Having recently emerged from a grueling, 15-year financial aid plan overseen by the Regional Parliament of Brussels, the seemingly sleepy yet centrally-located commune of Etterbeek is slowly but surely setting itself up for the next few decades, initiating a swath of pivotal projects – the 100 million euros Contrat de Quartier Durable, the construction of new administrative quarters as well as the renovations of the former Army barracks – in a manner which reveals a new collective ambition, one powered by an administrative and executive body that, despite their political differences (the Commune is governed by a long-standing coalition of socialist, liberals and greens), simply gets the job done. An odd Commune that somehow always seemed to punch way below its weight, it often suffered from and surrendered to its middle-of-the-road image, never much of a priority to the higher-ups and constantly existing in the shadows of its colossal neighbours, Ixelles and La Ville de Bruxelles. At the same time, and unbeknown to most, it is also an innovative Commune, the scene of numerous initiatives – counter traffic cycling paths, 30 km/hr zones and nighttime neighbourhood stewards to name but a few – spearheaded at a local level only to then be applied across the Region. Today, however, a wind of change is palpable, with locals – a heady mix of veterans, university students, Europeans, non-Europeans, young families and pensioners – and businesses – from the local grocers of the Thieffry-La Chasse area to the high-end boutiques of Merode – agreeing that, if managed properly, the future does indeed look promising. But change takes time, and it’ll still be a few years before the Commune that sits on the eastern fringes of the centre of Brussels manages to emerge from its past and embrace its full potential without further alienating its working-class communities and by addressing its looming housing crisis. Indeed, the continuous upward evolution of rent levels, the inability of young couples to get a foothold on the property ladder as well as the very real risk of population exodus remain a challenge the Commune is yet to tackle in its combat against gentrification. An Etterbeekois since the age of five, editor-in-chief Nicholas Lewis and in-house photographers Miles Fischler and Thomas Ost roam the streets of the village-within-a-village, talking to locals, postmen, architects, new businesses and politicians to get a sense of where the Commune comes from, what are its biggest challenges today and where it is heading.
Cité-jardin du Foyer Etterbeekois
Initially thought out by the English urban planner Ebenezer Howard, a cité jardin – literally, a garden city – was meant as a cocoon of peace and quiet in the midst of ever-expanding urban centres. With similar versions present in Auderghem, Watermael-Boitsfort, Anderlecht, Schaerbeek and others, the ones located in Etterbeek – known officially as Cité-jardin du Foyer Etterbeekois – consists of three winding lanes, bounded by three straight streets, and a total of 92 maisonettes. The perfect balance between architecture and nature, the cute and quaint complex of village houses is a truly picturesque ensemble, reminiscent of a beguinage. Today, thanks in part to its cloistered demeanour and calm composure, the urban enclosure is seeing a renewed interest from young families, who see in it the opportunity for village life bang in the middle of the city.
Longtime locals and siblings Maria and Willy Smet
We were born and bred in Etterbeek, and though we don’t live here anymore, we still meet up here once a week, so we’re still very much attached to the Commune. On a general level, you could say it hasn’t changed all that much, although shopping-wise it definitely has. You used to have a tramline that went from La Chasse/De Jacht to Boulevard Général Jacques/Generaal Jacqueslaan, bringing people from all over to shop in the area’s fancy stores. Indeed, back in 1975, I can remember over 10 stores selling just shoes – it was all very chic. But the retail landscape changed quite a bit once the Army left, and you could say it hasn’t really been the same ever since.
In the better-off slices of the Commune, between Thieffry and Montgomery, upscale corner grocer Provisions just opened its doors in January of this year. Part of the new wave of new age grocery stores that have been popping up around town, the formula here is a tried-and-tested one: smart, immaculate, slightly vintage interiors, shelves stocked with both basic and specialist produce and products, and a young customer base keen to avoid the trappings of mass consumerism and supermarket chains. Ironically, the store is located in the exact same location as a former grocery store – albeit it a more affordable one.
One of the last-standing examples of garden cities tucked away discreetly in the midst of expansive urban jungles, Etterbeek’s Cité Jouët-Rey, built in 1910, was the first social housing units built on the Commune. Following a 12-year period of abandon and decay – until just a couple of years ago, only one elderly person actually lived on the grounds –, the complex of village houses was recently given a much-needed facelift, with three non-profits taking the lead in their exploitation. The first one, Trois Pommiers, houses vulnerable people such as single mothers, the second, Beguinage, carries-out home-keeping operations for the elderly in a participative group housing initiative while the third, Artémis, is developing its home-based hospitalisation activity for patients with serious and progressive illnesses such as AIDS, with the underlying goal being to forge meaningful connections between these seemingly different strands of the populations. Anchored by a magnificent garden that acts as its rotunda, the place is a well-kept secret amongst locals for impromptu lunchtime picnics.
