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A New Dawn for the City of the Sun?

Residents of the historic suburb of Heliopolis have long complained about vanishing villas and overcrowded streets. Now, a group of volunteers have a solid plan and the political backing to revive their community and rescue their heritage. This time, it just might work.
By Rana Kamaly

Morsy El Bahnasari, 91 years old, recalls the early days in the City of the Sun. “This place was a true luxury, where nearly everyone spoke French, even if they were poor,” El Bahnasari says of Heliopolis in the 1930s. “We had Syrian doctors, American shoe traders, Greek and Italian restaurants and English shop owners. We had neighbors of various religions, ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds and we all lived together peacefully.”

It wasn’t just the neighbors, but the neighborhood as a whole. El Bahnasari reminisces about how there were more gardens and less traffic, and no pollution, due to the careful planning Baron Édouard Louis Joseph Empain put into Cairo’s northern suburb at the turn of the 20th century.

“Back then, I walked to school , did all the shopping with my mom on foot and even when I needed to play or relax, I didn’t need to go further than the end of the street,” he pauses, trying in vain to remember the exact name or location of his old playground. Shaking his head with a sigh, he continues, “I now pity my grandchildren who have to drive all the way to the club which takes time because of the traffic, because it’s far and it isn’t safe to go by public transportation or bike any more.”

Roam through Korba’s streets today, past the villas, apartment buildings, shops, kiosks and cafes, and you can still feel the spirit of the original Heliopolis amid the exquisite architecture and old trees. But as many of those old villas fall to the wrecking ball to make space for high-rise buildings, many long-time residents fear that Heliopolis is losing not only its visual charm, but its character as a community. In a July 2010 cover story, Egypt Today spoke with residents and officials about the problem, which they agreed was being fueled by a lucrative real estate market and poor coordination among government agencies. At the time, individuals wishfully offered solutions but were essentially powerless to enact them.

Two years later, they’ve found the power. In January, a group of businessmen and volunteers, backed by the support of newly elected parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy, launched the Heliopolis Heritage Initiative (HHI) with a concrete agenda for reviving their hometown.

According to its mission statement, the initiative focuses on five areas: architectural heritage protection, green zones and parks enhancement, cultural heritage protection and activities, traffic and transportation solutions, and waste management challenges.

“The Heliopolis Heritage initiative (HHI) is creating a short- and long-term vision affecting the way of life we want to see in Heliopolis,” says HHI volunteer Choucri Asmar, a young political science analyst, “by gathering the trilogy of executives, officials with the private sector and the civil community around one vision.”

Saving Facades
As laid out by the baron in 1905, Heliopolis’ original boundaries encompassed the areas around his Far-East inspired palace, the Basilica, and the Korba and Roxy neighborhoods. Third-generation ‘Heliopitan’ Ahmed Moussa says that at least six old villas have been demolished on Beirut Street in the past year and even more on other streets in the area. The HHI volunteer made his hometown the focus of his academic career, earning his Masters degree from Belgian University of Leuven with a thesis titled “Where is Heliopolis Going?” Moussa now works for UNESCO on the cultural organization’s Urban Regeneration project for Historic Cairo.

“These new buildings are totally going to eventually destroy the area,” Moussa says. Not only do the new buildings destroy the style and general architectural spirit of the place, he notes, but the infrastructure is being overloaded by a population more than three times what the Baron originally planned for.

“We will lose the heritage of the place and the urban fabric and homogeneity of the buildings will be destroyed, which already started happening,” Moussa says. “The list can go on, on to why we shouldn’t destroy the old villas and build tall high buildings.”

It’s not just the villas. He also points out that shop owners are redecorating the facades of ground-floor shops without taking into consideration the unique architectural design of the building. Moussa doesn’t fault the owners for trying to improve their property, he just thinks they don’t have the knowledge and access to the right resources needed to preserve the heritage value.

To address this, HHI’s Baronic Heliopolis project is working on getting funds to renovate the buildings along the original town’s main arteries of Orouba, Thawra, Merghany and Nozha streets. These projects will use the proper materials, techniques and expertise to protect the architectural heritage.

