Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Lessons From Beirut

Update Aug-14: My timing was pretty good here as only two days later Tyler Brûlé writes another column “Behold Brilliant Beirut.” He bought the apartment after all.

While perhaps somewhat overtaken by Baghdad, it has not been uncommon over the years to hear people say, “This place looks like Beirut” when observing some piece or another of urban ruin or destruction. That long war-torn Lebanese capital has perhaps the world’s foremost reputation as being home to perpetual devastation and violence.

But despite, or perhaps because of that, Beirut has managed to capture a hold on the minds of people who come to champion it. Drawing on some of its unique character and long-ago claim to be the “Paris of the Middle East,” Beirut has managed to create a aura about it that has fascinated and attracted many interesting folks.

One of them is Tyler Brûlé, a journalist I’ve mentioned before. He’s a Financial Times columnist and editor of Monocle magazine among other things. He’s been singing Beirut’s praises for years. This year he’s gotten more serious as he took his magazine staff there for summer holidays and even says he’s considering buying a vacation home there. In an FT column called Why Not Put Down Roots in Beirut?, he acknowledges some of the city’s issues:

The last time I was in Beirut I left the city hours before Hezbollah got a bit excitable; and Lebanon had to endure yet another summer of strife….While there’s still enough of old Ashrafieh around to give it a sense of place (the little dry-cleaning shops, the sliver-width news-stands, domestic-staff uniform shops and pockets of 1960s graphic-design brilliance on shop awnings), it’s going fast…..Like most things Lebanese, the flavour of protest is going to need to be a little bit sharper (think, for instance, of the tart, satisfying effect of sumac and lemon in a fattoush salad) to stop the developers from erecting shocking off-the-shelf towerblocks that could just as easily be going up in Sharjah or the suburbs of Istanbul.

Still, he sees the positive as well:

As we drove through the streets of Ashrafieh, it was immediately clear that the cautious behaviour of Lebanon’s banks over the past 24 months had been good, even too good, for the economy: the city is in the middle of a building boom….What I can tell you is that the city is the best place to do a little shopping, sunning and dancing in June. My highlights include…

Now Brûlé’s been looking for a vacation spot for five years, so obviously he’s a bit of a tease. We’ll see if he really decides to man up and, er, pull the trigger.

Over in this month’s Monocle, it is their annual best cities/quality of life survey edition. The list of winners is familiar – Munich, Copenhagen, Zurich – perhaps even familiar enough to signal that it’s time to retire this annual tradition. But one thing they did was to highlight five cities that “may not be the cleanest, safest or most perfectly planned but are still incredibly liveable – if you accept them on their own terms.” These were Istanbul, Naples, Rio, Taipei, and, yes, Beirut.

Monocle notes that the New York Times ranked Beirut #1 out of 44 places to go in 2009 and says of it themselves:

Putting Beirut’s enduring cliches aside, you would be hard pressed to find any other Middle Eastern city bearing graffiti from the Arab Lesbian Liberation Front. And nowhere else could you be eating organic tabbouleh while army tanks rumble past you late at night. Beirut is not about sound urban choices, green architecture, or great public transport. As one friend put it, “buying a Humvee is still considered an ecological choice here.” Yet for all its contradictions, it is still a great place to live, with a palpable sense of freedom, a vibrant creative community and an unabashed will to lead the dolce vita, no matter the political odds.

I read this and immediately thought of Detroit and other struggling cities. These places too fail on any conventional measure of urban success. That might make some believe they’re doomed to failure. And no doubt many places won’t make it. But Beirut shows that it’s possible to find something of success, and what’s more a draw, even in a place that’s been an actual war zone for much of the past three decades.

As a someone from America’s frayed heartland, I particularly enjoy Monocle for this sort of thing. Every single issue there’s a major story of some remote or backwater spot in a corner of the globe you never considered to which all sorts of uber-cool people have moved in search of opportunities, lifestyles, or some other geographic quirk. Monocle is too heavily aligned with the international jet set elite to really take this to its logical conclusion – their resident profiles are too skewed towards designers and other high tone creatives that given these an aura of sameness – but if these places can do it, so can the American Midwest or the north of England or East Germany.

Like in many cities I know personally, I’m sure the pool of such people in these cities is small, but you have to start somewhere – and being able to be a founder, to be a producer and not just a consumer of a new future for these cities, is actually a big part of the attraction. It’s a true and legitimate entrepreneurial activity to move to one of these places.

The lesson of Beirut is that you don’t have to be Munich or Copehagen to carve out your niche – or to attract significant notice. Rather, you can understand who you are, and be authentic and true to yourself, and still create a place with real resonance no matter what the odds against you. There’s no need to travel all the way to the battle zones of Beirut to find it. The frontier opportunity awaits right under our very noses.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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