Sunday, August 01, 2010

Out with the old

Egypt Today (Nadine El Sayed)

This is Egypt Today's cover story. Very sad.

Heliopolis has long been known for its garden charm and well-coordinated architecture. Now, just five years after the suburb’s centennial, investor interest and real estate prices have picked up and the villas are coming down

Heliopolis residents used to have a certain pride in their City of the Sun. They took pride in the harmony of Korba, the Baron Palace, the typical Heliopolis architecture, and in those quiet little areas with two story-high villas, small fences and beautiful gardens. A walk through my old neighborhood by the old palace was far from being a walk down memory lane. Only five years ago, as Baron Edouard Louis Joseph Empain’s planned suburb celebrated its centennial, our block was all villas, with the exception of two seven-story buildings. There were readily available parking spots, the street was wide enough to accommodate kids on bicycles, and it was back when each villa’s garage accommodated all of the residents’ cars.

Today the old block mostly lies in the shadow of tall buildings, with the exception of a few villas still standing either because their owners are proud of the area’s heritage or because they simply can’t sell the premises. The street I grew up on has cars parked on both sides and barely enough room for a pedestrian to maneuver, let alone race on bikes. In the past six months alone, three villas have been torn down, presumably to be replaced by higher buildings with less of that Heliopolis je ne sais quoi, and more of the economically viable housing that will maximize profits.

My old block is not alone. A random check of villas marked for destruction indicates that the hayy (district headquarters) issued at least 20 demolition permits in the first quarter of the year. “Destruction decision number 20 for year 2010” reads one permit dated in April. Hayy officials, however, would not provide specific data during an interview.

When Heliopolis was first built, the town’s original boundaries encompassed the areas around the Baron’s Far-East inspired palace, his Basilique, Korba and Roxy. And these are the same areas where villas are disappearing today, in the streets off the main thoroughfares of Orouba, Thawra, Merghany and Nozha.

While certainly the most celebrated, Heliopolis is not the only neighborhood losing its architectural flavor. Many of the tree-lined lanes of Maadi, built a few years after Heliopolis as another garden suburb filled with European-influenced villas, have started turning into bustling streets shadowed by high-rises. To a lesser extent, villas in Zamalek, Garden City and Mohandiseen are meeting the same fate.

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