Six years later “Molenbeek has become the place to be”

From our special correspondent in Molenbeek, Belgium,

Jeans, a hoodie, a T-shirt with the “Google” logo… When Ibrahim Ouassari arrives at the hall of the building, the 44-year-old man looks like a Tech boss. With a smile from ear to ear, he takes us on a tour of his digital school, founded in 2015. Lounges with plush sofas, family kitchens that double as diners, empty spaces filled with MacBooks, we trusted our hearts. Silicon Valley.

The illusion is almost perfect, but we are in Molenbeek, one of the thirteen municipalities of Brussels. It was there, place de la Minoterie, that Ibrahim Ouassari settled – or rather, the building of his former elementary school. Every year, about 250 students from the region come to MolenGeek for free training in coding or digital marketing. And the man is quite proud: “Molenbeek is a bit like Brooklyn in New York, the place to be “, he explains.

It is enough to look across the square to understand. A tall Manchester-style red brick building rises several stories above. This former 19th century flour mill was renovated a few years ago. It now houses social housing, a theater and a bicycle repair shop. On the other hand, the building directly faces the Quai des Charbonnages. Along the Brussels canal, the city hall has built kilometers of Amsterdam-style bike lanes. On the rue Darimon leading to MolenGeek, the small colorful detached houses look straight out of London. Seven years after the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, we are far from the image portrayed by the media. The city, unfortunately famous for having born or hosted terrorists of the jihadist cell responsible for the attacks in Paris and Brussels, presents another face: that of a multicultural city that attracts more and more companies, young professionals. and artists.

Culture kindergarten

Returning to the channel, you should be about ten minutes before you encounter L’Abeille Blanche. Nestled between a garage and a wedding equipment company, this 500m² concrete warehouse, a former margarine factory, is home to a ‘multidisciplinary and inclusive artistic hive’. There are exhibition rooms, artists’ studios and a tattoo parlor on three floors. “The goal is to encourage young artists,” said the two founders, Jonathan and Marcus. “When we settled here, we were told, ‘You can’t do that in Molenbeek, it’s dangerous’.”

L’Abeille Blanche, art space in Molenbeek. – Manon Aulanc

Although a year has passed since the opening of the art space, the two young people have no regrets. “In ten years, Molenbeek has completely changed. The city has become a true cultural center with museums, artists’ studios and collaborative spaces. There is so much to do,” explains Jonathan, a trained architect.

Sculptors, makers, painters and artisans work together in Abeille Blanche's painting studios on the third floor of the building.
Sculptors, makers, painters and artisans work together in Abeille Blanche’s painting studios on the third floor of the building. – Manon Aulanc

And Jonathan and Marcus are not alone. In 2016, the Millennium Museum of Iconoclast Art – MIMA – a museum of urban art and culture 2.0, opened its doors in a former brewery located a few meters away. Moving away from the canal, we find La Raffinerie, a former sugar factory turned choreography center. Then you should return to MolenGeek to encounter L’Epicerie, an educational, cultural and civic center that hosts a theater troupe, a feminist association and young companies. A former industrial laundry has been restored at a third location, LaVallee. Since 2014, artists, entrepreneurs and artisans have shared 6,000 m² of offices, workshops and showrooms. We could continue the list for a long time.

Urbanization of the city

If Molenbeek is attracting more and more people, especially artists, it is also because property prices there are very attractive. With an average of €350,000 per house, the municipality is one of the cheapest in the Brussels region, according to the Belgian statistics office. What attracts young workers who want to settle near the city center? Because all you need to do is cross the Brussels canal and take about fifteen minutes’ walk – or just three metro stops – to reach the heart of Brussels. In the neighboring municipalities of Ixelles or Etterbeek, you will pay almost twice as much for living. “The population has really developed over the past ten years. The arrivals are upper-middle-class people, young workers in their thirties with young children, mostly Flemings,” explains Ibrahim Ouassari. As a result, the population in Molenbeek exploded. It went from a population of 88,000 in the 2010s to about 98,000 at the last census.

As the owner said, with this “mushrooming”, “fashionable” places sprouted like mushrooms. In addition to art spaces, there are now co-working spaces like Le Phare du Kanaal, organic shops and vintage bike shops. The other side of the coin is that the arrival of this new, more affluent population has increased expenses. According to the Royal Federation of Belgian Notaries (FRNB), houses in Molenbeek increased by 9% in 2021 alone. “It remains accessible, but the growth is incredible. My fear now is that the more modest people will not be able to find a place anymore”, worries Ibrahim Ouassouri.

“Laboratory of the future”

For MolenGeek’s founder, the arrival of this new population is also evidence of a thriving multiculturalism. Because more than a quarter of the population in Molenbeek is foreign – with a large Moroccan community -. And for many of them, Foye, rue des Archives, plays the role of a second home. A pioneer in helping people of foreign origin integrate into Brussels, the structure organizes, among other things, tutoring and language courses, excursions and support services. 250 people – mostly women and young people – are welcomed by Loredana Marchi in this large three-storey house, which has become a center for diversity and inclusion.

Loredana has been the director of Foyer de Molenbeek for over 30 years.
Loredana has been the director of Foyer de Molenbeek for over 30 years. – Manon Aulanc

Loredana Marchi knows the problems of the city by heart since she was 70 years old, she sees it slowly evolving and developing. And the house dean warns of the risk of a social divide between “the two Molenbeeks, the historic Molenbeek, the more popular and the new, more bobo”. “If we’re talking about inclusive diversity, we have to make sure there are places where people can meet,” warns the city’s historic figure. “There is still some way to go to talk about a ‘multicultural city’,” believes the septuagenarian, but he is sure: “Molenbeek is the laboratory of the future for education, culture, social relations and diversity.” We have all the problems, but we also have all the solutions.

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