Creative Cities: Can downtown accommodate the many visions for its future?

On my way to CLUSTER’s two-day Creative Cities Conference last week, I parked in an unauthorized spot on Falaki Street and hurriedly threw my keys to one of the few remaining parking attendants, a dying breed since the opening of the massive underground Tahrir garage last January and the downtown parking restrictions that came with it.

I rushed past the iconic Mohammed Mahmoud wall, that multilayered chronicle of political events since 2011, filled with graffiti and peppered with bullet holes sustained in battles between civilians and security forces over precious meters of public space just a couple of years ago.

The street was eerily quiet, stationary shop attendants and kiosk owners languidly dusting their wares. I made it in time for American University in Cairo President Lisa Anderson’s opening remarks, as she pointed out how “many of the shops in this neighborhood grew up around a student community that is now largely gone.”

A sequel to CLUSTER’s 2013 Learning from Cairo conference, Creative Cities brought together players in downtown Cairo’s arts and culture scene to co-envision a future revival of the area.

It was fitting that a discussion on contesting visions of downtown Cairo was held on a campus that overlooks what is arguably the city’s most contested symbol of political engagement, Tahrir Square. The AUC campus sits at the geographic intersection of three iconic streets (Mohammed Mahmoud, Qasr al-Aini, and Sheikh Rehan), the spatial intersection of exclusive university campus and accessible public arena, and a historical intersection between western and local visions of modernity and progress.

The conference’s six panel discussions addressed this intersectionality of vision and identity, with a particular focus on artists as urban catalysts, purposefully and sometimes unintentionally reshaping their environments.

A slow decline and the triangle of horror

The arts have a long history in downtown and downtown has a long history in the arts (with many appearances in literature and cinema) – specifically in the “Triangle of Horror,” the name bestowed by Sonallah Ibrahim (in his 1998 portrait, Cairo from Edge to Edge) on the area between the Grillon bar and restaurant, the Bustan café and Cairo Atelier. Decades later, with the notable exceptions of Cimatheque, the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) and Studio Emad Eddin, located closer to the Ramses side of downtown, the scene remains a game of music chairs within that triangle.

Back in the early and mid 20th century, downtown was a cosmopolitan, upscale neighborhood for living, shopping and leisure, with an abundance of cafes, clothing stores and cinemas. Historian Lucie Ryzova’s talk at the conference chronicled its cultural and socio-economic decline: “Glamor was gone, overtaken by the thrill of the illicit. From the 1970s onwards, hanging out in downtown no longer conferred status in the eyes of society, rather it made a person suspect,” she said. With this came new associations, and downtown transformed into a center for bohemian artists and perpetual flâneurs.

“We have an interest that downtown remains an inclusive space, and remains attractive to all segments of society,” said Karim Shafei of Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments, the private company responsible for much of downtown’s recent renovation (and accused of spearheading its gentrification). “For us to be able to stay true to our commitment and have an inclusive downtown … We have to maintain a certain amount of our investment in the arts scene.”

Ismaelia lease out spaces to several art institutions, including Townhouse (which, Shafei said, they have committed to supporting for the next 10 years) and CIC, and they provide most of the venues for the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival.

They are attempting to attract young creative professionals to the area, and to some degree they’ve succeeded. In recent years a large number of festivals, exhibitions and initiatives have utilised Ismaelia’s spaces (including the glamorous Cinema Radio, and the eerily beautiful abandoned Viennoise hotel) for their projects. Independent of Ismaelia, new enterprises such as Kafein and Eish & Malh, eateries both run by Nadia Dropkin and Dina Abou El Soud, have also created new spaces for young people to congregate downtown.

Townhouse has sought corporate sponsorship from another real-estate company, SODIC, which now covers Townhouse’s operational costs in return for a gallery in one of its gated communities. The result, Townhouse West, just put on an exhibition titled Mere Real Things in which artist Ayman Ramadan displayed found working-class objects for an audience mostly comprised of affluent suburban residents. The image of these objects, divested of their original functions and displaced in suburbia, in a downtown enterprise also displaced in suburbia, is telling of the lengths this institution has decided to go to in order to survive.

But, as Cairobserver’s Mohamed Elshahed pointed out, “Economics will push very hard against all this. How long can this relationship last? Where is the tipping point, when an art space becomes less and less needed, what happens then?”

Jane Hall, of London-based art and architecture collective Assembleechoed this. One of Assemble’s projects is a studio and events space that provides a temporary home for 16 artists, and utilizes the skills of local makers, much like Townhouse has sometimes done. Another project offers access to tools and workspace to makers and menders in east London’s Walthamstow. But both these projects, and others, are under threat due to lack of funding. “It seems we’re able to create the spaces and get them off the ground,” said Hall, “but long-term funding is a huge issue.”