The bourgemester: Vincent De Wolf
I’ve been bourgemester of the Commune for 26 years now and, if I had to define it, I’d say that Etterbeek is Brussels in its purest sense. For starters, because of its beauty, its green spaces, its architecture, but also because of its many different and distinct neighbourhoods – La Chasse, Thieffry, Rolin, Jourdan – as well as its cultural diversity. If I wanted to bring up an anecdote that truly exemplifies the commune, it’d have to be a call I got on last year’s Belgian National Day. I’d just been notified that several migrants had just taken up residence in a dilapidated building belonging to the Commune, which they simply could not stay in due to health and safety risks. We first decided to move them, temporarily, to the Commune’s sports hall, until our administrative staff could look into a real, viable and, above all, human solution for them all. We ended up finding it in a former pensioners’ home in Auderghem, but I remember telling myself that the solidarity shown by Communal workers, policemen and women as well as residents who all came together during 72 hours, on their own time, for the benefit of these people, was exemplary and really defined Etterbeek.
That being said, there’s still a lot we need to work towards – more affordable housing, more reductions in local taxes – although I do believe that recent development such as the new administrative quarters Les Jardins de la Chasse – which will include 250 apartments, a one-stop shop for all administrative services, a non-confessional funerary as well as a kindergarten – will be an undeniable added value to the neighbourhood’s fortunes, both economically and socially.
Halfway between Montgomery and Mérode, on the famed Avenue de Tervurenlaan, Leopold Café opened back in 2014, catering to a growing influx of expats and Eurocrats to the Commune. With a balanced mix of drinks, light foods – both sweet and salty – and books as well as a light and cosy interior, the place is a favourite with freelancers (of the creative kind) and young families whose toddlers are especially enamoured by the coffee house’s child-friendly screening area. The perfect place to grab a hot drink on your way to work, or take a break in between two meetings, yet it’s their books on offer – offbeat guides to Belgium, for instance – that truly sets Leopold Café apart.
The minister and longtime local Rachid Madrane
I’ve lived in Etterbeek for 20 years. I moved here because of its quality of life and its central geographical location. I’m very much attached to Etterbeek, which in part also explains my political engagement here. I was elected conseiller communal in 2000, then in 2010 became échevin communal to finally go on to become a federal minister first, the minister for the Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles second, which is the function I still occupy today.
To me, Etterbeek is still one of the rare communes that has a village feel to it, a true neighbourhood feel, despite its proximity to European institutions and to the center of town. Indeed, the former EU president Romano Prodi once referred to Etterbeek as “the capital of capitals”, and I find that to be quite a fitting description. It’s also a Commune where children and young people alike really have their place. St Michel, Jean Absil, Paradis des Enfants and the likes, as well as the Flemish University of Brussels VUB and the Commune’s own network of public schools means that Etterbeek is a neighbourhood with a high density of schools compared to other similarly-sized communes.
In terms of population split, its residents include a big proportion of expats owing to its proximity to EU institutions, but who don’t always manage to truly integrate with local residents. Now to me this is explained by a range of different factors – the new European Schools and kindergartens being built on the Commune, which only reinforces the tendency for them to stay amongst themselves, as well as voting rights. Indeed, we tend to forget that 80% of foreigners living in Brussels are actually Europeans, and in my view they should be allowed to vote at all levels of government.
To me, Etterbeek is still one of the rare communes that has a village feel to it, a true neighbourhood feel, despite its proximity to European institutions and to the center of town.
Because today, a European citizen living in Brussels can only vote on a communal level and not the regional one, and only if he or she is actually an officially registered voter and has been living in the Region for over five years – which is all a bit too complicated if you ask me and doesn’t do much to allow our European residents to truly identify with Etterbeek. And I believe it’s important to push this strong EU presence forward in Etterbeek, and allow it to define the Commune to a certain extent. Because Europe doesn’t only mean summits every odd month. Europe also means actual people, citizens, and their families, living right here in Etterbeek.
