The development of the enormous site at Tour & Taxis by the port serves up some wonderful possibilities for the area. It also offers a brand new link between the city centre and the Royal suburb of Laeken.
WET AND DRY
The history of small farming village La(e)ken is closely linked to the water. Even its name refers to the it: ‘Laca’ is old-Germanic for ‘pond’. Of the three streams that used to run through the village, there is not much left in the area of La(e)ken. Almost everywhere they have been straightened out, framed and put under the ground. Ponds were drained. Only at the Royal Domain and in a couple of parks, the ponds and springs have been preserved.
COUNTRY HOUSES AND PILGRIMAGES
The channel has a long history. As early as in 1560, it connected Brussels to Willebroek and in addition, via the Rupel, with the Scheldt and the sea as well. This plays a significant role in the history of La(e)ken. Strolls along the water took city residents to La(e)ken for a trip in a green area. A pilgrimage to La(e)ken was a perfect excuse for many to drink some beer or to eat a sandwich with cottage cheese in one of the taverns or ‘guinguettes’. Country houses overlooking the channel became popular after the construction of the castle of La(e)ken in 1785.
PORT AND INDUSTRY
When the industrial activity started moving from the city to La(e)ken, the green nature of the area around the channel disappeared. The increasing railway traffic had great impact as well. Vieux-Laeken/Oud-Laken was rapidly changing and growing. Between 1850 and 1914, La(e)ken’s view changed completely: from an idyllic village at the water to a crowded, industrial suburb. Eventually, that evolution caused La(e)ken to be annexed by Brussels in 1921. After all, the city of Brussels believed that the capital of the country had the privilege of owning all port infrastructure.
THURN UND TASSIS
At the end of the 19th century, the Brussels port was still largely in the downtown area of the city. But there was little room there for the growing economic activities and the mobility that involved. The city found an alternative in Molenbeek: a 25-acre terrain owned by the noble family von Thurn und Tassis. Between 1900 and 1910, a freight station, storage areas and a customs and postal office were built there. Eventually, this site lost its function as well, and became vacant. In 2003, after years of campaigning by groups of inhabitants, the site was given the status of ‘area of regional interest’. This has increased the public nature, but the concrete interpretation of certain areas is still up for social debate.
A ROYAL PERFUME
The imperial, and subsequently royal presence since 1785 has had a major impact on the once small rural village of La(e)ken. It was given a certain appeal for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Under the reign of Leopold II in particular, La(e)ken changed significantly. The builder king expanded the Royal Domain significantly, but also made his mark on the public domain: parks, new districts, connecting roads and even a true royal station were established in and around the Royal Domain. Still, when Leopold died in 1909, only half of his plans had been realized.
The fourth European school of the Brussels-Capital Region has been located in La(e)ken since 2012. It was built on the site of the former military cadet school, near Heysel/Heizel. There is room for 2,500 children, divided across five language departments: Dutch, French, English, German and Italian. It is the first European school at the North or West side of Brussels and there was a lot of debate about the choice of location. The other schools are all located in the more residential rich East and South. Meanwhile, the school has been active for several years, and the location does not seem to greatly affect the demographics of La(e)ken, which was very diverse to begin with.
DIVERSE AND FULL OF CONTRASTS
The industrial port area, the Royal Domain, the densely populated, somewhat chaotic urban development in the old downtown area, the new districts since 1900, the large parks, Heysel/Heizel… all that is part of La(e)ken. Diversity and contrasts make La(e)ken what it is today. On our walk, we will mainly explore the old districts of La(e)ken, located at the port of Brussels, and a piece of the port district of Molenbeek. Be sure to return for the rest some time.
STARTING POINT: PLACE BOCKSTAEL (TRAM LINES 62, 93 – TRAIN – METRO LINE 6, BUS LINES 53, 88, 89)