#Townhouse #Cairo #gentrification #urban #culture #displacement
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.
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.