Letter From Brussels

Les Marollen

Julie Robert

«C’etait au temps ou Bruxelles revait
C’etait au temps du cinema muet
C’etait au temps ou Bruxelles chantaii
C’etait au temps oil Bruxelles bruxelait»
-Jacques Brel

‘‘It was a time when Brussels dreamt
It was a time when the cinema was silent
It was a time when Brussels sang
It was a time when Brussels was Brussels’’
(Translation by Frontier)

Les Marollen is what Belgians call a popular neighbourhood.

In 2002, the official data counted 12,000 inhabitants. But that figure is far from the reality, as it does not take the "illegals" into account. If the official census considered them too, the data would probably be as high as 14,000. More than 50% of the people living in Les Marollen are unemployed and people who have jobs are mostly workmen. One can clearly assert that it is a very poor neighbourhood. But it has one typical characteristic. Unlike many other poor areas in big cities, its inhabitants are very dynamic. They do not wallow in poverty and have always found ways and means to make an honest living. For example, Les Marollen is a Mecca of recycling. As for the cultural origins of the inhabitants, 112 different nationalities are gathered inside these 52 hectares. 89% of the 4,325 housings are on rent and 1,719 of them are owned by public housing companies.

As mentioned above, all these data date back to 2002. Things have changed, or at least are on their way towards a big change. One thought that this would never happen to Brussels. That it would be a phenomenon reserved for big cities like New York or London only. Why? Because Brussels is a big city that is made of numerous small villages that are gathered together to form Europe's capital. Everyone was confident that, despite the European institutions, despite the globalisation, despite the proliferation of new jobs in the tertiary sector, Brussels would remain a city belonging to its locals. That was a vain dream. For ten years now, Brussels has been subjected to the gentrification of its downtown. Before analysing the specificity of it, let's go back in time to get a bit more familiar with Les Marollen.

The neighbourhood is delimited on one side by a church and on the other by a hospital. At the very outset, it had been kept outside the enclosure built to protect Brussels. In fact, the enclosure had been built more to keep the city clear of the poor than to protect it from invading enemies. All through the 14th and 15th centuries, the Marolliens rose in revolt to demand political rights. In  1383, the authorities built a second enclosure encompassing Les Marollen. Then, a lot of small businesses settled down leading to a considerable increase of the population. Because of the poverty of the people living there, numerous religious congregations decided to start working in Les Marollen from 1600. It was also then that it became the stopping-off place towards the city. People coming to Brussels searching for a job were welcomed there. It has been the case of the Spaniards, the Jews, the Polish and the Italians. It is slill the case with the Maghrebis and the Africans today. During the 19th century, the authorities decided to secure the place further. As it was made of a maze of small alleys and cul-de-sacs, it was difficult for the authorities to police the place. So, they drilled through the cul-de-sacs to create a new road, along which new buildings were built, the most important one being the courthouse. It was the biggest building in Europe at that time. Its erection started in 1866 and led to the first expropriations in Les Marollen. Its architect is believed to have said: "these are buildings of minor importance; their acquisition costs will be as restricted as we could hope". Since 1873, the Jen de Balle hosts the old market, very well known (even outside the borders) for its bric-a-brac. The Marolliens took an active part in the Belgian Revolution in 1830. The first workers' meetings led by Jakob Kats, a progressive leader who founded the "Belgian League for Universal Suffrage" took place in Les Marollen. At the beginning of 1900, the area was the epicentre of the struggle to obtain the universal suffrage. During the two World Wars, the Marolliens were very agitated. In fact, during the First World War, the fear of the uprising of the population was enormous. For four years, the Germans aimed a cannon from the esplanade of the courthouse towards Les Marollen. Throughout the Second World War, the inhabitants used their ingenuity to hide countless numbers of Jews. After the war, life returned to routine with its main economical activity: the recycling of old metals, cloths, etc. and the sale on the Jen de Balle. In 1969. Les Marollen was once again threatened with destruction. This time, the authorities wanted to build an extension to the courthouse. The plan was to raze the entire area. This time—contrary to what had happened in 1866 —the Marolliens resisted. They took up a struggle against several ministries in what is now known as Les Marollen Battle. The inhabitants formed a committee. They covered the walls with posters and banners. They also organised many demonstrations to assert their rights. After a few months, they were victorious! The authorities gave up their project of extension. To celebrate, the committee organised the symbolic burial of "Property developer" and "Bureaucracy", its faithful wife. Twenty years after Les Marollen Battle, the inhabitants of the area lived the horrors of a mass expulsion campaign. Two buildings consisting of furnished flats for poor families were declared unsafe. The burgomaster signed an expulsion order with immediate effect. The police started to drive the people away, but as nothing had been planned to accommodate them somewhere else, they decided to live on the street. They covered the road with mattresses while the people kept shouting their exasperation. The "Mattresses Operation" lasted for two months after which most of the evicted were finally re-housed.

