun set on the Mediterranean horizon. This means that during high-tides and stormy weather, waves crash directly on the walls of the houses lined up along the seafront. For residents, it creates a problem with dirty salt water infiltrating living rooms and damaging furniture and possessions.
A quite remarkable fact, given the haphazard character of the construction which is crammed and built in different sequences, is that the population has managed to create links and tight passageways moving in straight lines through the different quarters. These create walkways that are pedestrian-only, connecting the different dwellings on ground level. Although they are dimly-lit and confined spaces, they remain the only routes through which people can reach their homes. The alleys are therefore frequently used and not as insecure as they might seem. They also find their way through external staircases which branch out from the ground floors up to secondary and sometimes tertiary levels. This kind of habitat is clearly much more pedestrian-friendly than that in many other parts of the city, as most cars remain on the main road outside or within the edges of smaller internal streets.
In terms of public space, it is like the rest of Beirut: non-existent. However, as opposed to many other districts, children play outdoors in Saint Simon. Walking the area a cloudy and cold Thursday afternoon, some kids were out with their kites while others played soccer in the streets. Men and women were strolling hand in hand on the sand outside their doorsteps, and many people sat outside on their balconies and porches smoking narjileh, creating a very communal village-like atmosphere. Here, there seems to be little need for a formal definition of public and private: people share the space that they have together.
Men and women strolling hand in hand on the sand outside their doorsteps, and people sitting outside on their balconies and porches smoking narjileh, creates a very communal village-like atmosphere.
However, the Saint Simon area is far from ‘proper’ housing or a new urbanist kind of district. Speaking to 55 years old carpenter Abu Hassan who lives and works here, he brings up the main concern that him and his neighbours face: being forced to move. “I don’t want to leave. The government will never give us enough compensation to be able to live anywhere else in the city. What would I do with my wife and children? Where would we go?”
“What would I do with my wife and children? Where would we go?”
There are grounds for Abu Hassan’s worries. Sooner or later, it seems inevitable that this part of the city will be destroyed and its inhabitants evicted following either governmental or private reclamation of the land. This has already occurred in the Sanjak area near Dora in northern Beirut, where a strip of illegal Armenian housing was demolished due to a highway extension. Inhabitants of Saint Simon are now afraid that their area will face a similar destiny. And, due to inadequate public funding and the low incomes of many residents, they will most probably have big troubles finding an alternative place to live.