Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Brussels – enter at your own risk

Fontainas, a cafe in central Brussels that could best be described as the headquarters of the city’s gay community, is shut down this week. Its doors have been closed since an incident Sunday night that sent a man to the hospital with severe stab wounds.

News of the attack, which has been spreading like wildfire through social media all week, seems to have left the city’s gay community shocked yet unsurprised at the same time. The storyline has become a familiar one in Brussels. Three drunk men entered the café, began hurling homophobic abuse at the people inside, and before long a violent altercation ensued. The details of what took place are still unclear, but the incident was serious enough to shut the doors of this Brussels landmark since Sunday. And although homophobic attacks are unfortunately common in Brussels city centre - an area of the city that is known for its crime and grime - this incident has still caused huge shock because the establishment is so well-known. Even the soon-to-be Belgian prime minister, who is openly gay, can often be seen there.

A movement has been growing to try to pressure the city authorities to do more to keep the city centre safe since a gay-bashing attack in June that many saw as the straw that broke the camel's back. A man was beaten by a group of young men near the Bourse (stock exchange), just next to Grand Place, because he was gay and behaving in an effeminate manner.

In response, a campaign was created protesting against the increasing violence in the city centre and the lack of action by police. A gay guerilla "kiss-in" was planned to take place at the Bourse, but in the end it had to be moved to Grand Place so as not to conflict with a planned demonstration at that location by the city's Moroccan community calling for Democratic reform in Morocco. The police told the kiss-in organisers they could not guarantee their safety if they held their kiss-in next to the Moroccan demonstration. So the kiss-in took place at Grand Place, to be witnessed by bemused tourists. It was emblematic of the sometimes uncomfortable juxtaposition of gays and Muslim immigrants in Brussels city centre.

Abandoned city

Though the historical city center is home to the famous symbols of the city – the Grand Place and Mannekin Pis – when tourists walk just a few blocks away it doesn't take long for them to feel they are in an unsafe area of town. Brussels’ gay quarter - centred on Rue Marche au Charbon - lies right next to Grand Place. But walk to the end of the street and you quickly have the impression you're in a place you're not supposed to be. When you live down here you get used to it and learn how to navigate it. But it can be very intimidating when you first arrive.

Brussels has suffered under decades of neglect and the lack of a centralised planning authority, which is reflected in the haphazard way the city has developed. Visitors have said to me that the city looks OK considering the damage it sustained during WWII. I tell them Brussels actually escaped WWII unscathed - the demolition and eyesores they see were a self-inflicted wound from the Belgians themselves over the last sixty years. There was no Brussels planning authority to stop the destruction of the city's historic buildings for a whole decade.

In the 1970's many Belgians moved out of the city and into the suburbs, mirroring a trend happening in America at the same time. The abandoned buildings in Brussels city centre were largely taken up by new immigrants from North Africa and Turkey. Today most of the city centre, as well as large areas of neighboring Anderlecht and Molenbeek, is made up of Muslim immigrants and their children, who make up 25% of Brussels Capital Region residents and 57% of Brussels commune (city centre) residents.

Today these immigrant communities have developed cohesive but isolated communities in the central parts of the city. At the same time, Eurocrats and working professionals tend to live in their own segregated areas of the city, such as the elevated parts of the city's southeast around Avenue Louise and beyond. Many of these people rarely go into the city centre or use public transport, and many would never dare to walk in the city centre at night because they think it's too dangerous. Whether that perception is accurate or not, it means much of the city's professional, monied class completely ignores the city centre, which contributes to its decay.

In this way Brussels can often feel like a collection of isolated communities that don't associate with one another. You have the Muslim immigrants in the city centre. You have the Eurocrats who stay in the EU bubble uphill. You have the immigrants from the Congo who live in Matonge. You have native Francophone Belgians in leafy suburban sections of the outer Brussels Capital Region. And you have Dutch-speaking Flemish who live in Flanders and only come into the city to go to work.

This separation of Brussels' residents is mirrored by the city's administrative structure. Though the Brussels Capital Region is its own 'federal state' of Belgium - on an equal plane with Flanders and Wallonia - there is no Brussels city administration. The city is divided into 19 'communes' which are the equivalent of 19 separate towns, with their own town halls and administrations. They are not like the 'councils' of London, because there is no central authority coordinating them. And as anyone who lives here knows, the communes do not communicate with one another.

No Brussels identity

So what does this all have to do with the violence in the city centre? In my view, the urban decay is largely the result of a lack of civic pride. In many ways this feels like a city with no real 'Bruxellois', no city identity which people own and are proud of. It is a seemingly accidental hodgepodge of different communities that have little to do with one another and who don't feel very much ownership in the city as a whole.

The fact is, the frequent gay-bashing in Brussels city centre is probably more a symptom of generalised crime and violence in this area than it is about specific targeting of gays. But the issue of the decay and danger in the city centre is of high interest to gays in Brussels because they live and socialise there, whereas many of their co-workers don't. The danger in the city's centre isn't much of a preoccupation for many of the bubble-encased Eurocrats, suburban-dwelling francophones or commuting Flemish. There's such little sense of ownership from the residents and workers of this city that it doesn't seem to bother people that the historical centre of the country's capital, the capital of Europe, has a reputation as a crime-ridden danger zone where a gay person can't walk openly down the street without fearing abuse.

There's been suggestions that the police should conduct outreach campaigns on tolerance with the Muslim community in central Brussels. But the Muslim immigrant communities in central Brussels feel so disconnected from Belgian society and Belgian administration that the idea of asking the police to work with those communities to increase tolerance is almost laughable. The City of Brussels police seem to make little effort in making connections with the city's Muslim community. I have never seen a minority police officer in this city.

It is a head scratching situation that in the capital of a country that is about to have the world's first openly gay male prime minister - and one of the first countries in the world to have gay marriage and adoption - a gay couple can't hold hands on the street without fearing violence. Even on Rue Marche au Charbon, one of Brussels' characteristic murals appears to depict a gay couple holding hands, walking confidently down the street. And yet people have been beaten up below that very mural for doing just that.

The Brussels model is a familiar one to American cities - the disconnection between poor, minority residents of an inner city and the suburban workers who come in to their offices in the city by day but would never dream of staying there for the night. But this is not a typical model in Europe, where the aversion to city living didn't take hold like it did in America.

As an American who likes to live in cities and came to Europe to get away from the American habitation model, it's a bit disappointing.  And it's a shame really because Brussels has so much potential. But because it has been so abandoned and neglected by the country it lies in, it can often be a very unpleasant place to live. It's hard to envisage myself living here long-term, because it feels as if there's no civic spirit I could ever latch on to. Living in London I felt a real community spirit, an exciting, strong identity that I could envision feeling a part of and settling in long term.

Brussels could never feel like more than a temporary residency for me. It's a house, not a home. And that seems to be a feeling shared by many of the residents here, even those that have been here their whole lives.

1 comment:

Pedro R. said...

Tragic but true. OK all true except maybe that the aggression that took place in June was not in front of the Bourse. From what I heard it was nearby, but not really in front. In any case it was in the same avenue, and for all that matters, it took place in the same "problem area" that goes from Brouckere to Gare du Midi...