Memories and the City II: The Personal Past

Urban Crossroads #109



In my September article, I discussed the role of the city, specifically Amman, in preserving the collective past and collective memories. This month’s article addresses the city and the personal past.

I will present my own personal past. It has much in common with that of many others of my generation who grew up in Amman. The Amman of my childhood belongs to the 1960s and early 1970s. The city then was still primarily defined by its downtown area and surrounding hills, and had not expanded much beyond them. My family lived in Jabal Hussein, and we had relatives who lived in the downtown area and also in Jabal Amman, primarily near the First and Second Circles. My sister’s school was in Jabal Hussein; the school that my brother and I went to was further out, in Shmeisani, which was at the outer edges of Amman. The school overlooked Wadi Saqra. Walking down to that valley was a trip into the wilderness. It was totally un-built, and the busy Wadi Saqra Street that now passes through its bottom did not yet exist.

We walked a lot in Amman, whether to visit friends and relatives, go to school, buy groceries, or simply for leisure. A pleasant memory is walking with my sister and brother during summer afternoons to one of the shops in Firas Square near our house to buy ice cream. The square’s popular name was Maxim Square, because of the restaurant by that name located there.

Although traffic congestion was common, there were considerably fewer cars on the street than today. We regularly played and rode our bikes in the street. I don’t recall cars racing through the city’s residential areas, as is often the case today. Amman was then a primarily pedestrian city.

The downtown area was very much part of our daily lives. My mother usually would go there about once a week to buy items not available where we lived. We sometimes would accompany her. To get to the downtown area, she would take one of the shared taxis (the “service” cars) that connect the downtown area to the nearby hills. Also, my parents often went downtown with their friends in the evenings to watch a film in one of the elegant movie theatres that came up there in the 1960s. They then would have something to eat at Jabri or another downtown restaurant. They sometimes would take us downtown at night during the summer months for a walk and ice cream. I still have vivid memories of Faisal Square there, particularly its elegant water fountains, which were colorfully lit up at night.

In 1967, my parents built a house in Jabal Amman, between the Third and Fourth Circles. When the house was built, the street leading to it had not yet been paved. They rented the house out for a few years before we moved into it in 1974. By then, Amman’s borders had expanded a bit. Many people we knew moved at that time from Jabal Luweibdeh, Jabal Hussein, and the First and Second Circle areas of Jabal Amman to new areas such as Shmeisani or further out in Jabal Amman. Also, the Hussein Sports City was established by then at the outskirts of the city, and a residential area grew near it. It was at the Sports City where many of us spent a good part of our summers, swimming or playing tennis, squash and basketball. Even though Amman grew considerably, it remained a manageable city. We knew much of it. We knew where it began and where it ended. One could draw a mental image of it.

By the late 1970s, Amman’s growth became too rapid and its size became too large. Many new neighborhoods emerged. A good number of the city’s streets with their intimate scale were extensively widened to accommodate increased and faster traffic. Older buildings were torn down to make way for larger ones. A new and different Amman has come into being since then. Numerous parts of the Amman I grew up in no longer exist. The neighborhoods where I lived, in Jabal Hussein and later in Jabal Amman, have changed drastically. Firas Square, with its greenery and benches, has long disappeared. In its place now is an overwhelmingly large and intimidating multilane traffic intersection. The Jabal Amman neighborhood we moved to in 1974 is no longer even a residential area. Most of its residents have left, and it is now a busy district that has been taken over by various medical facilities, mainly labs, clinics, and hospitals. And the neighborhood in Jabal Amman’s First Circle area, where my grandfather built his house in the 1930s and lived until he passed away in 1984, has become what may be described as a loud and congested entertainment district.

Cities change and grow. We cannot and should not attempt to stop such growth and change. It is part of life. We need to accept it. However, we need to manage and control growth rather than let it take over and wreak havoc on our lives. There are many strategies to accomplish this. Urban growth may be directed towards new well-serviced areas and away from mature, established high-density neighborhoods. City streets should be kept as places with a human scale where pedestrians are given priority. They should not be surrendered to the domination of the automobile and converted into high-speed, multi-lane thoroughfares.

Preserving physical aspects of the city allows us to preserve our memories in it. Amman, however, has been growing at such an overwhelming rate that places we knew as recently as a decade ago are changing drastically. The city of yesterday has very little in common with the city of today. It is as if Amman’s residents have been relocated to another city, even though they remain physically where they are. Under such circumstances, feelings of alienation can easily take over, and people are no longer able to feel a sense of belonging to the city or ownership of it.

We all need an element of continuity and stability in our lives, particularly in today’s world, where change on all levels, whether economic, social, political and technological, is taking place at a neck-breaking speeds. Our cities can and should provide that.

When Amman began to undergo overwhelming change and growth during the late 1970s, I was starting my university studies in architecture in the United States. One question I used to regularly ask my American classmates was whether the neighborhoods they grew up in had changed or not. They usually answered that while their neighborhoods may have changed a bit, they were not much different from how they knew them as children. I would tell them that they are very lucky because many parts of the Amman of my childhood had changed beyond recognition. Let us at least manage Amman’s evolution in a way that makes it kinder to the memories of our children than it has been to ours.

Mohammad al-Asad

October 07, 2010


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