Remembering Dubai's most coveted beachside community before it became Madinat Jumeirah

Former residents of Chicago Beach Village reflect on a beloved feature of the city's landscape from days gone by

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Two decades ago, one of Dubai’s most beloved compounds shut its doors for good, paving the way for the dazzling Madinat Jumeirah complex. Set alongside glittering sand and sea, it had long been one of the city's most highly sought-after gated communities.

What was once an obscure stretch of shoreline, set beyond the city’s end, was transformed into one of its most exciting pieces of real estate, forming the beating heart of New Dubai.

Yet in many ways, the stretch of coastline has always been one of Dubai’s most distinctive. It had been inhabited since the 9th century during the Abbasid period, but in the early 1900s, the Jumeirah area was largely home to fishermen, traders and pearl divers living in huts.

All of that changed when oil was discovered in the 1960s and expatriates began flocking to the area.

For decades, the plot of land now occupied by the Burj Al Arab, Wild Wadi and Madinat Jumeirah was an open beach, unofficially called “Chicago Beach” after the Chicago Bridge and Engineering Company that had the task of building the two huge offshore oil storage tanks alongside it.

As the company set to work, it set up a large crane, which bore a signboard reading “Chicago Bridge and Engineering Company”, cementing the area’s unofficial name.

It became a vital landmark for dune-bashers traversing the desert and beach stretching from Dubai, through Jebel Ali and towards Abu Dhabi.

In the 1970s, the site became home not only to the Chicago Beach Hotel, but a residential community of about 100 villas, housing foreign residents from around the globe. Formalising the beach’s nickname, it was referred to as Chicago Beach Village — or CBV for short — quickly becoming a much-coveted place to live.

A mid-90s map of the Chicago Beach Village. Photo: Joanne Westeng

Initially an exclusive community catering to the oil and gas industry, it later opened up to people working for a variety of companies. Located along what was then the farthest reaches of Dubai, it hosted a vast array of facilities, including a supermarket, swimming pools, squash courts, tennis courts, gymnasium, coffee shop, skateboard rink, clubhouse and Oasis pool area, complete with a children's game room.

Former Villa 509 resident Joanne Westeng recalls feeling “lucky” to move into the community in 1995, with her husband, a Dubal employee, and their children, aged 4 and 7 at the time.

“It was fantastic to be able to give the children a bit of freedom and space, and it wasn't long before there were other children knocking at the door,” she says.

Community spirit was one of the hallmarks of Chicago Beach Village. Photo: Anna Kerr

She says it was a huge difference to life in London, “where you had to arrange for other children to come over and play or go out to playgroups to meet other children outside school”.

Westeng, who worked at Rashid School for Boys from 2001 to 2016, remembers the facilities fondly.

“The beach had a small play area with a little frame for the kids to play on. My daughter managed to run into it one day when she was running around and knocked her front teeth out.”

The beach also featured barbecue pits which could be booked for parties, alongside “little covered shaded areas” and a skateboard ramp where “teenagers would hang around for hours on end”.

With a supermarket, restaurant, beach, pool and more, Chicago Beach Village residents had very little reason to leave their compounds. Photo: Joanne Westeng

Westeng and her children also made full use of the tennis courts.

“While they were having lessons, if I didn't watch, then I could sit by the pool with a coffee and enjoy the view over the beach and sea. It was great to jog around the village and the kids were able to cycle to their friends' houses.”

Dogs were welcome, so long as they were kept on a lead and away from the beach and Oasis recreation area. But many residents preferred pet tortoises bought from “the markets around town”.

“They were escapologists but everyone used to paint their villa number on their tortoise's shell, so they could be returned to their home easily,” she says.

The compound had its own swimming pools, squash courts, tennis courts, gymnasium, coffee shop, skateboard rink and clubhouse. Photo: Anna Kerr

Paul Venn joined as the compound’s recreation club manager for 18 months in 1992, overseeing the clubhouse, restaurant, swimming pool and sports facilities. He describes the facilities as “world class”.

“Dubai was a very different place back then and the compound really was considered one of the best places to live in the emirate, even though it was such a long way out of town,” he says.

Because the community was so small, he says, “it really did feel like you knew everyone”. Like many others, he remembers Halloween fondly, “when we blacked out all the windows in the recreation room and built a series of scary experiences for the kids”.

A mid-'90s Chicago Beach Village security pack was filled with useful information about the community. For example, those seeking to host a party were told that “the security gate should be given a written note of dates, times, names of guests and type of activity”.

Interestingly, the community was also an early pioneer in recycling, providing separate waste collection for general waste, garden rubbish and paper.

Marion Pollard lived in Chicago Beach Village from 1983 to 1990 with her husband and two children, “who loved living there”.

“It was very safe for children and one of the best places to live in Dubai at the time,” Pollard says.

“In the years we were in Dubai, there was a real community spirit, as there wasn’t too much nightlife then. We had lots of parties that included the children. On weekends, we would barbecue on the beach, with large groups of us.”

She says they had a “great social life”

“Because we were all without our families, we took every excuse for a party. When we had family visiting, we would always be made welcome in our friends’ homes, which made our guests feel special.”

Chicago Beach Village was home to an array of bungalows, apartments and two-storey houses. Photo: Bob Nelson

The complex sprawled across a combination of bungalows, apartments and two-storey houses.

“Every house had gardens front and back. There was a pool, tennis and squash courts, a coffee shop, and a pier. The beach was amazing,” Pollard says.

She recalls people spending sleepy days fishing from the pier, while children hurled themselves into the water below.

Westeng also remembers the pier well.

“My son learnt to fish from the end of the pier with his friends. The first thing he caught was a puffer fish and none of us knew what to do with that.

“Occasionally there were sightings of sharks and even a whale shark came in to the shallow waters one Friday morning when the beach was busy. We found a few sea snakes washed up on the beach over the years but had learnt that you had to steer clear of them, even if they looked dead, as they were usually waiting for the tide to take them back out into the open water again.”

Reflecting on the pier, Jacqui Josephson wrote on Facebook: “I used to go out and sit on the end of the pier looking back at the shore. It was so peaceful — very therapeutic and good for the soul, wonderful to unfrazzle.”

Residents would also line up on the pier when the powerboat racing was on, with boats zooming across from Mina Seyahi.

“The Victory team always seemed to do very well,” Westeng remembers.

Chicago Beach Village resident Mary Nelson looks out to sea from the compound's pier. Photo: Bob Nelson

Although the adjacent Chicago Beach Hotel closed in 1997 to make way for Wild Wadi, Chicago Beach Village endured for another five years.

“One day, most of the residents of CBV lined up on the pier to watch the spectacle of the old Chicago Beach Hotel being demolished,” Westeng says. “It was scheduled for 9am on a Friday, I believe, and I was quite sad to see it go.”

Former residents recall it being a “sad day” when the Village itself was demolished in 2002 — later replaced by the Madinat Jumeirah complex.

However, one proud memento still survives: the original pier stretches out from Jumeirah Al Qasr hotel. At its end is the multi-award-winning Italian restaurant Pierchic, a living monument to a time gone by.

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Updated: August 09, 2022, 8:17 AM
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