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Kill the myth

If Schaerbeek was on trial, chances are the jury would find it guilty without listening to anyone’s testimony. Nina Lamparski speaks up for a neighbourhood that is trying to clear its name

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chaerbeek is majestic: look at its town hall on Place Collignon, more palace than administrative headquarters; at its wide, elegant avenues off Boulevard Lambermont; or at Park Josaphat with its glorious statues. Schaerbeek is sordid: look at the run-down homes around the Gare du Nord; the cans and plastic bags strewn along pavements; or the groups of dark-haired men sitting on benches, yelling comments at female passers-by. Schaerbeek is creative: look at the Maison Autrique, the first house Victor Horta ever designed; the Art Nouveau school of Henri Jacobs; or the sgraffiti on many facades. Schaerbeek is the home of Jacques Brel, René Magritte and Maurane. It is also the home of thousands of expats and refugees, of wealthy diplomats and the unemployed, of Eastern Europeans and North Africans, of young families who move here for the cheap rent and cantankerous old ladies who wish no one with an unpronounceable name would ever move here at all. Flanked by the European Commission, the RTBF broadcasting tower and mosques, Schaerbeek is one person’s Ankara and another’s Notting Hill. Communications strategist Dominique Poncin has been living on the 33rd floor of the vertiginous Brusilia tower at the end of Avenue Louis Bertrand for five years. He likes that “there is a lot of green space. I have 16 w w w. t hebulletin. be October 8 2009

a three-year-old son and I noticed that the playgrounds are now buzzing with other parents and their children. Much effort and money seems to have gone into slowing down the traffic and making Schaerbeek safer and more family friendly.” For local resident Juliette Claire, however, “the playgrounds are seedy and not really clean, [there’s] not much community activity, or if there is, it’s not well advertised”. How can one area reflect so many different realities at once? Because Schaerbeek is a complex microcosm where global, national, local and foreign politics collide on a daily basis. That in itself is not the problem. In fact, some would argue that the life force generated by these clashes is healthy, even necessary in the context of a rapidly changing world order. The major issue at stake is that we deny Schaerbeek its many facets and reduce it to a common denominator: the Other as the Enemy. It’s the moment when urban dreaming turns into a suburban nightmare and the municipality becomes a place “packed with Moroccans and Turkish” where “the only Belgian is the mayor”, as Walloon comedian François Pirette crooned on television two decades ago. In recent weeks the sketch has suddenly resurfaced on the internet unleashing a wave of criticism, with regional papers calling Pirette a racist. Indignant, the humorist has defended himself by pointing out that his

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URBAN ESSAY

lyrics were being used outside their historical context. The song, he insisted, was actually aimed at making fun of former rightwing mayor Roger Nols who ran Schaerbeek (into the ground) between 1970 and 1989. Placed in this light, the lyrics do indeed gain a different perspective – their bad taste notwithstanding. Nols was notoriously xenophobic and not subtle about it either. He once arrived at Schaerbeek town hall on the back of a camel to demonstrate what would happen to local politics if foreigners were given the right to vote. Migrants proved not to be the only target. Nols also intensely disliked Dutch speakers who made up roughly twelve percent of Schaerbeek’s population. He tried to push through discriminatory legislation that would see French become the main municipal language. Although the federal government quickly put an end to his illegal efforts, officials couldn’t prevent the mayor from abandoning Flemish public schools which, tragically underfunded, had no other option but to shut down. It seems Nols was so busy trying to get or keep people out of his electorate that he failed to focus on and protect the needs of the community. By the time his mandate finished, many of the neighbourhood’s beautiful Art Nouveau houses and maisons de maître were falling apart. “It’s true that under Nols, there was a strong neglect of the most populated areas here, the ones people associate with lower Schaerbeek, although I really don’t like using this upper-lower divide terminology,” says acting mayor Cécile Jodogne, while she sips fruit tea from a grey Ikea cup in her town hall office twenty years after Nols must have sat in pretty much the same spot. The vivacious woman has held office since March 2008, when she was asked to fill in for the actual mayor of Schaerbeek, Bernard Clerfayt, after he was voted State Secretary for Finance. Under Belgian law you are not allowed to carry out both functions at the same time so he chose his long-term head of cabinet to represent him in Schaerbeek for the duration of his federal engagement. Thus Jodogne went from being the alderwoman for urbanism and heritage to running Belgium’s sixth-largest municipality. With the new role came 120,000 inhabitants, countless nationalities and a 30 percent unemployment rate among young people. “Sometimes I feel a bit discouraged when I come home in the evening because I think ‘God, it’s such a big job’. But we have a well-functioning administration, we get external funding – even if it’s not always enough – and we’ve been trying hard in the last ten years to improve Schaerbeek’s negative image,” explains the economist and geographer who grew up in well-to-do Uccle of all places. The Schaerbeek Jodogne inherited in 2001 when Clerfayt became mayor was battling a very negative public image. “People’s reaction used to be, ‘Oh crap, you live in Schaerbeek!’ but their perceptions weren’t based on facts. We realised we had to stop the reputation of this beautiful municipality going downhill because it kept others from moving here or even visiting. So we focused on urban renovation, revalorisation of the architectural legacy and communal activities that would show Schaerbeek in a positive light.”