Above and beyond the issue of voting rights, I think one of the biggest challenges Etterbeek faces is the risk of becoming a gentrified commune, inaccessible to a swath of the population. To me, it’s imperative that the middle class manages to retain a foothold on the property ladder, and so the real estate market needs to be watched and regulated carefully. I mean it’s happening all across Brussels, but in Etterbeek particularly you can sense that it is starting to become difficult for young people and couples to buy their first property.
Bottom line, Etterbeek cannot become a transit commune and really needs to be a commune accessible to all incomes. But, all in all, I remain positive for Etterbeek’s future prospects, and really see it as a diverse, attractive and unavoidably European commune with a strong political stability and dynamism at the administrative level which needs to be commended. What’s more, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Contrat de Quartier Durable – whose 100 million euros of financing I was instrumental in engineering – as well as the construction of the new administrative quarters presage a bright and inclusive future for all.
The architect Emmanuel Bouffioux and the new administrative centre
I’m a true Brusseleer, so I know Etterbeek very well. To me, it’s a relatively large commune, with undeniable village appearances thanks to its housing, its shops and its numerous parks, that was deeply influenced by the arrival of European institutions. More specific to the Commune’s new administrative centre, we were selected as part of a consortium that included the architecture practice Jaspers-Eyers Architects, the engineering bureau Greish, special technical experts TPF, energy efficiency studio Néo-Ides as well as security firm PS2.
Our aim was always to unite our respective forces in designing a building that would make sense to the people working there, as well as the people that would go on to use it daily by bringing all the administrative services under one same roof (today, they are spread out in different buildings across the Commune) in a human-sized, energy-passive and made-to-measure construction. Furthermore, there’s no doubt in mind that it is precisely by reinforcing the urban fabric that binds a commune such as Etterbeek, especially so in its hard-hit areas, that it’ll truly manage to reinstate a new dynamism in its different neighbourhoods. And so, for the Commune, the new administrative quarters are an exceptional opportunity to revitalise the neighbourhood of La Chasse/De Jacht, one which the Commune’s political dynamism and civic engagement have enabled without a doubt.
Nestled in an unassuming street of Etterbeek, in between Thieffry metro station and Boileau tram stop, Freshmed strikes a fine balance between fine food specialist, farmer’s market and wholesale emporium. A family-owned and operated affair, the business’ unlikely success story lays to rest any claim that big supermarket chains are the future. Indeed, a Delhaize store sits just next to it, and the two co-habit amicably. Opened by three brothers, the sprawling store attracts customers from all across Belgium thanks to its wide range of products – close to every country is catered to on its shelves, from Portugal, Turkey and Lebanon to China – and its ideal location: a mere five-minute drive from the E40.Rue de l’Escadron 35 Eskadronstraat (1040)
Pointing towards the growing appeal of Etterbeek’s La Chasse/De Jacht neighbourhood to both businesses and new families, Bio Marché – an organic, local produce and short circuit-focused grocer on Rue des Champs/Veldstraat – is the first store of its kind in the area. With a clientele that includes locals as well as expats owing to its proximity to EU quarters – the commission is a mere 10-minute walk away – its shelves are stocked with all the usual fare you’d expect of a boutique of its kind: fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products, dried fruits, groceries, beverages, baby food supplements, cosmetics as well as a wide selection of vegan, gluten- and lactose-free products in their bid to cater to varying dietary requirements. Its bread, delivered daily, is supplied by local cereal cooperative Agribio and, despite first appearances, prices are lower than you’d expect. A nice, if necessary, addition to the sometimes drab and destitute district that is La Chasse/De Jacht, and one which hopefully signals a shift in the area’s fortunes.
The postman Rudy Geeroms
I’ve been a postman since 1985 and always worked in Etterbeek. I actually live in Ninove, outside of Brussels, but come in every day to deliver the mail. I mostly work within a zone spanning from La Chasse/De Jacht to the Thieffry subway station, with my favourite stretch being without a doubt the one between 81 and 125 Rue Général Henry/Generaal Henrystraat. Over the years, I’ve really seen a lot of change happen in the Commune, mostly in a good way. For instance, back in 1985, maybe a quarter of the population used to be foreign, whereas today there seems to be somewhere between 80-90% of foreigners living on the Commune, which has pretty much transformed its social fabric for the better. I do hear certain complaints from residents – the lifts in the social housing at the end of Rue Général Henry/Generaal Henrystraat seem eternally broken – as well as local businesses on Chaussée de Wavrese Steenweg who’d like to see more done for their sidewalks’ sorry state as well as the many retail spaces left vacant. All in all, though, I’d say this is your typical commune, where things tend to get done during the election year.