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#Hashtags: Convergences and Displacements

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This past week has left the venerable nonprofit Townhouse Gallery shaken. Though the attempted demolition of its building at 10 Nabrawy Street in Cairo has been halted, the gallery is faced with months of work ahead to secure its future. Operating since 1998, Townhouse is known for drawing international artists and thinkers to Egypt, and nurturing an emerging network of support for Egyptian artists through its library and archive, cultural salons, theater, and nonprofit incubator programs. Their presentation of cutting-edge, often political art in a space that welcomes and serves Egyptians of every class has invited rancor from reactionaries, and over the past week, Townhouse and its neighbors were nearly displaced permanently when local police forcibly evicted them and then threatened to demolish the property after a section had collapsed. The process of securing protection for the 19th-century building in order to list it as a heritage site and proceed with restoration is underway, a process that was only made possible because of widespread community protests against the demolition. Says William Wells, Townhouse’s co-founder and director, “Given that we are in the center of the city and demonstrations have begun again after a two-year absence, we must act quickly.” The convergence of many different social classes in support of preserving the mixed-use building illustrates how the arts can operate as a site for citizenship where such spaces are hard to come by. The threat against Townhouse is a lesson in how liberal development can function as cover for acts of cultural erasure by conservative political interests—a trend observed in cities across the globe.

Townhouse Gallery, 10 Nabrawy Street, Cairo, Egypt, c. 2011. Image courtesy Townhouse Gallery.

Townhouse Gallery, 10 Nabrawy Street, Cairo, Egypt, c. 2011. Courtesy of Townhouse Gallery.

On Wednesday, April 6, a section of the historic building that houses Townhouse partially collapsed. No one was injured, and staff salvaged what equipment and archives they could from the rubble and resolved to rebuild. At 8 a.m. on Saturday, April 9, police arrived and declared the building condemned, but did not produce any documentation supporting that finding. Townhouse is situated within the Mechanics’ district, and the working-class neighbors (who have long defended the space from government censors) turned out in large numbers to stop the demolition. Mido Sadek, a former Townhouse employee, described the scene at the time: “They were supposed to just clear the rubble from the collapsed part of the Townhouse building, but the army [said] they will demolish the remaining three-fourths of the building that is still stable. Some families will sleep on the street tonight.” Residents were able to initiate a government review process that Sunday to list their building as a protected heritage site; however, the police returned on Monday and began to physically dismantle and destroy architectural elements, removing doors and smashing windows and tile, while forcibly vacating the remaining occupied units. Townhouse media and communication officer Karim Moselhi described how, “It was really shocking to see how the laws regarding heritage were completely being disregarded, and on top of that, it was devastating to see the authorities evicting those families and shop owners without notice.” Sadek asked, “Who made this decision without informing the owner or tenants of the building? How was this decided so quickly, and why would it be implemented on a weekend? There are a lot of unanswered questions.” On Wednesday, April 13, in response to continued public pressure, the demolition order was reversed by a specialized delegation of government representatives and engineers. Quite a bit of work is still required to make the building habitable and to restore the damage created by police and by the original collapse. Townhouse has temporarily relocated to its adjacent Factory and Rawabet spaces, and has set up a co-working space for staff and community organizers to complete the architectural and cultural surveys of 10 Nabrawy Street that must be submitted to secure the building’s protection. Meanwhile, the building’s six resident families remain homeless.

Townhouse Gallery following relocation to Factory/Rawabet spaces, April 16, 2016. Photo courtesy Townhouse Gallery.

Townhouse Gallery after relocation to Factory/Rawabet spaces, April 16, 2016. Courtesy of Townhouse Gallery.

Townhouse Gallery is a space for public discourse and a platform for democratic action. In 2011, its proximity to Tahrir Square situated Townhouse at the center of the pro-democracy movement, and since that time the gallery has been a gathering point for Cairo’s increasingly disaffected young creative workers, as the euphoria of a political revolution has been replaced with the malaise of a failing state. Townhouse and its staff have been targeted with violence before, during the Morsi regime in 2012, when Wells was brutally beaten in his home. The chaos and dysfunction of Egyptian systems and infrastructure since that time has created an environment where abuse of power by local officials can go unchecked. “Another round of this sick and sad game,” Alexandra Stock, a former Townhouse curator, commented. “Total breakdown of law.” The space has reopened multiple times after forced closures, most recently in late December 2015 when the recent attacks on Townhouse by government entities began with a government-mandated closure and suspension of their operating permits.

Community assists with evacuation of Townhouse library and archives, April 9, 2016. Photo courtesy Townhouse Gallery.

Community assists with evacuation of Townhouse library and archives, April 9, 2016. Courtesy of Townhouse Gallery.

The gallery’s ability to serve a broad cross-section of the Cairo public has been equally threatened by financial challenges due to the continuing instability of the Egyptian economy. Despite Kafkaesque bureaucratic dead ends and denials, Townhouse staff had, this past February, negotiated permission to resume operations and ultimately to reopen. Meanwhile, they had addressed funding woes by securing a partnership with real-estate developer SODIC that would provide corporate underwriting for Townhouse’s downtown spaces in exchange for gallery programming sited at SODIC’s Westown development, a gated community far from the socially mixed community of downtown. Another developer, Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Development, owns the buildings adjacent to 10 Nabrawy Street, including the one housing the satellite spaces into which Townhouse has temporarily relocated. Al-Ismaelia is promoting a plan to redevelop much of downtown Cairo by positioning itself as a developer concerned with preserving the local architectural character, retaining the facades of heritage buildings from the Khedival era (of which the Nabrawy Street building is one), with modernized interiors. Like SODIC, Al-Ismaelia has underwritten contemporary art in Cairo, co-founding the city’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival and supporting the Cairo Documenta, an independent exhibition. Al-Ismaelia currently owns twenty buildings in the downtown area, most of them purchased over the past two decades from family owners who maintained their properties to varying degrees through years of public neglect, only to be bought out as the neighborhood is “improved.” This pattern is familiar for downtown revitalizations in cities worldwide, and may explain the claims by some local residents that Al-Ismaelia is behind the push to demolish 10 Nabrawy Street. In Egypt as elsewhere, there is money to be made housing young, middle-class urbanites while displacing working people from the city center.

Community assists with evacuation of Townhouse library and archives, April 9, 2016. Photo courtesy Townhouse Gallery.

Community assists with evacuation of Townhouse library and archives, April 9, 2016. Courtesy of Townhouse Gallery.

Tenacity is a hallmark of experimental art venues, and Townhouse would continue its work in artistic innovation, civic activism, and skills building even without the preservation of their current exhibition and library spaces. The more pressing question is whether the gallery can maintain its broadly accessible character and site. High-end developments on the city’s periphery aren’t available for meaningful engagement within a cross-section of the population in the way that a building in the heart of the city is, provided that the city center can be preserved as a diverse social space. The global trend of displacing working-class residents from high-density urban centers by demolishing their homes and businesses and replacing them with luxury investment properties, many unoccupied, entombs once-vibrant neighborhoods. The money might be Chinese, German, or Saudi; the city could be Los Angeles, Warsaw, or Cairo. Once the transformation is complete, even the most radical art becomes window-dressing.

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