“I think you need some guts to live here”: The enduring and contradictory appeal of Borgerhout

The name Borgerhout is as synonymous with artistic renaissance as it is with radical – on both sides of the spectrum – tendencies, a neighbourhood caught between what it used to be and what it could be. The third most densely-populated district in Antwerp, despite being the smallest in size, it is also one of the city’s most colourful and conflicted areas, a neighbourhood where the aspirations of one collide with the inspirations of the other. A neighbourhood where community trumps individuality, where veterans effortlessly mix with hipsters and where the power of a myriad of different initiatives – think Borger, SPEK, Borgerwood Festival or the refurbishing of De Roma – combine for the greater, collective good. A neighbourhood of contrasts and contradictions – consider, for instance, its local government being the only district in Antwerp being governed by a red and green coalition as opposed to the NV-A – that proudly exists on the fringes. We round up some of Borgerhout’s most involved and committed residents to consider the neighbourhood’s many different facets and discuss what makes it the hotbed of possibilities and potential it is today.

Visuals by Eva Donckers (c).

Although Belgian contemporary artist Anne-Mie van Kerckhoven was born and raised in downtown Antwerp, Borgerhout is where she spent much of her childhood, her maternal family being based in the former village. A comfortably white and bourgeois village, not yet incorporated into the larger municipality of Antwerp, with a bustling Turnhoutsebaan boasting many quaint cafés and shops. This was the Borgerhout Anne-Mie grew up in and recalls fondly: “I remember when I was 8 or 9 years old, staying at my grandparents’ home, I didn’t even want to look in the direction of the city because I liked it so much here.” Borgerhout’s affluent “respectability” of the 1950s was seemingly coming to an end, however, as population numbers started to drop during the post-war Golden Age. Indeed, since its first appearance in the 13th century, the rural hamlet had grown into a prominent industrial centre well into the 19th century. Then, in the middle of the next century, the local industry – predominantly made up of small family-run factories – was replaced by a growing need for lower middle-class housing. It rapidly underwent pretty drastic changes: for one, its locals were leaving the suburban village in favour of more rural towns, taking their businesses with them. It was also officially incorporated into Antwerp City in 1983, significantly altering its status as a stand-alone village. The more apparent, talked about and, to some, controversial shift was the influx of immigration starting in the 1960s.

Like most of Western Europe, Antwerp saw its fair share of immigration from the South during the post-war period. Borgerhout in particular played host to an important North-African population, specifically Moroccan, which grew exponentially over the years, largely thanks to the empty affordable properties left behind by the departed former locals. Arguably, the presence of these new neighbours proved too much for the original population’s bourgeois sensibilities, especially as new arrivals’ numbers “threatened” to override the locals’: tensions rose between the two groups, resulting in the rise of a fascist, New Right enclave (just as in the rest of Europe). “They were very grim and angry all the time. They didn’t want any Moroccans in their shops for instance. It was very racist,” Anne-Mie recalls. “They were very unfriendly, very hostile to everything that was changing.” Additionally, the media portrayed Borgerhout as dangerous and violent – the new hotspot for drugs, crimes and gangs –, a reputation that proved hard to shake off for generations to come. Immigrants weren’t the only new kids on the block causing a stir though.

“Neither the locals nor immigrants liked us artists, because they saw us as mere profiteers. We were shouted at by everyone in the beginning – it was really very annoying.”

Anne-Mie was part of a new wave of artists, starting in the 1980s, coming to Borgerhout. Mainly to get away from an increasingly problematic boyfriend, she escaped from the centre to find a cheap, sprawling and secluded space where she could focus on her work. Despite there already being a few older artists in the neighbourhood, such as CoBrA co-founder Karel Appel or De Zwarte Panter affiliates, this new post-punk wave wasn’t so welcome either: “Neither the locals nor immigrants liked us artists, because they saw us as mere profiteers. We were shouted at by everyone in the beginning – it was really very annoying.” As one of the pioneers of Antwerp’s newly-found industrial Fluxus scene with her partner Danny Devos – whom Anne-Mie teams up with for their noise band-cum-venue Club Moral – the rather rough-looking subculture was perceived as a nuisance. “We looked like bums to them, you know?” For better or worse, this period clearly influenced her art: “You have all these people coming and going, all this turmoil and hostility – you’re on edge at all times.”