“Once that is started,” Asmar says, “we [will be] working on projects [to encourage residents] to renovate their own old buildings in the smaller calm streets of Heliopolis.” The HHI team hopes to work with banks to negotiate reduced-interest loans for building renovation.

The first hurdle was navigating the bureaucracy regulating construction. Armed with an endorsement from Amr Hamzawy, Heliopolis’ MP, the HHI volunteers approached the hayy, or district administration office, and convinced officials to include them in meetings about urban heritage preservation. Twice a month, an HHI representative sits down with officials from the hayy and the National Organization for Urban Harmony (NOUH) representative for East Cairo.

Engineer Nevine Fouad Mohamed, a district organizational manager and the Heliopolis hayy’s representative in the NOUH, says, “The first time [the HHI volunteers] came in, they were asking about special old villas that were being torn down for one reason or another. So I walked them through the procedures and laws that they have to go through to protect any villa. […] They are very nice people, active and amazing dreamers that got hit with the reality of the situation and laws. Still, they haven’t given up and are trying in all different directions.”

Enthusiasm can’t guarantee success, and Mohamed notes that even if HHI wants to protect a house that the hayy or a court has already approved for demolition, there is nothing anyone can do.

Ultimately, HHI wants to see better laws regulating buildings. Asmar explains, “A team of the initiative is working actively on having special regulations for Heliopolis, its urban fabric protection, its streets and gardens enhancement and better utilization.”

HHI is also trying to introduce amendments to the building laws 144 of 2006 and 119 of 2010 to close legislative loopholes that allow architectural heritage to be destroyed. “This is what Hamzawy is proposing now in Parliament: The abolishment of these laws is now being discussed,” Asmar explains. “Until that happens, Hamzawy is asking for a freeze on demolitions and construction in Masr El Gedida for a year until the new laws are in place, but that is still being discussed as well.”

Because of the current laws, saving a building from destruction is a lengthy process. “Sometimes by the time we have the court order to stop building, it would be too late and the [new] building would be already built,” Asmar says. “Now we try to register the old houses with the NOUH and the hayy, so that it would be added to the protected buildings list and no one can pull it down.”

Currently the protected heritage list includes 780 houses in East Cairo, including encompassing Heliopolis, Mattariya and surrounding areas. The hayy is working with the HHI to add more and update its online list for the public.

Another challenge is with the building owners themselves, who often view having a historic building more as a punishment than a source of pride. When a building is on the protected list, owners cannot make even minor changes, and they cannot use the property for commercial businesses.

“I have a house that could get me more than LE 5 million pounds if I sell it, yet I only get a couple hundred pounds from the rent (under the old rent law),” says Fahima Mostafa, a 63-year-old Heliopolis resident whose house is on the protected list. She inherited the building from her parents. “I don’t want to sell it and I don’t want to destroy it either, I just want to open my own boutique or something. But if the these laws stay the same, at some point I will have to sell it.”

“This is something that we want to change in the law,” Mohamed explains. “We want the protected houses to be allowed to be renovated with expert help and for the owner to be able to profit from it without destroying its exterior look, interrupting traffic, polluting the environment or destroying the general atmosphere. This way, owners will want their houses to be in the list.”

In addition to working with Hamzawy on legislative changes, HHI volunteers are helping the hayy in other ways. The initiative has set up a group called Heliopolis Eyes, where citizens from each neighborhood can report planned demolitions, potential construction violations or buildings that should be added to a protected list.

“They also have volunteers who help us with drawing maps on specialized computer programs that we don’t have access to because we have limited resources,” Mohamed explains. “HHI also helps with communication: Thanks to them, people in the neighborhood became more accepting of the idea of the protected list even though the laws still haven’t changed. In the past, people fought us so that they wouldn’t be in the list, now they are more accepting and they understand that being on the list means their property is valuable.”

Reviving the Culture
HHI wants to do more than just restore the look of Heliopolis. The initiative has several projects to strengthen the sense of community as well — starting with the iconic Baron Palace.

“We are working on the plans and funds to renovate and restore the Baron Palace and turn it in to a city [Heliopolis] Museum,” says Asmar, “reflecting all the history around Heliopolis, its creation, its evolution and its way of life.” The group envisions a facility up to international standards of museology, with the capacity to host temporary exhibitions from museums all over the world.

