Having been something of a nomad recently, I’ve been on work trips to Lebanon and France, I decided to take a walk around my neighbourhood this week to reacquaint myself with the city and with 8th Street, which runs down one side of Umm Al Emarat Park.
Stretching between the Mary Mother of Jesus mosque and the low, bunker-like International School of Choueifat, 8th Street is lined with ramshackle houses and overshadowed by the cooling shade of shaggy fan palms, Australian eucalypts and thorny jujubes, whose uncut canopies lie full and low over the pavement, forcing me out into the road.
Where the footpath is visible, the residents of 8th street have ripped up the paving stones to create vegetable plots filled with blooming okra, tomatoes and all sorts of salad and every wall, roof and balcony is festooned with trailing and climbing plants that cascade from home-made containers and recycled pots.
While the ducks and the geese that cross my path might not be to everyone's liking, there's a ramshackle, green-fingered anarchy here that immediately makes me feel welcome, even though I am no longer a resident, and a quiet reclamation of the streets reminds me of the Parisian événements of May 1968.
Back then, revolutionary graffiti proclaimed, "Under the pavement, the beach”, but the guerrilla gardeners of 8th Street could just as easily claim: "under the pavement, the plot."
By growing their own food in the street and letting their gardens run wild, the residents here have created a sense of community that's often absent from Abu Dhabi’s more manicured neighbourhoods and my walk is punctuated by their smiles of recognition and by children playing outside.
8th Street is also where I brought my first daughter back to after she’d been born, to a 3-room, 3-windowed apartment that constantly wanted for light but was just the right size for bewildered and exhausted new parents, whose thoughts were never very far from sleep.
Looking back now I find it difficult to believe that I lived here – many of the houses appear derelict even though they are not - but at the same time I also cannot believe I ever moved away.
With its warm, homemade humanity and even its chickens, 8th Street is a model of informal urbanism, a place that is clearly loved and inhabited with pride, the kind of street that Abu Dhabi’s architects and planners would do well to learn from but which is more likely to be viewed with dismay.
By the criteria that are used to judge Abu Dhabi’s modern developments, 8th Street isn’t a success, it’s actually more of a slum, but that ultimately it depends upon your perspective and whether you value tidy pavements over home-grown vegetables or having somewhere to play. Until it gets beautified, 8th Street will remain a place where everyone is included in the city’s conversation and in its celebration, which makes for a perfect welcome home.
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