Monday, December 3, 2018

Racing Time



Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a fresh week on the blog. Yours truly managed to get excused from mum patrol in order to chill and write. Before we get started, Yours Truly and Blogger Candidate Forum would like to express their condolences to the Bush family on the passing of President George H.W. Bush. President Bush served only one term (1989-93) but left a legacy of a half century service both as naval aviator during World War II, ambassador, CIA director, member of congress, Vice President, and President of The United States.  President Bush served during a transitional time in world history.  He and late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher oversaw the end of Cold War.  During his tenure in the Oval Office, he enjoyed high approval ratings but failed to earn re-election. He gracefully lost to Bill Clinton.  This grace was cemented in the most elegant and eloquent letters ever written.  This letter contained words of encouragement the new president with whom he enjoyed an enduring friendship.  President Bush's legacy will be debated in the coming days but he will always be remembered for his modesty, forthrightness, grace, and perserverance. Mission complete.

On to today's subject.  Ramallah is the epicenter of Palestinian life and currently experiencing a surprise building boom. The building boom is the result of a spike in demographics, as residents of other cities move into the area, looking for better opportunity. This may sound like a fantastic source for community and economic development  for everyone but not for those concerned with historic structures who fear the loss of these precious places. 

The construction boom began during the tenure of former prime minister Salam Fayyad (2007-13), who oversaw a massive state-sponsored push, fueled by international donor monies.  Dalia Hatuqa reports in her CityLab article, "Developers in This Palestine City Are Destroying Historic Homes," (citylab.com; Nov. 23, 2018; date accessed Dec. 3, 2018) "Though the Fayyad era has ended, the growth of Ramallah's real estate sector has continued.  The city's location, just north of Jerusalem, has played a large part in its soaring value, as has the wave of immigration from other cities across the West Bank."

Twenty-five years ago, there were 832 designation-worthy buildings in Ramallah, according to a local architect. Since 2016, at least four historic stone homes--a character defining feature of Palestinian cities--have met the wrecking ball, replaced apartment buildings, malls, and other retail establishments.   Investors, developers, and civic officials argue "that Ramallah has witnessed a population boom and that development is inevitable in a growing city."

Recently, an investor raced to demolish Dar al-Husseini (House of Husseini), located in the Old City, the much coveted building was sold by its owners.  Dar al-Husseini was built in 1941 during the period of British occupation, with some later additions. Ms. Hatuqa writes, "The original house, which was partially inspired by Bauhaus architecture in Germany was constructed using a now-rare pink and red stone, the hallmark of Palestinian architecture,... The house had also retained some of its original ceramic red roof tiles, a staple of Mediterranean architecture,..."  Before Dar al-Husseini's demolition, Dar Harb (Harb house), located near the Clock Tower (Arafat Square) in Ramallah's city center was razed to make way for the new Centro Mall.  In each case, the demolition was carried out in broad daylight, over the protests of local activists. 

Sahar Qawasani a member of local preservation group, co-founder and director of Sakiya, a non-profit tha offers a residency program integrating farming and agrarian heritage with arts and sciences, tolad CityLab,

It's traumatic. It's a loss for our shared memory, and a loss of our own rights in our city....I think it's important for citizens of any city to enjoy certain to feel like they are part of her place, that they have itownership over the place, and that they can make decision over its future.  It feels like we have none of that,...

Dalia Hatuqa writes, "In the past 25 years, several attempts were made to pass architectural conservation laws, according historical buildings protected status."  One of Hesse cultural property protection laws was prepared in conjunction with local cultural and government entities. The Palestinian parliament has been largely inactive since 2007, the law was never promulgated. "Instead, the local ministry of antiquities and tourism passed its own bill."

However, the law had limitations. One example, "it on,y designated structures built before 1917, as protected by law.... the bylaws stipulate that it's the responsibility of each local government--meaning municipalities--to list important heritage sites in its area and submit this list to ministry of antiquities and tourism for approval. These post-1917 buildings would need to be of significance to be saved."

Such is the way of cultural property protection laws.  Fida Touma, a local restoration architect, explained,

According to the law, any building or zone or area or landscape even can be protected, but it should fulfill certain cultural, natural and economic values...

Ms. Touma continues,

They (the municipalities) can designate these areas as heritage sites, and take that file to the ministry of tourism to be approved. So they have the tools,.... We're asking for more buildings, more areas to added to that list. They do a certain selection. But they can protect more. 

Fida Touma explained to CityLab that "There are several ways to safeguard these historical sites,..." The process requires that design elements of older buildings and sites be categories to ensure some level of protection, therefore, structures can be saved in their entirety or just their fa├žade and the new building be put up around them. She added,

It depends the importance, value and history of the building itself,... The law is not rigid. Once you do the study for each building, you can tell what's significant about it, what are the important elements, if it's important in its entirety or if the surrounding area should be protected. So each building or each area would have a protection plan. 

This involves placing each building and site within its proper historic period of siginificance. Ramallah was ruled by several imperial powers, creating a varied selection of historic architecture. For example, the Old City buildings date back to the Ottoman period (1298-1924)--identified by densely built peasant houses; beginning in the last two decades of the Empire and moving into the British mandate, more urban buildings began to appear outside the historic center of Ramallah--individual houses with gardens. 

Sahar Qawasani picks up the story,

So this British mandate period from 1917-1948 was a very important important era in terms of cultural heritage for the city,... You started seeing iron beams, concrete used in buildings, red tile roofs, different larger doors and windows, higher ceilings, sometimes colored glass and different motifs in the ornaments and stone cuts.

In 1948, Ramallah's population nearly doubled following the creation of the state of Israel and the local residents fled or were forced to leave their homes in coastal cities like Yaffo, Ramleh, and from Jerusalem.  A building boom followed, characterized by the use of modern architecture. 

Ms. Qawasani continues,

A lot of Palestinian architects also graduated from Arab universities during that time in places like Cairo, Beirut, Amman and came back to Ramallah so you find many interesting buildings inspired by architecture from other Arab cities.

According to the municipal Facebook page, "since 2008, it has taken steps to protect more than 160 historical buildings and sites, despite legal action taken by owners and investors against it" (facebook.com; date accessed Dec. 3, 2018). 

Ramallah's Mayor Musa Hadid told CityLab,

This crisis has been affecting Ramallah for some time,... In the absence of a legislative power to enact the regulations that municipalities can abide by, we are obliged to abide by the law.  Despite this, the municipality had taken steps beyond what the law stipulates.  

Mayor Hadid is referring to one case where the municipal government paid $2,000,000 to purchase Beit Jagd, a twenties-era house, from the owner who wanted to sell it to developers. "He a,so says that the municipality is working on another bylaw to better protect historical sites."

Obviously there is more work to be done through legal action, civic engagement and advocacy as well as technical and artistic expertise to ensure greater cultural property protection.  Beyond these, concerned activists also need to develop a plan what to do with the protected buildings, other than house museums.  One suggestion is research into Western preservation laws for ideas on planning and management of cultural properties.  Ms. Qawasani said,

What we want to do is protect buildings that we consider important for the recent modern history and heritage of the city,... It's an attempt to be part of the decision-making process and to look for the right channels within the municipality and the larger system where we can exercises our rights as citizens. 

 


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