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The 80′s refusing to leave: Shmeisani and the death of Ammani human-scale urban modernity

3/3/2013

 

Occasional visits to my dentist in Shmeisani sometimes end with a walk retracing the footsteps of my teenage days in Amman, spent studying for exams or getting introduced to newspapers like The Guardian at Abdulhameed Shoman public library, meeting computer geek friends upstairs in the computer lab in same building, eating Shawerma at a corner restaurant, looking for foreign magazines in a bookshop that used to be housed in the entrance lobby of Matalqa Center, or buying music tapes at EMC (Electro Music Center).

Some years later, it meant ice cream at Frosti's or student outings at Milano, MammaMia or New York New York.

For around a decade that bridged the 1980s and 1990s, the blocks of Shmeisani's commercial center, sandwiched between the banks' headquarters on one side and the stretches of modernist villas on the other side, were the go-to place for middle class teenagers, long before Abdoun, before the malls and before the internet.

Despite its reputation for being Amman's "rich neighborhood" of the 1970's, Shmeisani can, in retrospect, be considered modest, especially when compared to the display of wealth in the new rich neighborhoods that came after it: Adbdoun, Deir Ghbar and so on.. Its commercial center was a tentative window to a globalized future that would later unfold with a big bang in other places in Amman during the second half of the 1990s and the 2000s. It represented a certain kind of modernity and "globalization" that was still in harmony with the urban fabric of Amman. Yes, the first Kentucky Fried Chicken of Jordan opened there in the 1980's, but it sat modestly between small groceries, local restaurants, a public library, wide sidewalks and just "normal" modern human-scale urbanity.

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And while Shmeisani was certainly a place that welcomed cars, enabling the emerging habit of car cruising, it was also a place for pedestrians with its generous sidewalks. That's a far cry from today's new urban areas of Amman. The activities of Shmeisani can today be found in malls or in strips of shops along high-speed highways. The malls offer us privatized pedestrian life, where male teenagers can be shut out at will (contrary to the Shmeisani of my teenage years). And the strip malls along long highways don't even bother to have any pedestrian pretensions.

Yet, even as Amman is today rediscovering its old downtown, and its old neighborhoods like Jabal Amman's First Circle and Rainbow Street and Jabal Al Luweibdeh, the blocks of Shmeisani are undergoing a intriguing process of death and, I want say "rebirth" but that would be too optimistic. It's really a drawn out state of decline. It's the stubborn hanging on of fragments of its past mixed with hopelessness, and a new future looming literally on the horizon. Look towards the east and there, on the horizon are the towers of the Abdali District, that controversial moment of Amman's attempted Dubai-ification in 2000's

Every time I walk through Shmeisani I am baffled by its state of limbo.

Can someone explain to me how "Ata Ali", the icon of the 1970's Shmeisani, is managing to survive as a business? And why hasn't capitalism's creative destruction managed to sweep it off the landscape?

Can anyone understand how "New York New York", an 80's experiment by a couple of Jordanian entrepreneurs who gave Amman one of its first creatively designed restaurants (complete with huge Jackson Pollock posters), today is a bizarre joint called "New Yourk Nightclub" (yes Yourk not York!).

Who exactly drinks coffee at "Al Farouki", the once proud coffee house of Shmeisani?

As I walked up and down the streets on an early Saturday afternoon, the whole neighborhood didn't make any sense. Even the mobile phone trade that once flourished in Shmeisani in the mid to late 1990's seems on the brink of death. There where no customers in the mobile shops that still somehow managed to remain open. The owners seemed to console themselves by listening to the Holy Quran radio station. Maybe business is better on weekdays. But the number of shuttered or "for sale" shops told another story.

Loud Iraqi music (I think a live performance!) was blaring from a restaurant on a second floor of a building and I could hear enthusiastic shouts of ladies who apparently were having a very lively noon-time party there.

Milano was still there. Beside it a Babiche patisserie that seemed closed, yet on closer inspection was open. A hummus and falafel restaurant on the same street was full of Egyptian construction workers. And a "supermarket" was doing good business, and still advertising that 80's favorite: slush!

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Shmeisani is dying a fascinating death.

