Old Molenbeek is located very close to the centre of Brussels. 100 years ago, industry flourished in the neighbourhood, but then the neighbourhood experienced a period of rapid decline. Having said that, things are slowly starting to change for the better.
MEADOWS AND FIELDS AROUND A BELL TOWER
For centuries, the municipality of Molenbeek was countryside. Around 1800, it had a population of just 1,300 inhabitants. Today, the historic heart is called Old Molenbeek. It was located a stone’s throw from the second rampart, in other words, near the downtown area of Brussels. The current rue Ransfortstraat was the border between wet and dry Molenbeek. At one side, cattle were grazing in the wet meadows of the Senne. At the other side, grain was grown on the flank of the valley. In the 19th century, agriculture had to make way for industry.
FACTORIES AROUND THE CHANNEL
Within a century, Old Molenbeek turned into an industrial suburban area. The factories produced very diverse goods here. The metal sector was the most important. In addition, bakeries, breweries, malt houses, textile, mustard, paper and chemical companies were crammed together. With the exception of several mega factories, they worked with an average of fifteen workers, and they mainly produced for the local Brussels market. Those workers did not have an easy life. Unemployment and poverty were very common, and alcoholism caused social ravages. At the end of the 19th century, the government tried to address the organically-grown urban disorder of the downtown area. That is when the city hall and the square around it were constructed. In 1930, architect Joseph Diongre, also known for the Flagey building in Ixelles/Elsene realized the beautiful Église de Saint-Jean- Baptiste/Sint-Jan-de-Doperkerk He used prefab and reinforced concrete. Retailers set up shop around this new downtown area.
THE BLACK 1980s
Encouraged by the government, the upper-class workers and the Belgian middle-class moved out of Old Molenbeek as of the Golden Sixties. They moved to new houses in the higher part of Molenbeek (Hoog-Molenbeek) or in the green suburbs around Brussels. Guest workers from countries around the Mediterranean Sea benefited from the drop in rent and moved into the vacant buildings. But that is when the economic crisis of the 1970s hit: companies closed their doors and a lot of workers lost their jobs – their climb on the social ladder came to a halt. Hardly any investments were made into Old Molenbeek, because the people who lived there often did not have the right to vote. In hardly twenty years, the municipality of ‘Meulebeik’ was transformed completely. Fortunately, the response came from down below. Organizations such as the Foyer and ‘Buurthuis Bonnevie’, but priests as well, tried to involve the inhabitants in the policy and the configuration of their district.
Since the 1990s, Old Molenbeek has reaped the benefits from five district contracts. During every contract, focus is placed on the re-evaluation of a district for a period of four years. New daycares were built, as well as new squares, parks, social housing and houses for the middle-class. Serious investments were made into culture and the social fabric. Safety improved significantly. Small stores saw their profits increase again. Once again, Molenbeek changed completely within twenty years, this time in the positive sense. That does not change that there still are great challenges though. A lot of houses are outdated and too small – people live close together – and the unemployment rates are high.
‘BONJOUR MONSIEUR, BONJOUR MADAME’
Old Molenbeek is a warm piece of Brussels. There is a serious chance that you will be hearing a ‘bienvenue’ or a ‘welcome à Molenbeek’. Say ‘bonjour’ when you pass someone, and usually the man or woman will startle first, and then answer politely. The charm of the district lies in the experience of places and the small, human encounters. Moreover, the evolution has not stopped. New migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe are joining the inhabitants of Maghreb origin. A lot of middle-class inhabitants of the downtown area of Brussels move to Molenbeek. After all, it is cheaper for them to live there. Young companies settle in the old industrial areas. In time, even more middle-class people, tourists, students or business travellers will head to the district. Today, this is mostly visible at the canal. The canal bank has become hip.
STARTING POINT: SAINTE-CATHERINE (METRO LINES 1, 5)