Buffing of Beirut's Surface Highlights Deeper Flaws

New towers beckon; few can pay rent. And civic pride is still hard to muster.

Cement trucks lumber through the winding side streets of Beirut, tying up traffic. They are part of an army of equipment and workers scurrying to rebuild and polish the city and its image.

But while most residents seem pleased that basic services like trash disposal, at least, finally seem to be under control, not everyone's thrilled with the new Beirut that's rising where trash heaps and shells of buildings once stood.

Long considered the Paris of the Middle East, the city was ravaged by a 1980-1995 civil war. Much of what was left has been demolished in preparation for urban renewal.

Lebanon's quasi-governmental redevelopment corporation, Solidere, calls the project to rebuild Beirut center "the largest building project in the Middle East."

Already the project's accomplishments are visible. A gleaming new glass-and-marble office complex reflects the sun from its futuristic glass shell.

Not everyone is happy, though. Solidere, whose shares trade on Beirut's stock exchange, is held in part by former owners of property that was nationalized to make way for redevelopment. Some think property values were underestimated when compensation was made.

Others are content to celebrate the progress. There is relief that a new bridge-and-tunnel network through the city is nearing completion.

"I used to spend half my day working, and half my day in traffic jams," jokes Hala Wehbeh, a secretary who commutes across town.

There are other quality-of-life improvements. An ambitious seaside project to redevelop land once occupied by a three-story trash dump is under way. A Dutch Company recently began work recycling garbage, using it on-site to extend the coastal area. Last month, teams of British divers finished clearing the sea bed of stray explosives left over from the war.

And a project to turn another smoldering dump into a public park is now being considered by the Environment Ministry. The projected $40 million price tag is holding up approval.

Lebanon's cash-strapped government has been the target of frequent strikes. And recent announcements that attempts are being made to cut waste have been met with skepticism.

Despite government efforts, civic spirit is not all it should be. A housewife was sighted recently emptying trash from her fourth-floor balcony onto Beirut's Hamra Street. Beach-walkers still toss bottles and foam cups into the Mediterranean.

Along the palm-lined Corniche, traffic is backed up as crews install new water mains. The boulevard is looking better since US chains like T.G.I. Friday's and Kentucky Fried Chicken moved in.

After a $3 million restoration program, Beirut's National Museum, once inhabited by snipers, reopened last month after 22 years of closure. And new residential buildings abound.

Many of the city's new concrete apartment towers are going empty, however, because Beirut residents are unable to afford them. An economic crisis has gripped Lebanon because of war jitters throughout the region and an ongoing guerrilla conflict against Israeli troops occupying parts of southern Lebanon.

And the recently restored glitter and glitz of Beirut's seafront drive has upset many long-time city residents, who have aesthetic concerns of their own: Two high-rises are nearing completion not far from the old US Embassy grounds - blocking neighbors' views of sun and sea.

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