Imagine paying 90 percent of your income on rent. That’s a reality facing many residents of Beirut — and a focus of Anthony Jreije’s research into the politics of gentrification in Lebanon’s capital. The Clark University undergraduate’s project has been supported by Steinbrecher and Condakes fellowships and the LEEP Center.
About Anthony Jreije ’18
Jreije ’18 became interested in the topic a year ago as part of a Clark LEEP project. That summer, he interned as a planner/designer at Public Works, a non-governmental organization seeking to improve urban space in Beirut, one of the oldest cities in the world.
“I chose Beirut because of both my connection as an American-Lebanese student at Clark and the sheer diversity that the city possesses,” Jreije says. “There are over a dozen religions and 2 million people packed into this small space. This provides me with a wealth of opportunities to study how different people interact with each other and deconstruct Western stereotypes and generalizations associated with the Middle East.”
As he conducted research, Jreije “learned about a large network of activists in the city working to make it more livable for the masses. Most importantly, I learned that I could move and work in the city as long as I continue to stay in particular activist circles where I feel like I can make a difference.”
This summer, he returned to Beirut to interview a wide swath of those involved in housing issues: homeowners and tenants, anti-gentrification activists, bankers and real estate officials. He recorded how much development had occurred over the year, how that affected housing prices, and what that meant for the city’s residents.
“I have been slowly unraveling a system of organized corruption that benefits the wealthy land owners, banks and developers in Beirut,” Jreije says. “A coalition keeps housing prices soaring even as demand is not increasing.”
In interviewing bank executives and analyzing central bank records, Jreije discovered loopholes that ensure the wealthy and powerful maintain their hold.
“The same executives that operate the banks also have real estate development companies and use their power in the banking industry to give themselves favorable loans for real estate,” he says. “They can gain a lot of zoning exceptions and built higher buildings to extract more rent from smaller parcels of land.”
The higher rents are reshaping Beirut, eroding the social fabric in diverse neighborhoods and forcing longtime residents to return to their ancestral towns.
At the same time, many residents are willing to pay higher rents; they’re swayed by the large, private development companies’ improvements in neighborhood infrastructure, such as expanded parking and larger sidewalks.
Gentrification has divided people geographically, exacerbating underlying religious and class tensions, Jreije says. “Certain sects receive many more resources and funding from abroad than others,” he explains.
Wealthy expats, for example, live in the new French-style, Westernized downtown featuring high-end shops like Louis Vuitton and Versace. Native Lebanese compete to have the nicest houses or the most money, yet are embarrassed that they can’t afford their rents or mortgages, Jreije says.
Still, “When we get people of a neighborhood together to share their narratives of struggle, they begin to sympathize with each other and are more likely to express their rage collectively.”
He points to one group used as a scapegoat for the country’s problems: Syrian refugees.
“[Blaming refugees] seems like an organized way to take away any responsibility or wrongdoing from the Lebanese elites and government,” he says.
Jreije’s research was inspired by his adviser, Mark Davidson, associate professor of geography, who has studied gentrification, urban politics and policy in cities like London and Vancouver. “Professor Davidson has been super helpful throughout all my research,” he says. The two regularly emailed and Skyped while Jreije was in Beirut.
Jreije’s study abroad last spring at the London School of Economics introduced him to urban theories and literature, as well as government practices that he could contrast with those in Beirut.
This fall, Jreije is working with Davidson on an article for publication, and plans to present his research at a geography conference and at Clark’s Fall Fest. He already has presented at the American Association of Geographers’ 2017 annual meeting in Boston. His honors theses in both geography and economics also will focus on his Beirut project.
Jreije plans to apply to graduate school, eventually using his knowledge and skills to influence city planning and development, wherever that may be.
“The beauty of such a tight-knit liberal arts school like Clark is that it encourages you to explore what you’re interested in and take a leap of faith,” says Jreije. He hadn’t thought about majoring in geography when he first entered Clark. Geography courses taught by excellent professors changed that.
“Studying geography at Clark helped me understand my other major, economics, and provided me with the tools to tackle some of the challenges policy makers face to create a better world.”