The Marolles are part of Brussels' historical centre. The neighbourhood is famous for its flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle, its antique shops and its folklore festivals. And yet, very few people know its little secrets.
Below the imposing Palace of Justice lies a popular neighbourhood inhabited by indomitable Marollians. The Marolles form a cheerful, multicultural ensemble renowned for its bon vivant and rebellious inhabitants. Its alleys have lived a thousand lives, punctuated by small and large revolts. Although the neighbourhood is becoming more gentrified, folklore is still alive and well and historical anecdotes still animate conversations in local cafes. Below, you'll find some gems and historical facts that contribute to the identity of this colourful district; the Cité Hellemans, the Monument aux Vivants (Monument to the Living) by Maurice Wolf, the anti-aircraft bunker beneath Place du jeu de Balle, the Battle of the Marolles and the mythical Fuse nightclub.
The Cité Hellemans
In the 19th century, Brussels underwent a series of monumental urban planning changes which contributed to the mass expropriation of the poor social class. Brussels then found itself with an abundance of overcrowded and unhealthy neighbourhoods. A series of dead-end streets, located between Rue Haute and Rue Blaes, was a terrible example of this. Thousands of people were crammed into cramped housing, without running water and with malfunctioning communal latrines. The City of Brussels then decided to clean up this part of the Marolles while offering housing to the most disadvantaged. Architect and town planner Emile Hellemans (1853-1926) was in charge of the project. In 1915, the Cité Hellemans housing estate was opened. It contained 272 social housing units, each with a kitchen/dining room, one, two or three small bedrooms, a balcony, a toilet and access to running water. They form a remarkable architectural ensemble strongly influenced by Art Nouveau.
The Monument aux Vivants by Maurice Wolf
In the shadow of the Palais de Justice, on Rue du Faucon, there is a monument that is very representative of the rebellious spirit that has always characterised the Marollians: the Monument aux Vivants (Monument to the Living). Instead of celebrating the dead, this bas-relief honours the living, the joy of life and epicureanism. It was created by sculptor Maurice Wolf, who was directly inspired by The Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569). The work was perhaps also a belated tribute to the inhabitants expropriated because of the construction of the Palace of Justice. It was inaugurated in 1933 under the name "L'Esprit des Marolles" (The Spirit of the Marolles). It shows the silhouettes of caricatured characters from Brussels folklore: Zot Lowietche, le Piot, sa Krotche, le Pottezoeiper, de Kikei, the Zinneke,…
The anti-aircraft bunker beneath Place du Jeu de Balle
Did you know that underneath Place du Jeu de Balle, famous for its flea market, there is an old anti-aircraft bunker? It was built in 1942, during the Second World War. The Marollians took refuge there during air raids. Completely forgotten since then, it was rediscovered by inhabitants in 2014, when the City of Brussels wanted to build an underground car park. It was listed by the Brussels-Capital Region in 2018 following a long procedure supported by local residents who are passionate about their neighbourhood. Covering 175m² (35m by 5m), the bunker is made up of two sections, one for men and one for women. There are only toilets and benches. Visits are not currently permitted.
© Forbidden Places - Sylvain Margaine
The Battle of the Marolles
La bataille des Marolles is a documentary film made in 1969 by Pierre Manuel and Jean-Jacques Péché. It depicts the Marollians' struggle against their expropriation due to the extension of the already very imposing Palace of Justice. Back then, the owners of 3 blocks of buildings received official letters notifying them of the destruction of their properties. The intention? Forced displacement. But what the project's stakeholders did not account for was the rebellious spirit of the Marollians. A battle worthy of David against Goliath followed, led by priest Jacques van der Biest (1919-2016), who was renowned for his work in the city's working-class neighbourhoods. The inhabitants organised themselves, fought fearlessly, using any means possible (posters, demonstrations, speeches, etc.) and ended up winning their case against the property developers.
© Extrait "La bataille des Marolles", Sonuma - Les archives audiovisuelles
In the centre of this historic district, we find Fuse nightclub. Well known to fans of the genre, Fuse has been the mythical temple of techno since 1994. At the beginning of the 1990s, El Disco Rojo - Le Disque Rouge - the Marolles' famous Latin disco, closed its doors. Three young friends jumped at the chance and opened Le Fuse, a techno club that stood out thanks to its programming. The iconic nightclub has been hosting both international stars and young Belgian hopefuls for over 25 years now. Dave Clarke, Daft Punk, Laurent Garnier, Nina Kraviz, Ellen Allien, Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, Carl Cox and also Charlotte de Witte, Amelie Lens, The Subs,... have all performed there. Fuse also hosts the club nights of La Démence, an internationally renowned gay festival. The venue has built a worldwide reputation but remains accessible to all, testifies Conchita, the club's friendly "toilet attendant" for nearly 20 years.