A decade or so later, Borgerhout began experiencing it’s second wave of artists coming in, leading more or less to the neighbourhood as we know it today. This new phase was spearheaded by the likes of iconic Belgian rock outfit dEUS, whose rehearsal studio was based in Borgerhout and later opened the drinking-holes Plaza Real and Pekfabriek. Antwerp’s pre-eminent gallery Zeno-X Gallery – home to the likes of Luc Tuymans and Michaël Borremans –, as well as Bart Vanderbiesen’s Base-Alpha Gallery also moved to the area, both moves that contributed in drastically increasing the area’s appeal to the artistic community. Born in the small countryside village of Eikevliet, Bart officially relocated to Borgerhout in 2006 after purchasing his spacious Kattenberg home and opening his gallery in the space below merely a year later. In fact, at the turn of the millennium, Borgerhout was pretty much the only district in Antwerp where young people could still buy spacious property for cheap. The older generation of “original” locals were succumbing to the realities of old age, freeing up a lot of properties. Additionally, as was the case during the post-war years, many immigrant property-owners were decidedly moving out of “rough” Borgerhout, in favour of more family-friendly areas towards the countryside. Most of these properties were conversions of small factories with big warehouses so once again there was a supply of large properties made available, which the new generation of young creatives was only too happy to snatch up. A win-win for most, if not all.

“There’s always something to do, something to see – it’s less fancy, but more lively in a way.”

Besides his curatorial work at Base-Alpha, Bart is also inherently active in numerous local projects and networks, having co-founded Antwerp Art, which organises the Antwerp Art Weekend, and Borger, a night-time promenade that unites the districts of Borgerhout, Berchem and Zurenborg’s many galleries and non-profits. Bart’s reasons for moving to the city go beyond mere commercial opportunism though, as his curatorial endeavours were enriched by his relocation, helping him to keep a finger on Antwerp’s art pulse. “It’s very open here in Antwerp, very familiar and friendly. It’s easy to fit in – it’s easy to become part of the local art scene – which is more difficult in other cities. It’s a very intense, close-knit community,” he explains. Furthermore, “I really liked Borgerhout’s atmosphere as the city’s backside from the first time I was here. There’s always something to do, something to see – it’s less fancy, but more lively in a way. So that appealed to me. There’s real potential here.”

This is a sentiment shared by photographer Joke Druyts, a Leuvener who made Borgerhout her home in 2012. The rather paradoxical combination of the diverse urban centre matched with the village feel is one that she continues to find intriguing: “I think you need some guts to live here, in some way.” Besides photography, Joke’s is also Arenberg concert hall’s Audience Development Worker, where she’s responsible for attracting new audiences and for coming up with strategies to be as inclusive of everyone as possible. The vibe of this neighbourhood has clearly had an influence on her craft, too. “It’s not visually the most interesting, so when you walk around it’s rather dull – no amazingly beautiful squares of interesting places. But there’s a lot of life here and many people, so many things happen. It’s just really small things that you notice when you pass by often – and that’s what I find interesting as a photographer, those small things like shop windows with weird paintings, or houses that changes decorations every few weeks, or people who leave things on the streets.”

“We tend to focus on what brings us all together and the commonalities we share, rather than on the differences.”

It’s clear that this creative class has had a considerable influence on Borgerhout’s everyday reality. It would be preposterous to claim that Borgerhout is one happy community without its tensions and strife: a place of extremes, this “outspoken corner of Antwerp” established a very militantly organised political underground from early on. For instance, besides the presence of the New Right, religious fundamentalist group Sharia4Belgium’s operations from their headquarters in Borgerhout went unnoticed for years. The everyday cohesion of the area’s many different communities remains fragmented and fragile, and even though the second wave of artists’ been part of the Borgerhout landscape for a good decade now, the art scene is arguably still quite isolated from the local community, with exhibitions rarely being attended by people outside of the scene, for example. An astonishingly young population combined with a significant lack of (public) spaces becomes another source of friction and frustration. But there’s plenty of efforts being made to bridge this gap, as there appears to be a revitalisation of the district’s neighbourhood spirit; thanks to the abundance of local community initiatives like café Mokakapot or second-hand market Bouger Bouger. Perhaps this (somewhat romanticised) collective consciousness of neighbourly unity is best exemplified by the fact that Borgerhout is the only district to be governed by a sp.a and Groen coalition electoral college, in contrast to the NV-A-led governance found in all other eight districts. Even Stephanie Van Houtven, Borgerhout’s district mayor and deputy president of the sp.a, hosted numerous street activities and parties well before her relatively recent political career. Values which are present in her district college: “We tend to focus on what brings us all together and the commonalities we share, rather than on the differences. And I don’t think I’m going to change the world with those small projects, but for some people it means a lot.” She’s convinced that all these collective efforts around the district have paid off, as Borgerhouters now feel a certain pride again, in spite of the detrimental reputation the district has had to deal with for decades. A successful example being the historical De Roma venue – the formerly abandoned, grand 1920s cinema which was renovated in 2003 thanks to a bottom-up mixed collective of volunteers. Stephanie ponders, “We all have the feeling that the ownership is ours. And that’s something that you can’t install or buy.”