The housing issue has earned Les Marollen a place in history. Today, it is just as topical as ever. The rental costs keep rising and the whole neighbourhood is subjected to gentrification mentioned earlier. Some people have even suggested changing its name, saying Les Marollen has a too pejorative or bleak connotation. But what does one exactly mean by gentrification? A university professor at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles is studying the issue for the last few years. He defines the phenomenon as "the reinvestment of popular neighbourhoods by some financially or culturally well-to-do social groups. They immediately start to restore all the area, leading to their re-appropriation of the place without paying much heed to its previous inhabitants'. The gentrification can have different aspects: renovation, demolition, new buildings, etc. Yet, it has always one feature: it is always a deprivation of space to its inhabitants or its users and this is to the benefit of more favoured and well-to-do groups. These groups could be the inhabitants, users, consumers or even tourists.

Brussels' city centre has a particular relation with the rich. Downtown is made of poor areas, and from the nineteenth century until the beginning of this century, the rich people fled it. They used to go and live in the suburbs, either in Flanders or Wallonia. There, they built detached villas with big gardens and everyday took their car to go and work in the capital. So, one can say that Brussels remained a city, thanks to its poor people. But since 2000, the situation has changed. These rich people realised how convenient it would be to live in the centre of the city. They are attracted by the centrality of the popular areas which are well-served by public transportation and are also not only near to their place of work, but also to the leisure and cultural spots (museums, theatres, cinemas,...). They are also very interested in the architectural heritage. Of course, the buildings are old and most of the time forsaken, but these people long to renovate them to give them back their magnificence. They are known as bobo, for bourgeois-boheme (bohemian bourgeois). As soon as they settle down, they open art galleries, trendy restaurants and smart stores. This has led to a severe housing crisis in the inner city areas. Renting a space in downtown Brussels today has become nearly impossible, even for the middle class. In Brussels, one household out of two spends more than 40% of its earnings on housing. The only solution to stay and continue living in the centre would be to buy by credit. As the time passes by, even that becomes difficult. The prices explode because of the renovation activity in the downtown area. It is not only that the prices are too high, but most of the time, the banks refuse to lend money or it proposes unaffordable interest rates. Therefore, the only solution left to the inner city inhabitants is to move away.

A few years ago, one could still find a little ray of hope in their misfortune. Brussels, unlike London or New-York, was still relatively slow and restricted in its gentrification. The real estate developers had not launched the massive building of high-standard housings in the centre of the city. Unfortunately, this is about to change. Today, one notes a development in the luxury accommodation market, and the real estate sector has started investing money in the erection of housing towers for households with comfortable earnings.

Brussels witnesses also another kind of gentrification, which is a lot more violent than the gradual one led by the bobos moving in town. This gentrification gains ground slowly, at the rate of the opening of the new trendy shops and of the displacement of the locals. The second kind of gentrification in Brussels is the one led by the bulldozers. Fifteen years ago, South Station became the terminus of the high-speed train coming from Paris and Amsterdam. The authorities decided to capitalise on the situation. They wanted the area to become an all new place, dedicated to businesses and luxury hotels. This decision led to a wave of expropriations, and a countless houses were destroyed. Nearly 1000 people were evicted: most of them were thus uprooted and unemployed. After the machines came the developers. They built all new buildings with modern architecture for big companies, hotel chains and even some public services. Fifteen years later, all the places have not found purchasers. Hanging around in the area, one can see empty houses just abandoned or already destroyed. Contrary to the discourses they held at the time, the authorities do not envisage re-building any housing in the neighbourhood. It is still searching for new investors.

Talking about the authorities, what is their role in Brussels' gentrification? In 1989, they decided to put the "revitalisation" of the city centre at the forefront of their politics. They wanted to end the exodus of the middle class households towards the suburbs. They thought that his exodus was leading to the impoverishment of the centre. At that time, they also said that one of the reasons for this exodus was the concentration of low-income households, mostly foreign, in the city centre.

There were virtually no Belgian middle class families living in the area. The aim of the new politics of the government was to make them come back to develop the economic and residential attractiveness. Why? Because these people are taxpayers and also voters. But they also meant the improvement of the branding of the city and the betterment of the heritage. Since 1990, the authorities have implemented various programmes to induce private investors to invest in the different neighbourhood in the centre of the city. They also invested public money for urban renovations.

All these public initiatives led to a significant increase in rentals. And it has only just begun, the inhabitants of Brussels are more and more pressurised. Downtown's gentrification is slowly leading to the displacement of the less wealthy amongst the population. This gentrification is, as not only due to real estate promoters and bobos, but also to Brussels' government which wishes to transform its city at will. It is delighted by the upgrading of the city. But there's one thing it has not understood: it's not by evicting the poor people of their neighbourhood that it will resolve the problem of its citizens. The solution to solve the issue of poor areas and help poor people in Brussels is not to attract rich people into them, the arrival of the rich only leads to the eviction of the poor.

Vol. 46, No. 6, Aug 18-24, 2013

Your Comment if any