Molenbeek’s fifteen months of fame

“The theater consists of the combination of two different spaces, the real space of the audience and the virtual space of the scene. When the play begins, the virtual becomes real (and the real disappears); when the play is over, the reverse happens and we return to the so-called reality” (Lieven De Cauter quoting Michel Foucault in “The Space of Play: towards a general theory of heterotopia”, 2008)

The image of capital of Europe is no longer only associated to the bureaucratic landscape of European institutions, today Brussels is equally portrayed through the streets of a very local neighborhood; this represent a major change in the way Brussels is perceived and imagined. Traditionally a working class multicultural neighborhood, in the recent months Molenbeek became worldwide known as the European incubator of Islamic Extremism.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Place Communale de Molenbeek was totally occupied by broadcasting equipment from international news agencies, marking the begining of the construction of a new deformed version Molenbeek. Since then, Molenbeek struggles between two different realities, two different urban spaces, the real space of the everyday and the virtual space of the global media. When the cameras are on, broadcasting live for a worldwide audience, the virtual becomes real, a neighborhood in the “suburbs of Brussels”, the European “capital of Jihad”, a place to be “cleaned-up”, an “enclave of poverty and alienation at the heart of Europe”. Already used to the image of reporters in front of the Berlaymont building, this new media setting reveals to the world a new face of the European capital.

But the city is a complex multilayered structure in constant change and it shouldn’t be reduced or simplified into partial imaginaries. When the cameras are switched off, we return to reality, Molenbeek keeps on evolving and any other city does. Confused by all sort of new narratives, one can forget that Molenbeek is not entirely one thing, neither the other, Molenbeek is as integral portion of the city, in constant development.

Cameras on again, new images of the streets of Molenbeek all over the media; few days before the Brussels attacks, the footage of the capture of Abdallah Abdeslam (main suspect of the attacks in Paris in November 2015) was a global reminder that the super-hero blockbuster Batman v Superman was on theaters. It might be just a fortuitous product placing, but the fact is that Molenbeek has global visibility and that could change everything.

New York Times: “Dramatic video shows the moment Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the sole surviving participant in the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, is captured in Brussels”. By REUTERS


Fifteen months after the attack on Charlie Hebdo (Molenbeek’s official global debut in front of the cameras), an interesting new cultural player opened its doors: “A new museum has opened in the Molenbeek district of Brussels which it is hoped will help shed the negative image of the area most recently linked to the deadly attacks there and in Paris” (1). The opening of the MIMA (Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art) caught international attention, because it is located in Molenbeek.

Despite being Belgium’s poorest neighborhood, Molenbeek is improving. Its strategic location makes it subject to bigger planning initiatives such as the Plan Canal and the different “Contrats de Quartiers” operating in the municipality. Even if the ongoing improving initiatives coupled with a fearful rhetoric could lead to a scenario of reckless gentrification (as described by Leopold Lambert in his article “From heavy policing to gentrification”), there is also a scenario in which fearful rhetorics pushes forward positive bottom up initiatives by leveraging on the (in) famous status of Molenbeek.


Euronews: New museum opens in Brussels


Many cultural manifestations have been catching attention of the media because its contrast of the image of Molenbeek that the very same media has created. While the art space and residence Société d’électricité is presented as a “fairly new independent art space based in Brussels infamous Molenbeek community”; the DJ resident of the funky parties Strictly Niceness invites the readers of RTBF to come along by saying “No, Molenbeek is not just a district of bearded fanatics, it is first of almost a very beautiful neighborhood with nice people living there” (2).

But beyond the intention to attract citizens and visitors to Molenbeek, this global attention is putting community engaged initiatives as international references of participation and social inclusion projects. The 2015’s summer participation adventure ParckFarm was described by Reporterre as an “extraordinary example of diversity and tolerance” while being located in Molenbeek “a nest of terrorism”(3).

Only one week after the attacks in Brussels, another initiative was pushed forward by The Guardian, publishing a full article about the socially oriented projects of Toeststand, featuring their biggest project yet: Allée du Kaai. It is described as “a complex of several warehouses and open space along the Brussels canal, a rapidly changing part of the city. Just across the street is Molenbeek, the scrutinised multicultural district branded as “jihadi central” following its association with a number of gunmen involved in the Paris attacks last November; the attacks in Brussels last week sharply reignited tensions in the area, which suffers from high levels of poverty and unemployment” (4).

Which might be the consequences of growing up in front of the cameras? It is quite notorious that many child actors end up personally and professionally ruined once they grow older and their cute charm disappears; in that sense we could imagine a scenario in which an aggressive gentrification wipes out existing local values of the neighborhood by replacing its social fabric. On the other hand, with discipline and making the right decisions on time, a child actor could become a mature professional star. The emergence of new projects and meaningful initiatives on the entrepreneurial and creative level proves that Molenbeek is a fertile ground for urban and social innovation. Molenbeek should capitalize on its famous status to reinforce its cultural local value, to use this visibility to showcase its virtues, to manipulate the media to strengthen its identity, to use wisely these 15 minutes of fame to get support and build strong bases for social integration.

Brussels is constantly struggling to define its identity, historically focusing on the wrong icons. This is an opportunity to turn things around and to elevate its unique social configuration into an iconic status. Brussels could be a reference to the world not only as a bureaucratic node but as a progressive innovative city able to rise stronger from adversity.

(Text by Diego Luna Quintanilla)