Monday, April 07, 2008

Gemmayzeh patrons decry decision to shut down restaurants and bars in nightlife hub

Gemmayzeh patrons decry decision to shut down restaurants and bars in nightlife hub /Customers say compromise, not closures, is the answer to residents' complaints
By Kenneth Changpertitum
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Despite the state's steps last week to close down Gemmayzeh night spots and remind them of their legal closing time, the nightlife hub's bars and clubs were packed and pulsating on Friday night. On Wednesday, after complaints and a much-publicized demonstration by residents over noise and valet parking, the Tourism Ministry closed down 20 Gemmayzeh bars and restaurants for licensing issues. Although the volume of techno and trance music reverberating through the establishments had decreased, the night spots remained lively and full. Many patrons expressed a feeling of entitlement to the nightlife, while others said they had sympathy for the economic hardship caused by the closings. "I'm sorry for the students who worked there," said Rita Fahed. "Waiters and waitress have no work now. There are at least two people working in each bar. So there are at least 40 jobs being lost."

Many Lebanese enjoying the night said they saw the closings as an irritation and thought bigger issues needed attention. "If they want to talk about fixing problems, they can fix the education [system] or stop terrorism instead of hurting small businesses that are part of the tourism industry," said Ziad, who did not give his last name. Sharif Aoun, a spikey-haired 18-year-old, said he viewed residential antagonism as an encroachment on his civil liberties and personal freedoms. "Outside I should be able to say what I want and how loud I want. Closing the bars sucks. We live for the weekends here. It's their problem." "They don't have to live here," he added. "They should put some soundproof walls up or go somewhere else. Now we have to change, because they went out with a bunch of pillows and in their pajamas."

Residents' demonstrated on March 29 in pajamas to symbolize the sleep they lose to the nightlife below their homes, and their protest blocked Gemmayzeh's main street for almost two hours and attracted significant media attention. Karen Wehbe, who said she had lived in the Gemmayzeh for 10 years, said the night spots' denizens could take the party elsewhere. "They can go to the sea or the mountains. They can just use their imagination to have fun. They can find jobs someplace else." A passing resident agreed. "It's not fair that they come here drunk, quarreling and screaming. People have to sleep and work the next day. My sister threw oil from her seventh-floor window a few times."

Although both sides were passionate about the direction they wanted Gemmayzeh's social life to take, most said they were willing to work for a compromise between those who partied and those who slept. A small-scale restaurateur, who asked not to be identified because he said his statements would antagonize other local businesspeople, said: "There is a misconception that you need loud music and crowds for a pub. In a pub, many people want a relaxed atmosphere. Many who live here want a relaxed atmosphere, too. This was a wake-up call for pub owners to rethink their businesses in relation to the community and their clients." Most shop owners said they did not have problems with the bars or the guests who frequented them. Michelle Sfeir, an antique shop owner, said: "I prefer people to come here, but I have a problem with people who come out drunk and make trouble when there are families here. We should have conditions for them." Stronger regulation of night life - not the shutting down of businesses - was the main point that residents and patrons agreed upon. "There's a police station right here. The police should do something to make this more organized, so everything will be equal for those who live, work and have fun here. Maybe they will find a time to listen to music and a time to sleep," said Toufic Jabbour. Still, despite the willingness to compromise, many patrons said they saw the shutdown as a sign of the dwindling number of sanctuaries to retreat to and relax amid the political tension. "There are no more places to go. Downtown is closed. There are fewer places in Monot," said Krystal Kourysdunyis. "It's all we have left - to hang out, change our mood and forget about [the] political situation."

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