While they do exist, one of such spaces’ most important functions within working-class communities is providing economic opportunities for artisans in their neighborhoods. “There’s a symbiotic relationship,” said Townhouse’s William Wells. “It’s about respect, understanding the skills of the artist, understanding the skills of the neighborhood.”

But who exactly comprises “the neighborhood?”

“Downtown is unique in that it is not a neighborhood in the proper sense,” said political scientist Heba Raouf, who has lived the majority of her life in an apartment overlooking Tahrir Square. “There remains an existential issue.”

Downtown, it was generally agreed during the conference, is mostly occupied by ageing residents, remnants of the neighborhood’s heydays, intellectuals and artists, foreigners who stay temporarily, and downward mobility inhabitants whose inability to move out represents social and economic failure. Downtown’s shopkeepers and business owners largely live elsewhere, as do most of the intellectuals who frequent its cafes and bars.

And over the course of the conference it became apparent that the idea of a monolithic “public” was non-existent, replaced with multiple smaller publics, whose interests and visions will more often than not collide.

“We want a downtown that is accessible to everyone,” said Ismaelia’s Karim Shafei. “When we talked about the downtown of the 1930s 40s and 50s … it was melting pot of all the segments.”

But Raouf said otherwise. She recounted a conversation in which her father, an old downtown resident, was shocked to hear of people in “traditional garb” now coming to downtown. “There was a cultural barrier, not a physical barrier as we see now,” she explained. “I had a very early sense that there were different layers of cultures and memories to this space.”

The Creative Cities Conference made the space for necessary debates between stakeholders who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to engage in dialogue about these efforts.

The state is also involved in the current redesign of downtown spaces. Two years ago, the government established the Cairo Heritage Preservation Unit. Last summer, street vendors were evicted to the Torgoman parking complex. And over the past year at least, a number of buildings around downtown have received a facelift courtesy of the government-affiliated Misr Real Estate Assets, which owns 62 buildings in downtown and Attaba. The Misr Real Estate Assets representative at the conference, Akram Mohamed, implied it is less focused on developing a vision for future uses of its buildings (of which it has renovated around 20 so far) and are more concerned with keeping the facades presentable.

At one point a government-affiliated panelist referred triumphantly to the government’s success in removing the felukkas from in front of what is now the Ritz-Carlton. These boats were a public nuisance, blaring undesirable shaabi music at unacceptable levels, she said. And while this may be true, it’s important to acknowledge that removing them eradicates a common and affordable leisure activity. Every decision comes at the cost of something else, and those who are in the unenviable position to make these decisions must be very much aware of that.

One wonders – while very much appreciating walking down Talaat Harb Street without fighting for shoulder room with street vendors, and the dramatic improvement in traffic since the parking ban in most main streets last July –where we draw the line between redesigning a public space to better serve the public interest, and redesigning it to better serve the subjective aesthetic preferences of various elites?

How creative is taking down revolutionary graffiti walls?

The multilayered nature of downtown is literally made tangible in the Mohammed Mahmoud wall, part of which is already gone and the rest of which is scheduled for imminent demolition to enable the removal of the AUC science building and make way for a planned semi-public garden. Semi-public in the sense that it will still be a part of the campus but surrounded by a low, see-through wall that will enable passersby to enjoy a view of it.

On the second and last day of the conference, graffiti artist El Teneen plastered posters around AUC’s campus bearing the question “How creative is taking down revolutionary graffiti walls?” The debate over the wall was welcomed by the conference organizers, and cited as an example of the kind of engagement it sought to inspire.

Indeed, the poster prompted a whole array of other questions in my mind. Who has more of a right to this wall? Is it the campus or the graffiti artists who transformed bricks and mortar into a living mural? Which forms of cultural production belong in museums and galleries (AUC recently announced that it will set up a permanent, public exhibition of the wall’s graffiti) and which belong in the ever-changing public space, subject to constant retouching, reinvention and removal? And who’s to say that a garden is preferable to a wall, or a wall more “authentic” than a garden?

Ryzova described downtown as “a space belonging to no one but available to everyone” – and perhaps it’s unreasonable to think that a space can ever belong to everyone.

During his closing remarks, CLUSTER’s Omar Nagati asked the question nagging at the back of my (and I imagine everyone else’s) mind: Can downtown accommodate all of these alternative visions?

The simple answer is probably not. But Creative Cities was a much-needed continuation of the conversation about how and if these visions can coalesce to create more accessible, multifunctional public spaces downtown without declawing the heart of the city.

For a more thorough breakdown of the conference, I urge all those interested to examine Cluster’s upcoming publication on it, and to be a part of this ongoing conversation.

Lara El Gibaly 

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