Molenbeek, home of the brave, the bold and the beautiful

With all the negative press Molenbeek has received of late, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, well, the end of the world came early to Brussels’ historically working class neighbourhood. But, scratch beneath the surface, and a vibrant and diverse community, one where long-time residents and their habits effortlessly mingle with newcomers and their myriads of projects, springs to life. A community where the new and the old co-habit, collaborate and cooperate in a bid to showcase the sunnier side of this area west of Brussels’ Canal. We take a long walk around the area and visit the initiatives – from artist-run spaces and architecture collective to co-working hubs and movie houses – that contribute towards ensuring Molenbeek retains its edge.

The first reason why a significant number of youngsters, creative entrepreneurs and start-ups head to Molenbeek is, as usual, because of the money. In comparison with other parts of the city, real estate prices are markedly lower. In other words, you can get more value for your money here. This phenomenon is even more visible in the area near the Canal and Tour & Taxis, and the reason is quite obvious: space. The canal zone was Brussels’ economical heart for many years, with regional industry, transport and trade acting asa backdrop. What’s left of it is turning out to be perfectly fit for creative-minded individuals and their big dreams. The neighbourhood’s gigantic warehouses prove to be perfect to host galleries, studios, offices, flat complexes and the likes. The potential of the neighbourhood’s properties is visible in a high number of new projects, both big and small, popping up all over. Truth is, from Meininger and Hotel Belle-Vue, to the rezoning of Tour & Taxis, Molenbeek’s architectural landscape is set to change for the better in the coming years.

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People come here because they care, because they are truly interested.

Location, location, location

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Société is housed in one of those former industrial buildings, in the old Société Bruxelloise d’Electricité, a stone’s throw from Tour & Taxis. Els Vermang and Manuel – who are both artists themselves – focus on electronic art, relating it to contemporary art and bridging the gap between these two disciplines. After a stay in the centre, moving here has proven to be a good decision says Els: “We were located in Rue de Laeken before, but that space became too small for the projects we wanted to tackle. Here, we have so much more room to experiment and combine working and living in the same spot.” Even though being located in this part of town might seem a disadvantage for some, it’s also a chance to really mark your own route, and let your personality speak. “In the centre we were one of many, whereas here our gallery is a destination in its own right. People come here because they care, because they are truly interested. This sort of engagement is sometimes more valuable than the glances of passers-by.” And they’re definitely not the only art space in the area neither. More will join in the months and years to come, not in the least the long-awaited MIMA. Art Brussels’ recent move from Heizel to Tour & Taxis, not exactly in Molenbeek but just beside it, consolidates this movement and will hopefully bring along opportunities for local galleries and artists as well.

Make a difference

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L’Escaut is only just a few streets away from Société. The architecture collective started in 1998, and were one of the first cultural, creative offices to set foot in this area: “This neighbourhood is part of what L’Escaut is, it defines us,” says co- worker Grégoire. “It’s challenging but also very rewarding. In other parts of town, you always meet the same people: the same background, the same ideas, the same sense of style, the same context, whereas here everything around us is different. This proves to be very inspiring and keeps us focused as creatives. This area is constantly evolving and changing, so we also need to rethink and reinvent ourselves all the time.” They see their studio as a public space, open for other artists coming from different fields. This sort of residency project opens possibilities for the artist in question but also allows L’Escaut to nourish their own practice with outside elements. Encountering different perspectives is enriching explains Simona Paplauskaite: “The artists here can function as a soundboard or critic. Not everyone is as involved in our practice, but we always notice a good influence. Our local neighbours inspire us too. Being centred here allows us to discover what some people don’t see or will only come across later.”

With open minds

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Apart from the size of properties, Molenbeek also has other traits that can lure people in. It’s right next to the city centre – you’re almost never more than 10 minutes away from La Bourse – and the public transport system makes it easy to get around. The choice for Molenbeek as a place to live isn’t always conscious, but ‘good value for money’ is attracting plenty of new inhabitants at the moment. One of them is Evelien Chiau, who has been living near Etangs Noirs or Zwarte Vijvers for about six months now. One of her first jobs lured her to Brussels, and she never left. When this room became available, she didn’t have to think long about packing up and moving. And she definitely doesn’t regret it: “I’ve only just moved here, but I already know more neighbours here than I did in my hometown.”

