Sweifieh: A Case of Urban Deterioration
Urban Crossroads #27

                                             A street in Sweifieh. (Jumana Bissiso)

                                            A street in Sweifieh. (Jumana Bissiso)

A few days ago, my wife and I wanted to buy clothes for our two children. So all of us went to Sweifieh (Suwayfiyyah is a more accurate transliteration), one of Amman's better-known shopping districts, to look for clothes. I rarely go to Sweifieh, and this recent excursion there reminded me why that is so.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article stating that Jabal al-Luweibdeh is Amman's most beautiful district. In this article, I argue that Sweifieh in contrast is one of the city's most unpleasant districts. The area is one where chaos rules supreme. If you need to drive through it, brace yourself for a most unpleasant experience. One is overwhelmed by extensive traffic congestion, coupled with bad driving habits. The parking situation is nightmarish. Vehicles are parked everywhere, and in just about every conceivable manner. The arrangement of parked vehicles resembles what you get when a child throws his toy cars on the floor. The state of the sidewalks is pathetic and they do not seem to conform to any design standards. Continuous stretches of sidewalks simply are nonexistent. We walked through a small stretch of Sweifieh, desperately trying to find an area where we might walk comfortably and safely without worrying about moving vehicles, poorly-paved sidewalks, and sudden level changes. We came across a restaurant that simply had taken over the whole sidewalk with its chairs and tables. We came across un-built plots where instead of sidewalks there are litter-filled stretches of dirt when it is dry and mud when it is wet. We walked by buildings under construction with no screening to provide visual shields and physical protection for pedestrians. Of course, there also are the sudden drops in the level of the sidewalk as one moves from one building to the other. Ironically, lining the chaotic streets and sidewalks of Sweifieh are some of Amman's most expensive real-estate properties, which house a number of the city's better-known international brand-name shops. At the streets of Sweifieh, the "third world" literally and uncomfortably meets the "first world."

One of the tragic aspects of an area such as Sweifieh (and there is no shortage of similar areas in Amman) is that it is a relatively new area of the city. It developed primarily during the 1980s and 1990s. I find it a manifestation of the deterioration of urban planning capacities that has taken place in Amman over the past three decades. One usually expects the passage of time to bring about progress. In many cases, this is what has happened in Jordan. If one examines various human development indicators in the country such as per capita income, literacy rates, infant mortality, life expectancy, ..., it is noticed that all of them have improved considerably over the years. Unfortunately, the same does not apply to the quality of urban living. Examine the parts of Amman that evolved between the 1930s and 1960s, and you will come across far superior urban compositions in comparison to the newer districts of the city. Walk through older areas such as down-town Amman, Jabal al-Luweibdeh, or Jabal Amman; then try to walk in newer areas such as Sweifieh or Wasfi al-Tall (also known as Gardens) Street, and you will clearly sense this most uncomfortable discrepancy.

In fact, that is exactly what I did. A couple of days after the Sweifieh visit, I and an architect friend went for a walk through Jabal al-Luweibdeh, partly to remind myself that there still are beautiful areas in Amman. Jabal al-Luweibdeh is everything that Sweifieh is not. We walked by attractive houses and apartment buildings with elegant and spacious gardens dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. We walked by pleasant unpretentious neighborhood shops that sell all sorts of items ranging from groceries to clothes to antiques. The area has two old very nice neighborhood parks (one of which currently is under renovation and the other recently was renovated). We walked by a variety of cultural and educational institutions (Dar al-Anda, Darat al-Funun, the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Makan, the Terra Sancta School theater) that host various cultural events including art exhibitions, theatre performances, film screenings, and musical recitals. We went up and down the various public urban stairs of the area, which extend all the way from the upper parts of Jabal al-Luweibdeh to the down-town area. We appreciated the relatively narrow local roads of Jabal al-Luweibdeh, which force Amman's reckless driver to drive a bit more carefully, and allow pedestrians to walk more comfortably and safely. The area can stand some improvement, but it still expresses much of what is positive about city life.

Remarkable advances have been made in Amman over the past few decades. Amman has much more to offer its inhabitants than it did even as recently as a decade ago. Whether you are searching for shops, restaurants, recreational facilities, or cultural events, Amman has much to provide. However, the quality of the city's physical urban fabric - its streets, sidewalks, spaces, and buildings, and how they relate to each other - has deteriorated greatly. Wonderful urban compositions were created in Amman between the 1930s and the 1960s. For some reason, we no longer are able to create such high-quality urban compositions. Instead of improving the quality of Amman's urban fabric, we are faced with an urban setting that is marked by increasing chaos, sprawl, and even blight.

Mohammad al-Asad

November 25, 2004