Sweifieh Revisited
Urban Crossroads #47

A few days ago I visited the pedestrian zone in Sweifieh. The zone consists of the Sweifieh street officially known as the Salim al-Qudah Street, but popularly known as Wakalat Street ("Brand Name Street") because of the numerous international brand-name fashion shops located along it. The street is being converted into a pedestrian zone during the summer months on a daily basis, from the late afternoon hours well into the night.

I visited the street at a relatively late hour, at about 9.30 PM. I had heard that parking near the pedestrian area can be an unpleasant experience, so I decided to play it safe and parked at the other side of Sweifieh and walked the distance. It turned out that much of Sweifieh already had closed by that late hour, so I could have parked close to the pedestrian zone without much trouble.

Sweifieh remains as ugly as always. It has too many empty lots filled with garbage and debris. What is referred to as sidewalks are a complete mess and basically unusable. Dreadful large commercial signs are plastered all over the shops and buildings of the district.

In spite of that, the pedestrian zone was a most pleasant surprise. The fact that there were no cars and the street was for once the undisputed realm of the pedestrian in itself is a wonderful development. What makes the experience successful, however, is more than that. The pedestrian zone functioned as a truly public space in the healthiest sense of the word. The space of the street was filled with people from all walks of life and from various socio-economic backgrounds. One could see the young and old, male and female, the affluent and not so affluent, the conservatively dressed and those dressed according to the latest fashions, all having a great time in the street. They came together in this space, shared the space, and celebrated the space, all in a spirit of mutual acceptance.

There were many positive aspects of the manner in which the zone was run. The friendly policemen (and it is a very positive sign to also see policewomen) walking along the crowds were not at all intimidating, but provided a gentle reminder that public safety is a priority. The band that played music on a stage along the street provided a welcomed ambience. Their music was tasteful, and its volume, though a bit high, was tolerable. This remained a civilized contrast to what happens in a number of Amman's luxury five-star hotels, which continue to blast horrific music from their outdoor terraces well after midnight.

It is hoped this experience once and for all will put an end to the misconception amongst shop owners in Amman that pedestrian zones are bad for business. The cafés along the street were filled with people. While most of the shops in the rest of Sweifieh were closed at the late hour of the day when I visited, most of the shops along the pedestrian street remained open. They obviously have enough business to keep their doors open this late at night.

A few things could stand some improvement. Some of the eating establishments at the edges of the street still were competing with each other with their loud music (I do not understand why in our society celebration and entertainment have to be coupled with ear-piercing music). The parking around the area could be organized more efficiently, especially in the evening hours (chaotic parking practices remain a major but unacknowledged source of traffic congestion in Amman). In spite of this, the experience is very successful.

What should come up next is an upgrading of the street. The sidewalks can be rehabilitated according to agreed upon standards; a code may be put in place to tone down the commercial signs located on buildings along the street; tastefully designed street furnishings, including benches and wastebaskets, may be incorporated within the design of the street; and standards may be developed to improve the aesthetics of the cafés along the street in terms of the types of tables and chairs used and their location. All this can be carried out one step at a time. In the mean time, what is important is that the experience so far is positive and encouraging. Those responsible for it deserve our thanks and appreciation.

Mohammad al-Asad

August 18, 2005