Anybody who visits Brussels should spend some time in Molenbeek. Yes, that Molenbeek. The community Trump was thinking of when he called Brussel “a hell hole”. The community that quite a few Belgians described, based largely on misinformation, as “the Bronx of Brussels”.
This week I had the pleasure to go on an extensive walk through the area with local City Council member Dirk De Block. We strolled through the lively, colorful market which is held every Thursday and Sunday in front of City Hall and the adjacent Graaf Van Vlaanderenstraat. We walked through residential and commercial streets. We passed beautifully restored buildings, houses and apartment-buildings in various need of repair and renovation, surprisingly few vacant properties, small plazas, busy shopping streets, discreet entrances to mosques, schools and community centers, social clubs, cafés, small eateries and a hostel, hotel and museum of contemporary art (MIMA) located in the renovated Bellevue brewery. We admired churches like St John the Baptist and St Remi. We saw playgrounds and parks like Scheutbos, Bonnevi, Marie-José and Muzen. Molenbeek even boasts a castle, the Karreveldkasteel, with well maintained grounds and a large pond.
The area described by Dirk as ‘lower Molenbeek’ or ‘old Molenbeek’, the poorest and mostcrowded neighborhood, is still in desperate need of more green space. It is here that the Vier-Windenstraat is located, known as the hiding place of Salah Abdeslam, at one point ‘the most wanted man’ in Europe, till he was captured in march 2016. I’m happy to report that allI saw on the block where playful kids and their caretakers who had just picked them up at the Vier-Winden Basisschool, one of the Dutch language elementary schools in Molenbeek. “About 60 percent of lower Molenbeek is now of Morrocan descent”, said Dirk.
Nothing stays the same. Not the South-Bronx, not Harlem, not Detroit and not Old Molenbeek. We went to La Fonderie where the Brussels Museum for Labor and Industry is housed. The Museum is located in the old Compagnie des Bronzes de Bruxelles. Its collection explains the history of the area. What started as a rural medieval village had become a heavily industrialized suburb by the late 1800’s. Life was rough for those who had to toil in the big and small factories. Flemish and Walloon workers competed for jobs and living space. There were strikes, riots and oppression. But just like in so many other industrial areas, be it trendy Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Pittsburg or Flint, Michigan, factories eventually closed or moved. Those inhabitants who could, left. The poorest stayed behind, also in Molenbeek, especially in the old part. New immigrants came and went, attracted by the low housing costs.
Old Molenbeek, just like so many other former industrial areas in other parts of Belgium and the rest of the world, suffered over the decades from neglect from authorities and landlords. But whatever problems Molenbeek has today, it’s a vibrant, evolving community. To me it’s a glass half full, just like for example the South-Bronx and Harlem were to me when I started visiting those neighborhoods in the early 1980’s. So many people had given up on those areas. They were wrong. So Molenbeek, I root for you.
MOLENBEEK IN THE BRONX
And now, instead of comparing Molenbeek to the Bronx, go to the famous New York borough for a bit of real Molenbeek. Visit the Bronx Zoo and take the time to admire the 10 meter high bronze entrance gates decorated with flowers, plants and twenty two animals, amongst them the famous lion Sultan and the tortoise Buster. The impressive work of art was designed by the American sculptor Paul Manship. In 1929 he and the American sponsors of the gates choose La Compagnie des Bronzes in Molenbeek to execute the work. It was finally finished by 1933. Before it was shipped to New York it was put on display in the great hall of the foundry where the public was invited to admire it. In the museum La Fonderie on the grounds you can see a copy of the beloved Bronx lion Sultan and images of the making, shipping and installation in the Bronx of the Zoo gates.