Maybe Shmeisani's rebirth is being held back by the ongoing financial crisis, and our state of national depression, affording us a slow motion display of disappearance, to revisit our younger years in Shmeisani before the new chapter of its history is written.

Maybe it was simply chocked-off by traffic problems created during the construction of the Shmeisani super-interchange. No one wanted to even go to Shmeisani and its traffic jams during the past few years.

Even the conversion of the commercial district's main street into a semi pedestrianized "culture street" now seems bizarre. The only good that came from this project was that it became the unofficial headquarters of Amman's skateboarders (and rollerbladers). I wonder if they still congregate there..

Big developments like the Kempinski Hotel and, more recently, the Millenium Hotel, dominate the neighborhood. And later this year, when Abdali and its Boulevard open, Shmeisani will become the next door neighbor of a totally new and totally shocking form of urbanity.

One would think that these developments would have sparked a revival. Or even just some form of monstrous commercial takeover. But no. Walking down the broken sidewalks of Shmeisani to capture glimpses of my memories, I found traces of the 80's stubbornly refusing to leave, swathes of desolation and the typically Ammani habit of a city discarding its old cool places.

The urban structure of the Shmeisani commercial district, which once brought together commerce, culture, entertainment and a window to "the new" still holds so much potential.

A thoughtful city planner would seek to revive it as a genuinely "cool" and "locally-modern" counter-pole to the super-imposed, super-designed Abdali development. A symbiotic relationship could even be created between these two poles.

But I doubt that the Amman of today has time for such ideas.

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JVTC (that's Jordan Video Tape Center): The king of the videotape age. Now peddling DVDs. And pay TV.

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Technics: I remember this as the brand-name store for high-fidelity audio equipment. Then it became a tape shop. Then a CD shop, a mobile shop. Now closed.

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The Jabri restaurant opened here in the late 1980s in a gleaming white marble-clad building. Now covered by alucobond. Seems largely disused now.

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Babiche and Milano.

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Milano still operates and it is still run by the family who started it. A rare survivor in the neighborhood.

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Sandwiches, slush and yoghurt drink and Granada supermarket. The restaurant with the same name next door serves affordable meals to construction workers.

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Even the name "Shoman" which used to dominate Jordan's banking sector (as the founding family of the Arab Bank) and the Shmeisani banking district, remains just a street name today.

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Al Kayyali bookstore and Caesar's souvenir shop. Time seems to stand still in these shop fronts.

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The once proud coffee house.

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La Terrasse

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Frosti: such a refreshing Jordanian brand in its heyday.

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An elite shopping experience

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The Jewel of Amman

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When Jordanians only knew a handful of restaurant brands, this was the king of the market.

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Presentation!

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Granite is forever

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Pioneering poets and progressive prime ministers

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Another survivor

Surviving the 80's. 90's and 00's

 

The magazine store used to be here

 

13 Comments

  1. Zeid Nasser says:

    Can’t stop laughing! But sort of crying because I was a Shmeisani addict in the 80s and I did not notice everything was still the same :)

  2. Ghuzayyah says:

    Very interesting! I got to experience the mid 90′s shmeisani!!! PowerHut, Milano, and Frostie…The only thing I associate shmeisani with today is Head quarter’s of most banks, UK or Canadian Visa and insane traffic!!! Thanks for sharing :)

  3. Naser_k says:

    Wow, thank you Ahmad for this. Aside from your interesting and intriguing reading of the scene, you brought back memories buried far away in a nice place in my head.

    I remember my parents taking us to Shoman library, I remember Jabri on the corner and the elevator of course :) I remember going all the way from Thra3 al’3arbi with two of my friends (the nerdy bunch) to Shoman library to do some research in later years until it was closed. I remember my parents taking me to Haya Cultrual Center, and going with the school to ????? ???????. I remember going with my family and family friends on weekends when they made the street accessible for pedestrians only to have a walk and watch all kinds of bands performing in the streets.
    I did take my mom the other day to Ata Ali restaurant to go full circle and order and pay for her, unfortunately the food was crap, but I was still happy that I got to Take my mom there.
    Two more things I would add to your post, maybe you can do a sequL or an edit, Mujamma3 Al Naqabat and 7adeeqet Al Toyoor, I think both have had and still have a significant role in Shmesani and the city in general.