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Despite what the media often says, she has experienced an incredibly friendly, open neighbourhood. “When I was moving in, a lot of people offered to give me a hand and came to greet me. That doesn’t happen in other parts of town. People made me feel welcome, and we still say ‘Hi’ when we cross each other on the streets.” When walking around, that joie de vivre is indeed one of the first things you notice. The streets are filled with strolling women, chatty men and loitering kids. Of course, the façades are markedly different from what you might encounter in, say, Rue de Flandre or Rue du Bailli, but once you get used to that, the vibrant atmosphere and lively people are sure to make you feel welcome. L’Escaut also notices this feeling, which they express in a sort of loyalty towards the area: when there’s an open call or competition, there’s no discussion about entering or not: “It’s about Molenbeek, it’s about us,” says Grégoire. They also engage with the neighbourhood in another way, regularly hosting an Open Pasta night: “A local Moroccan lady used to invite people from the neighbourhood to get together over dinner. We wanted to keep this tradition alive, and now we invite friends and neighbours for a nice dish of pasta.”

Participation and integration

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Molenbeek’s history as a worker’s district also explains its diversity in people. These streets
have always attracted impoverished farmers, blue-collar workers, immigrants and others, all looking for a job and a place to stay. This creates a society where lots of different people have to live together, inevitably leading to complex situations. Another point that does not facilitate things, is that Molenbeek is often a transit zone or a “city of arrival.” Many people start here but don’t stay. They move on to other neighbourhoods, other cities, other countries. This makes it harder to reach out and to actively involve people in some sort of community. That diversity of people also makes it difficult to judge Molenbeek. There are so many stories to tell, so many personal differences: there’s no way to judge an entire community in one pull.

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A key to develop a sustainable, liveable community is integration. You have to know how to incorporate the neighbourhood, the local residents. For Allee du Kaai, this is a key aspect in their development. Allee du Kaai is a project by Toestand, who aim to reactivate forgotten or abandoned spaces with temporary socio-cultural activities and events. “The idea grew out of the frustration that our capital was lacking places where spontaneous actions could be deployed, where it was allowed to experiment, try and make mistakes,” explain the collective. For Allee du Kaai they have transformed disused warehouses and hangars on the banks of the canal into a creative gathering place for all sorts of people. There’s a bar, a bicycle repair atelier, a skate park, a cinema bus, a kitchen and even a park. When starting, they made the conscious decision to steer away from the media in the first stages of the project. That way they were able to really welcome locals with an open mind and autonomy. And without the chance of being labelled as a hip temporary project with no long-term vision. “Our main goal is to reinvigorate and show potential in places where a lot of people don’t expect to see any potential at all. We work on three bases: place, people and material. In all our projects, we give a new life to old, forgotten spaces, re-using materials and resources, often aimed at and in collaboration with forgotten groups of people: youngsters, (former) homeless people, immigrants, people with a psychological condition…”

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La Vallée, a co-working project guided by SMart who was looking to develop a place where different creatives could come together, also tries to make a difference on plenty of surfaces. It’s not always easy to find a good working spot, especially for young people, and La Vallée fills this gap. In this massive building – a former dry-cleaning warehouse – they have gathered a plethora of designers, artists, creatives and offices without losing touch with their surroundings. Molenbeek is very multicultural and so are the projects running La Vallée. They also regularly host events – openings and concerts – and try to include the local neighbours as much as possible. When developing their project, the support of the City of Molenbeek was very warm and supporting. They help whenever they can, giving advice and guidance but also to help organisations get together.

In flux

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Still, there’s so much more than these numbers, polls and graphs show. Molenbeek is vibrant. It is in flux. Things are constantly shifting, and there is so much going on on a creative, artistic and entrepreneurial level. Le Phare, a new co-working space right on the banks of the canal, also opened in Molenbeek by chance. Its founder Hanna Bonnier passed this building when on a walk: “I’m so happy we ended up here. It’s perfect for what we’re doing: close enough to the city centre, but also close to a whole bunch of artists and creatives who live in Molenbeek, and who were looking for an inspiring place in their own neighbourhood.” A plus point is the diversity of the people that come in. From local artists and chatty teens to businessmen in suits, there’s room for everyone. “I didn’t want to do something aimed at ‘bobos’ only. I wanted to bring people together and hopefully create a crossover between disciplines and personalities.”

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Here in Molenbeek, as a starter, you can still make a difference and mean something for the neighbourhood: “A lot of young girls have told me they’re so glad they have this place now. The bars around here are mostly aimed at an older, male audience but here, these girls are welcome to relax, sit and simply enjoy a cup of tea.” As Els from Société concludes: “Molenbeek is constantly changing and developing, and that’s a positive thing. Diversity – in people, in locations, ideas – keeps things fresh. People want to make the best of their neighbourhood, and that’s a very promising prospect.” Once again, not everything is perfect here, but the rise in meaningful initiatives, an influx of young people and plenty of cultural hotspots does point out that some things are changing for the better. Molenbeek has proven to be a perfect breeding ground for out-of-the-box thinking and alternative ideas. For better or for worse, Molenbeek is an exciting place to be right now.

This feature was first published in our April-May edition.