Another Heliopolis landmark is Merryland, the former equestrian racetrack that has grown into a commercial entertainment park. Originally, Merryland was a giant green space that encompassed the now-closed Grenada hippodrome; the two areas weren’t divided by a street until Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era. Asmar says HHI is working to have the two properties reunited and “convince the authorities to turn the totality into a one huge green park space, a lung for all Cairo residents on the standards of Hyde Park and Central Park, creating a botanical, cultural, natural space with activities for kids, families and sport lovers.”

According to Mohamed and Asmar, the Masr El Gedida company, which owns Merryland and Grenada, has plans to tear down the decaying Grenada hippodrome and replace it with a modern commercial building such as a parking garage.

“In this, it’s a private property and according to law, we can’t stop the company from using their property,” Mohamed says. “But we can try to organize it, and this is what HHI is in the process of doing now.”

Asmar says they are trying to arranging a friendly meeting between HHI representatives, Masr El Gedida Company and Hamzawy in the near future to propose their own plan for Grenada and Merryland that preserves the heritage and still allows the company to make money.

If HHI has its way, El Bahnasari can watch his grandchildren play in a neighborhood park. In the small gardens around the city, HHI wants to install playgrounds funded by multinational companies and administered by municipal and community authorities. One of the first is due to be set up in July, but the initiative is still working the hayy to ensure the equipment isn’t stolen or damaged.

Libraries are also on the list, and the initiative wants to improve services of the public libraries in Heliopolis, Badr, Shourouk and Hikestep. Also, Asmar says, “We are also working on having two to three cultural centers for youth, families and kids, [which will host] daily and monthly cultural programs on art, culture, music, civilization etc.”

Keeping It all Beautiful
To address the waste management issue, HHI is working with Zahrawan Foundation for Sustainable Development and a group of French University students on the “I Will Start With My Home” initiative. The project is to educate young people about separating garbage at home for recycling and instill a culture of keeping the streets clean.

HHI’s next big challenge is tackling the traffic, with Heliopolis’ main streets almost completely gridlocked for much of the day. Asmar says that one team is working with authorities and representatives from Hamzawy’s office to come up with strategies to promote better traffic flow, obedience to traffic laws and more public parking options.

Baron Empain did not just build this idyllic suburb; he also set up Cairo’s first metro to connect it to Downtown Cairo and beyond. Vestiges of the original tramway network still serve Heliopolis, Nasser City and Matariya, and if you have an hour to spare for the bumpy ride, you can even make it as far as the Cairo train station. According to Asmar, HHI is preparing a project to turn the Heliopolis Metro into a world-standard mode of transportation. Combining that with a microbus system for the Heliopolis area, the team hopes to provide viable alternatives to driving in the city.

The goal, Moussa says, is to keep Heliopolis looking beautiful with a unified character. “We have to take care of our city, as it’s just one city that we can’t replace due to its history, structure, architecture, atmosphere and spirit.”

Finding Funding
The volunteers’ main concern now is that HHI is merely an initiative and doesn’t have the legal right to collect funds for their projects.

It is here where political support becomes a liability. The HHI initiative is based in Hamzawy’s office with his full support, and the MP even attends the important meetings with the volunteers. Because of this, Asmar admits, many organizations refuse to even discuss the possibility of funding them, as they don’t want to be seen supporting what they view as a politically affiliated entity.

“We tell them they can take the idea and do it as their own and that we will only supervise, as our main concern that this project happens no matter whose name is on it,” Asmar says. “Still they refuse.”

The group is discussing either registering as an NGO or cooperating with another NGO to help fundraise.

Asmar feels the reformation of Heliopolis could become a model of success applicable throughout Egypt, but the HHI volunteers realize none of this will come to pass without support from the whole community. To drum up enthusiasm, the initiative has produced a video featuring residents of Heliopolis sharing their experiences of the city, along with a history of the area and the vision of HHI. The video got more than 51,000 views in less than a month.

As Asmar point out, “Residents really want to help restore the spirit as we all share a feeling of belonging to the place.” 

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