On a rare clear Saturday this February, I spent a morning hour with Maggie Akil whose seven years at Comet Cleaners ended in bad luck. It’s a new old story: the building was sold, and now departing to rubble-heaven. From the Gemmayze dry cleaners, she had watched the destruction of two buildings across the street. “We saw them with our own eyes,” Maggie laments, also recounting how the ancient artifacts unearthed in the digging were tucked between the rubble and hauled away in trucks. On this morning, Lebanese residents of Gemmayze would regularly open the door of Comet Cleaners and wish her well, for it would be the building she worked in that would soon be departing. It was goodbye to Maggie and to Comet Cleaners, their last day, and – you imagined that they knew it – to elements of a Beirut that they once defined, but in today’s ever-changing Beirut are quickly losing their place.

Comet Cleaners opened its doors in 1965. Since then, it has remained the only dry cleaning service on Gourard Street, until this past month when it was shut down. At the time of closing, it was feeding 3 families, according to the owner, George Azouri, whose only statement was “Haram, Gemmayze – not more or less. Rehabilitation is good, but not at the cost of our heritage.” The building was sold to a Lebanese businessman who lives and works in Africa, and who plans to demolish the building and build a shopping center in its place. For the past three years, there has been a battle in court over the vacancy settlements, which ultimately were settled at $70,000 for each resident in the 3-story, 9-flat building, and $130,000 for Comet Cleaners. These numbers are reportedly double those before going into court. Both residents and Azouri found the settlements unfair, considering the neighborhood and real estate prices today.

“What is $70,000 going to do for me?” Samira Farah asks. She has lived in the building for 60 years now. “Where can I go?” She is breathless on the phone, her voice crackling, describing how her “only son” has been tirelessly searching all over Beirut for a place for his mother and younger sister to live, with daunting results of extremely high selling prices.

“They’re going to take me to the insane asylum before this is all over.”

The gentrification of Gemmayze is a work in progress. Before 2004, the only people who stepped foot on its main street were its residents and people who frequented the famous Glass Café, which has since been shut down after 85 years in business, also a victim of extreme rent increases. But with the opening of two pubs, Torino’s and Dragonfly in 2004, mushroomed the pubs, restaurants, and shops that have become progressively more abundant and noisy throughout Gemmayze. As the neighborhood grew in popularity, so did the value of the real estate, resulting in more and more sales, demolishing of old buildings, and displacing longtime residents.

However, this is not your typical gentrification. Gemmayze was never an “impoverished” neighborhood, nor run-down and wasted. Nor has it been hindered by crime. It’s such that time has caught up with the residents whose heyday has passed and whose government has not found a solution for old rent. In a newly popular neighborhood like Gemmayze, the identity of the neighborhood is changing, with money ruling the roost.

Dr. Pierre El Khoury, a professor of law at La Sagesse University and an independent legal consultant in Lebanon, believes that this drastic change in identity is “very dangerous,” mostly occurring at the benefit of foreigners and the cost of locals. Dr. Khoury believes that the first problem is the law and the second is the lack of law enforcement. Besides the infamous old rent law (which currently is under revision in parliament) that allows people to pay pre-civil war rent rates for 99 years, the law for acquisition of land by a foreigner has some loopholes. The law says that a foreigner may only buy up to 2000 meters-squared. Furthermore, a district may not sell more than 3% of its land to foreigners, in efforts to purportedly preserve the district’s identity. However, there are ways around this. For example, a Lebanese national could buy a swath of land and then sell it in chunks of 1,999 meters-squared to foreign buyers. Hence, what many call “the Lebanese front.” On the selling end, if someone comes to you today and proposes to pay $1,000 per meter, Dr. Khoury says, “for a villager with 100 meters, for example, the answer is easy.” He asserts, however, that the “effect is more on the social than the private.” That is, one person’s million-dollar gain has less impact on that person than it does on the community surrounding him.

“You won’t find the ‘pure’ Gemmayze residents. You’ll find the maid with an old lady who dies and then in her place, foreigners,” Maggie says, emphasizing that “foreigners are the main problem.”

Samira Farah also is disgruntled with the influx of “foreigners” in the neighborhood, “Isn’t there anywhere else for people to go? We used to be so happy. How did Lebanon become like this?”

“The neighborhood has become my friends, not just clients,” Maggie says. Habib, Madi, a ninety-five-year-old resident of Gemmayze, sits across from her. He visits her every day. He wears his three-piece suit as if 1965 were just yesterday. Mr. Madi has his own story of loss. In 1900, his father opened Bechara Madi and Sons, a custom-made shoe store, in downtown Beirut. Shoes would sell for 150 LL at the time, a number equivalent to $50 at the time. Solidere traded the rubble of the building, a casualty of the war, for shares in the company. “I already spent them,” he says. Mr. Madi feels that he received an unfair deal. Although Mr. Madi’s story has an old context, it reminds us that Comet Cleaner’s demise may have been a long term effect of the capitalistic adventurism that began in the post-civil war days and that is prevalent today, ever since the rubble of downtown Beirut arose to luxury places that largely serve a foreign element. Mr. Madi pauses as he spots someone outside and points out where she lives and whose daughter she is. He does this throughout his stay.

The door opens again. “Shoo, that’s it?” another friendly face asks. I am startled by how easy, almost customary, the goodbye feels.

Maggie asks me if I can help her find a job. She asks me to put this in the article. But she has a few phone calls to wrap up first: “Can you come in and take your clothes? We’re closing for good by the end of the day.”

The Comet’s Last Day

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