MIXITY Walk: Saint-Gilles

MIXITY Walk: Saint-Gilles

Saint-Gilles has always been known as the home of the Brussels sprout. However, that doesn’t mean that the vegetable’s characteristic smell fills the Saint-Gilles air. Saint-Gilles in one of the region’s most attractive municipalities. It’s a neighbourhood of contrast where smart and working-class areas, inhabitants of various origins, trendy cafés and artist communities mix seamlessly.


In 2016, Saint-Gilles has celebrated its 800th anniversary. Obbrussel – that was the name of the original settlement on the Senne − became an independent parish in 1216, separated from the abbey of Forest/Vorst. For centuries, porte de Hal/Hallepoort was the access road to the actual city located inside the ramparts. Saint-Gilles was a village in the countryside where vegetables were cultivated and sold on the market in Brussels. The nickname given to the inhabitants of Saint-Gilles is still based on this: the ‘Kuulkappers’, or cabbage-cutters.


The ‘cabbages’ mentioned are Brussels sprouts, a type of vegetable that does not take up much space because the plant grows upwards and makes a lot of little sprouts. Saint-Gilles today has little involvement with these sprouts, except as a location where some of the boxes of organic vegetables that fashionable inhabitants order through municipal distribution centres, or buy on the market. But you still occasionally come across the name ‘kuulkappers’ in Saint-Gilles. An example is rue des Kuulkappersstraat between the church and the police station. The folk organisation is known as the Order of the Cabbage-Cutters: At the premetro station on Parvis de Saint Gilles/Sint-Gillis-Voorplein, you will find an information board about the tradition. And anyone wishing to see an enormous Brussels sprout should go to the garden of Les Tilleuls retirement home, on the corner of rue Antoine Bréartstraat and rue Arthur Diderichstraat.


Although at first sight Saint-Gilles seems to be an extremely urbanised municipality, there are more green areas than appears at first sight. The largest parks are located just outside the borders: the elongated parc de la Porte de Hal/Hallepoortpark in the city of Brussels, the park of Forest/Vorst, which as its names suggest, is obviously situated on Forest/Vorst grounds. But there are also some green spaces – albeit hidden – within the municipal borders. These include parc Pierre Pauluspark, or the garden inside a residential block in rue Louis Coenenstraat, right in the centre of the municipality. Attempts are now being made to connect these green spaces to form a green ribbon, for example by greening up a paved square such as square Marie Jansonplein. The plan is to remove a missing link between parc de la Porte de Hal and parc Pierre Paulus so that you can cross the municipality surrounded by greenery.


Saint-Gilles was urbanised mainly in the final decade of the 19th century and during the start of the 20th century. This development was a result of the industrialisation that brought many people to Brussels and Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis. There were many factories in the Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis area, indicated by street names such as rue de la Linière/Vlasfabriekstraat (linen factory). In architectural terms, this era was also very interesting. All kinds of Neo-styles were very popular during the final decade of the 19th century, and then, at the very end of the fin-de-siècle period, the Art Nouveau movement saw the light of day. Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis could safely be called a birthplace of styles. Today there are still some beautiful examples of Art Nouveau still to be seen, with architect Victor Horta’s own house as the most famous. Even the houses that might not have had the revolutionary designs by the most distinguished Art Nouveau architects still had the lovely gables that we associate with the style, with graceful lines and images of flora and fauna. Hence, some parts of Saint- Gilles/Sint-Gillis can almost be considered an open-air museum of Art Nouveau and other 19th-century styles.


Through the vicinity of Gare du Midi/Zuidstation and industries, Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis is an outstanding example of an immigrant municipality. Initially, citizens of Brussels, Walloons and Flemings settled down in the municipality. Later came the Jews who had fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe, and people from the Mediterranean area (Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Greeks, Moroccans) who found work in the various industries. Migrants from Brazil and other Latin-American countries followed in their wake. Many Eastern Europeans came after the fall of the Berlin wall, including many Poles, who settled mainly in the porte de Hal/Hallepoort neighbourhood. Then there are the European expats, who are predominantly French. They come to take up residence in the elegant mansions in the more expensive areas of Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis. Paris is just a short journey away by high-speed train. All of these nationalities, more than 130 in total, ensure an enormous mix of restaurants, shops, cultural centres and places of worship – spread throughout Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis.