Jordan’s Rainbow Street Living

Somewhere Over On Rainbow

Published in Living Well Magazine

By Rana F. Sweis

November, 2009

Decades after it first opened, customers still flock to Awni supermarket on Rainbow Street in Jabal Amman. The shop owner, Mohammad Swenda, says for many years the neighborhood was quiet, his customers familiar, and every day was predictable. But, in the past few years, change arrived drastically for this relatively historic and calm part of the capital.  In 2005, the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) identified Jabal Amman as a “heritage attraction point.” The major transformation for Rainbow Street began with the JD2 million renovation of the 1,500 meter-long pathway. “Rainbow Street is a distinguished neighborhood that includes prominent historic homes,” says Fawzi Masad, deputy director of Public Works at the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM). “Due to the historical significance of the area, it was our duty to create a strategy in order to revive the neighborhood.” For some businesses in the area, the revival has generated more income. “We have had our ups and downs through the years, but we’ve been doing well lately,” says Median Al Jazerah, owner of Books@Cafe, who explains that when the café first opened on Omar Bin Al Khatab street in 1997, the narrow one-way road was dark and empty. “This place has become a haven because deep down, everyone yearns for their own history.”

Due to the area’s historical significance and identity, any permits submitted to GAM have to receive approval from the archeological division. “The important aspect we have to remember about Rainbow Street is it has always been diverse both socially and architecturally,” explains Firas Al Rabady, head of the archeological division committee at GAM. “At the end of the day, we cannot accept development that will only result in destroying the identity and soul of this place.”

Rainbow Street, named after the now demolished Rainbow Cinema, was one of the first settled areas in Amman. As the capital continues to expand, the avenue remains a connecting line between East and West Amman. Today several families sit down eating sandwiches on a newly built park with benches on the first circle. Young men gather with friends. After the sun sets, people sit in café’s, some prefer to sit on the sidewalks along Rainbow Street. Old Arabic music blares from inside an old café’, while a whiff of loud American hip-hop music can be heard from a car passing by. Along the road, young people on the left drink tea with mint in old shaped vintage glasses, others drink lattes and frappes they bought from a new café’ nearby. Cars zoom by, some honk while waiting for traffic to move; the sound of loud firecrackers startles some passersby.

For some residents, the development in the area, including the opening of several new cafés, restaurants, shops and an all-day Friday souk is presenting a host of problems they never faced before. Parking congests the area, visitors park their cars in front of homes – privacy has become a concern. Noises from pedestrians strolling by and honking cars leave some residents sleepless at night. “We are suffering because this has become a noisy neighborhood. People peek into our gardens and at some point in the day we cannot leave our homes because it takes us hours to return due to traffic,” explains Ghassan Talhouni, who has lived in this area for 56 years.

Two years ago, Al Jazerah says he was forced to resort to providing valet service for customers. Store owners are required to pay parking fees as a prerequisite for opening, even if there are no specific designated parking spots in front of their premises. Two parking lots, including one at the beginning of first circle, provide space for less than 60 cars. Both residents and visitors say there are simply not enough parking spots in comparison to the number of places springing up. “We have complained,” says Talhouni. “I am not against development, but when you want to create a strategy and decide to implement it, you present it as a whole package – including where people are going to park their cars.” Fawzi notes that GAM converted the only empty land in the locality into a parking lot. “There is simply no more empty land in the neighborhood that can be converted into space for cars,” he adds. “The goal of the renovated plan for Rainbow Street is to make it pedestrian-friendly, and the use of private cars is discouraged, while public transportation is promoted.”

A group of local residents with a common aim of making a difference established the Jabal Amman Resident Association (JARA) in 2004. They endeavor to conserve the identity of Jabal Amman and manage the souk every Friday during the summer. “Over the years, some old homes were sold, others were abandoned and so, we wanted to preserve these buildings, and at the same time bring life back to this neighborhood,” says Khader Qawas, board member and treasurer of JARA. Parking, he explains, is a general problem in Amman, but more specifically in Jabal Amman. The souk opened in 2005, and each year more tables have been added. “Today, almost 5,000 people visit the market on Fridays, and on some days it can reach up to 8,000, so, we have an obvious problem with traffic and parking.” This summer, JARA received permission to use several school parking lots in the area. “I admit even that is not enough, we are trying to ease the problem at this stage,” Qawas explains.

Talhouni says one of the solutions to traffic jams and parking is to transfer the souk to downtown where a long street would be closed for pedestrians, “There would be ample space for even more people to sell products, not to mention additional parking spaces,” he explains. “You will still be reviving the area because downtown is so close, but at the same time you solve a problem and give people from all over Jordan the opportunity to sell their items and showcase their talents.”

Andrea Atalla moved to Jabal Amman a year ago and lives parallel to Souk Jara. Like Talhouni, she would prefer that souk Jara be moved to a non-residential area. “The music is loud in the evening, we don’t invite any guests on Friday nights in the summer, the traffic jam is horrible, it’s too loud and we can’t sit in the garden.” Some residents, she says, have complained for years. “In the evening, what you basically get are hooligans who are not allowed to go into the souk and instead sit on my car, yell, make problems and wander aimlessly in the street.” Her husband grew up in this area and says she fears what lies ahead for Rainbow Street. “I know the neighborhood is being revived and is appealing to investors,” she explains. “However, it is doing so precisely because of its identity, character and simplicity and it’s a big fear for me that the place will lose its charm.”

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