    I really enjoyed this post.

  4. Rana. says:

    this is a very sad post.
    we used to own the magazine store but we had to sell as we didn’t have enough clients and the area was dying.
    I miss the days of hanging out there when we were kids. my favorite place was Tom & Jerry the Burger joint.

  5. Brilliantly insightful . What is even more puzzling is that these businesses persist in spite of the real estate costs. Perhaps it’s old tenancies, or the concept of opportunity cost in Jordan does not have effect in practice. In fact the cost of property in that area makes it completely unaffordable for trendy startups! Economics aside, could it be that you are seeing Shmeisani as someone whose sensibilities have changed, while those to whom it holds appeal still linger willingly in the 80′s?

  6. Tarek Koudsi says:

    I loved reading this post Ahmad, I was able to relate to almost everything you mentioned and photographed here, I spent almost all of my 90s summers working for my father’s computer business in Shmeisani, it used to have a big Charlie Chaplin sign right where Abu Shaqra is right now.

  7. Hussein says:

    Ahmad! wow! your blog have been redesigned finally! I really liked it :)

  8. Humeid says:

    Hussein.. It’s a first step only. It’s only 5 or 6 years late :-) But yes it has bee “redesigned”. It’s a new responsive design WordPress theme that I found. Check the site on your iPhone :-)

  9. Kathy says:

    This is a terrific post, which brought back many of my own memories of Shmeisani in the 80s–the Alia Art Gallery, the Turkish Restaurant, Leonardo’s and other “international” spaces that harmonized with the rest of the modern Arab city. Don’t despair though — the First Circle-Rainbow St area also suffered an undignified ugly duckling limbo period for a couple decades before being reappreciated/renovated. Even Amigo Nabil is back…(that area still needs help with traffic, parking and signage). Meantime, I confess to avoiding any requirement to go into or out of Shmeisani during the workweek/daytime for the reasons you described too well but can confirm that the skateboarders are still the kings of “Cutural Street.”

  10. Maha Khatib says:

    Thank you Ahmad for a nostalgic article. Shmeissani is the place I spent the most beautiful years of my life. My parents left it two years ago after 37 years there. Unfortunately, and just like most other residential area in Amman, these beautiful areas become the victim of poor planning. People spend all their savings and build houses and few years later, they find themselves living between banks, companies, hotels and clinics. You wake up in the morning planning to go to work and you find a car blocking your garage. I personally think that Amman’s residential areas are the last priority on planners minds. Look at Abdoun, fourth circle, Zahran area and so many once-were the most beautiful residential quarters. They are all becoming unliveable, crowded and gloomy. When are we going to see any sign of proper city planning for our beloved capital?

  11. Thanks Ahmad , nice memories, JVTC, Recorded Gift Shop, Carte Blanche ,Elba, Haneen Bookstore ,
    LA Che’s D’or , Leonardo, Horse Shoe , And Many Others , Couple Of Decades – Appreciate You Efforts

  12. Brandon says:

    I am a New Yorker who lived in Shmeisani from 2005-2007 with my wife, and we ended up being very grateful that a Jordanian friend steered us there instead of Abdoun, where all the westerners go like lemmings. It is the site of a lot of happy memories.

    We ate at Milano and Frosti, and worked out at Power Hut. There was also a DVD rental store consisting entirely of pirated DVDs–to rent for the price of buying one downtown. Vinagrette remains one of the nicest views in the city.

    JVTC Michael Fanous even set up our dish for us. I hope he’s well.

    If I could do it again, I would have lived east of First Circle, or maybe in Jebel Webdeh. Amman still has little gems. We hope.

  13. K Saket says:

    Great read! I remember visiting family in Shmesani in the early 90s as a young boy. When I came back to Jordan in 09/10 I noticed that Shmesani lost some of its “haybeh” as they say but it still had life. It was sad to note though considering how people flock to the likes of Abdoun these days. I just hope that GAM has some revitalization plans for it in the near future!

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