As a result of government initiatives, there are upgraded squares, more street lights and speed bumps, widened pavements, gloriously restored Art Nouveau buildings, new sport complexes like the ultra-modern Kinetix gym, additional libraries, the modernised Balsamine theatre, environmentally friendly building projects, basketball hoops on the Lehon square, the Parcours des Artistes and “fifty street parties and flea markets a year”. Essentially the Clerfayt team has focused on improving public space to send the message that the “local council has regained self-confidence”, thereby regenerating pride and a sense of belonging amongst locals. There’s been a positive domino effect as a number of residents on the Rue Royale Sainte-Marie have begun to renovate their own facades to match the efforts of council upgrades. This is the pretty, gentrified, ‘upper’ Schaerbeek. The uneasy question that remains is whether and how these physical initiatives can help break down the boundaries between private spaces of, say, the Turkish or Moroccan residents on Chaussée de Haecht, the Belgian families in the Cité des Jardins close to Woluwe-Saint-Lambert and the expat bubble floating around the European quarter. Jodogne concedes that one of the greatest challenges faced by her rapidly growing municipality is “education which takes place in extremely multicultural classrooms. Sometimes there isn’t a single child of Belgian origin in them. Often these kids require that we teach them French because they don’t speak it at home. We should have smaller classes and offer more remedial lessons. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got.” So shouldn’t we invest more in education; for example, to teach children that diversity is a positive thing (and one that’s here to stay as long as globalisation is the politique du jour) and that we do not all need to live in Art Nouveau homes? Another point is that different cultures define public space in different ways. For some it is secular, for others religious. For some it means the freedom to wear headscarves, for others it means banning them. Or, like AnneCécile Maréchal of the Maison des Arts in Schaerbeek points out, in northern African countries “private, interior spaces are more important than public ones. The outside of homes can be rundown but the interior of homes will be spotless because it is where you receive your friends and visitors.” For a crash course on Schaerbeek, head to its most famous public space, the town hall. On Thursday evenings the queues are long because the population registry desk stays open later. Amidst heavy marble columns and sombre statues of dead statesmen, the entire planet seems to congregate on a few square metres. Jodogne mentioned during our interview that the peace in Schaerbeek remains “fragile: all you need is a tiny spark and we could have a riot like in Molenbeek”. No doubt she is right. But as I watch an elderly woman gingerly make her way through a crowd of Arab teenage boys, it’s apparent that the era of Nols is dead – and that can only be a good thing.

“We reduce Schaerbeek to a common denominator: the Other as the Enemy”

October 8 2009 www. th eb u l l eti n . b e 17


Kill the myth  

If Schaerbeek was on trial, chances are the jury would find it guilty without listening to anyone’s testimony. Nina Lamparski speaks up for...

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