The new creative scene’s also done much to reinvigorate local entrepreneurialism. Indeed, whereas older generations used to lament the demise of Borgerhout as a prime shopping location, there’s now a new generation of entrepreneurs spicing up the high street with their own flair. And contrary to the standard gentrification rhetoric, it’s not only comprised of “young, white profiteers”, but also of second- and third-generation immigrant youths (ironically donned mipsters). As is the case with Moustapha Bouchikhi, the founder and owner of Drink 18, a vintage shop located just off Turnhoutsebaan. Born in Borgerhout to Moroccan and Algerian parents, he was heavily involved in the arts from early on – including a record deal with a Parisian label at one point – but started honing his entrepreneurial skills as he got older. Meanwhile, he witnessed his neighbourhood change significantly in the last five years, as newcomers brought in penchants for healthy eating, environmental sustainability and vintage shops. “I saw there was a lot of negativity in Borgerhout growing up, and I wanted to contribute in my own way and start something that was nice and that I liked; something where I could try out my entrepreneurial skills, and try to reconnect both the artists and neighbourhood together. Especially because I’m Moroccan and Muslim – you don’t necessarily see that a lot. But nowadays things are changing – cultures are mixing – so for me it was more a way to mix and express myself, and try to give back to my neighbourhood.” For example, besides selling second-hand clothes and self-restored furniture, he also uses his shop as a platform for local artists to showcase and sell their work. If anything, he identifies the increasing number of young, self-made immigrants to be the result of the previous generation’s pure dedication and relentless work. “They’re always thankful that they had the opportunity to come here and earn a living, to provide for their families. And I think every parent wants their child to become something big, and to contribute to society. They came, they did what they had to do to, they supported and provided for us, and so in turn their expectations towards us are very high. And it should be that way.”

This sense of pride and responsibility is confirmed by stylist Farah El Bastani. Originally based in Borgerhout, her family relocated to the calmer Kempen village of Oostmalle in the mid-90s – but seeing as her parents kept their Oud-Borgerhout apartment, she and her siblings would spend much of their time coming back to the area. Yet over the years, the family slowly inched back to the city – largely thanks to the changing face of this district – with Farah setting herself up here too. After a stint in law, she decided to follow her heart’s desires and delve into the world of fashion. “It’s also the state of mind of our generation: we want to do something, we want to own our own businesses; we have the capacity regardless of our backgrounds. And that’s the difference between the generation before and us I think,” she explains. Overall, her parents’ generation are supportive of this new influx of creativity, not only adding a burst of life into the area or diversifying the area even more – and in effect making it more representative of Antwerp as a whole – but also in helping to improve outside perceptions of Borgerhout. A courtesy which unfortunately was not extended to Anne-Mie’s scene.

The inner-city village. Borgerokko. Hipster Central. The Flemish Molenbeek. The Leftist safe-haven. The new Antwerp-Zuid. Much like many neighbourhoods in the midst of a renaissance, Borgerhout too has been afforded its fair share of euphemisms. A neighbourhood with many faces, nooks and crannies, it’s obvious that the area had and still has plenty to offer beyond the affordable housing for which it is known. Indeed, at its most basic, the neighbourhood’s diversity and variety inspires – a non-negligible factor for the artistic class. More than that, it’s sort of an open canvas full of potentials upon which newcomers can make their marks. Borgerhout could have easily joined the ranks of other heavily gentrified areas around the world, which have been rightfully criticised for its detrimental socioeconomic results; where crudely speaking a new flow of people “overtake” a neighbourhood – fully reaping in its benefits – at the expense of its original inhabitants. True, prices have gone up in Borgerhout, no longer making it Antwerp’s cheapest district. And yes, it still has a long way to go before its highly diverse population reaches a true unity. But, it has to be noted that there’s at least considerable efforts made to be self-aware and critical. The newcomers are not the only ones cashing in on Borgerhout’s promises, as is evident with the generally positive responses from the established locals, as well as increasing possibilities for the inhabitants of foreign descent. There seems to be an inherent consciousness from the population to preserve the history and soul of the place – whatever they may be.