Amman’s youth need more creative spaces and fewer restaurants

Young Talk

A man makes his way past a public space overlooking the city on Rainbow Street in Amman, Jordan
A man makes his way past a public space overlooking the city on Rainbow Street in Amman, Jordan, Sunday, February 14, 2010. (Photo: NYTimes)
The city of Amman has undergone many dramatic changes in the past decade. Among many initial welcome changes was the revival of its old artistic and cultural centers, in areas such as Jabal Amman, downtown Amman, and Jabal Luweibdeh. Art galleries and creative start-ups began growing rapidly and the areas soon became a hub for many to engage in all means of expression, ushering in a surge of youthful creative output.اضافة اعلان

These quarters of old Amman have changed both at their core and in their appearance. Adorned in beautiful graffiti by the city’s own local artists, they have helped prop up a variety of regionally-renowned visual artists, photographers, musicians, bands, writers and dancers.

It almost seemed like a youthful and modern Amman that embraces art beyond the traditional and carves a unique identity is finally taking shape, rivaling regional hubs like Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut. It almost seemed like the many creative youths of Amman began to find spaces beyond imploring them to mindlessly consume. Almost. But then two crises hit Amman’s heart: rapid gentrification and the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, Amman’s creative explosion, centered in old Amman, is at risk.

The culprits are anyone but the youth themselves.

A quick, tragic transformation

These areas immediately began to be seen by potential businesses and established chains as a lucrative investment. Their unique blend of the city’s oldest buildings and youngest people provided profitable opportunities, and thus, largely unconcerned with their cultural significance, businesses naturally rushed in. Thus began a tragic transformation of these areas’ potential for creativity into one geared toward mindless consumption.

None is a better example of this than the fight against gentrification in the historic area of Jabal Luweibdeh, well documented in one excellent article published in The New Arab. Not only have its values undergone commercialist erosion, but rent has quadrupled with infamous chains like Starbucks fighting to get a footing, the article reports.

Grassroots creative spaces suffer the most. Every few months, a creative venue either temporarily or permanently closes in old Amman. Meanwhile, landlords seeking to cash in on the hiked rents attempt to court businesses with their property, unconcerned with hosting or promoting anything of cultural value.

A nail in the coffin

With more dramatic numbers of closing cultural and artistic spaces, in the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic may be seen as the culprit. But the pandemic, and especially the policy managing its effects, was only the final nail in the coffin. These spaces were already under siege from gentrification, only for the pandemic to obliterate their final lines of defense.

COVID-19 has certainly hit every Jordanian industry hard. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in this research, estimates that a 30 percent drop in output in the service industry alone has occurred due to the pandemic. Yet, while a modicum of policy was dedicated to resuscitating various other industries, little was done to salvage cultural and artistic spaces. Workers in these small industries were suddenly either underpaid or sacked and rent protections were almost nil. Meanwhile, chains like McDonald’s and Carrefour, unfairly advantaged, kept opening more locations.

The government, thus far, has neglected this side of the crisis; hamburgers and convenience stores were deemed more important to bail out for our youthful nation than literature, art and expression.

An urgent time for change

The message communicated by the aforementioned pandemic policy and inadequate action on gentrification is that music, arts and culture are a luxury not worth preserving either in times of emergency or in the face of predatory business practices. Yet, this has far-ranging consequences: for every shop, shisha bar or restaurant opened in an art café or gallery’s place, the odds to consume and harm one’s health as a youth only grow.

The government needs to step in, albeit in a different manner from what we are used to. It would be unwise to ask for more of the “official” channels of youth outreach: conferences and speeches on “the importance of youth” through unnecessary and superficial spending of public money.

The youth have created, and are still creating spaces from scratch. Young artists, musicians and writers in Amman are still resilient; more streamed concerts and DJ sets online, more graffiti and more innovation in spite of the odds. For each predatory business opened in Amman there are ten college students that can change the country, and another twenty just enrolled in another workshop, if not starting the workshop themselves. But they need to be protected and considered actually important.

There has to be a paradigm change in all aspects of planning on behalf of the government to support positive recreation, cultural exchange, and art. Spaces that encourage such activities, particularly in historical neighborhoods, should be given tax incentives, for instance. Proactive laws need to stop international chains from taking over. The Ministry of Youth and Culture should look to reinvent their support strategies and consider a more active sponsorship. More of that might happen if we just have a Cabinet younger than an average of 59 years old.

With unemployment soaring near 25 percent, diversifying opportunities for youth will not only sharpen their identities, but will also allow them more chances to join the market on their own terms, in new spaces.

The first step to that is taken by protecting and preserving the revolution they have started.

Editor’s note: It was anecdotally erroneously reported to the author that MMAG and Nabd were among the galleries facing closure, however this turned to be misguided.

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