A tale by Louise Granier, Abel Morina, Claire Schlinger
Translation from French to English: Ina Ivanceanu, Lukas Mandl, Michelle Prem
What kind of a future can a slaughterhouse have that is located right in the heart of a European city? And why is this question so important for many people ? Three young researchers explore it with texts and drawings. Follow them on their journey and get a deep insight into the conflicting topics raised in the frame of urban transformation in Brussels.
The site of the Abattoir in Anderlecht and its surroundings in the focus of the Brussels-Capital Region.
The public authorities’ desire for “revitalisation” manifests itself in the implementation of two urban planning contracts. However, this site is far from being in a lethargic state. On the contrary: bustling with activity, it provides employment for immigrant populations and creates a sociable (populaire) atmosphere where languages and cultures from all over the world coexist. The risk of gentrification, which renovation implies, endangers the fragile balance of this mosaic. The mix of languages spoken by the inhabitants is not considered in the processes of “citizen consultation” despite the work of local activists. Unfortunately, the voices of those, who are most concerned, see themselves excluded from the debate…
The site of the Anderlecht Slaughterhouse, the “Abattoir”, which has an astonishing longevity for a slaughterhouse in the middle of the city, launched the industrial activity of the district alongside the canal. The result is a mosaic of economic activities. Popular (“populaires”) for the most part: second-hand car trade specialising in exports to Africa, just a few streets further away in the Cureghem district, halal butchers, Romanian pubs…
Wish to revitalise
These activities are put on razor’s edge by the desire of the public authorities of the city of Brussels to “revitalise” the city. Gentrification is progressing and urban planning contracts such as the Poincaré Urban Renewal Contract (CRU) and the Heyvaert Master Development Plan (PAD) will transform surrounding plots of land. “These are projects, budgets, a bit like a large neighbourhood contract where the region is investing twice as much money,” explains Claire Scohier, project manager at the non-profit organisation Inter-Environnement Bruxelles (IEB). That’s 22 million Euros.
The flagship project of these two regional development tools is the creation of the Parc de la Sennette. This “linear” urban park will take the form of a green net following the route of the former Petite Senne watercourse, which has now dried up. It will link the Abattoir site to the Porte de Ninove.
In this way, the Region aims to “improve the living environment of the district”. The watchwords of its urban planning policy? “The fight against exclusion, the appropriation of public space, access to housing, cleanliness” or “a productive urban landscape”, as the Regional Centre of Expertise and initiator of the development strategy of the territory of the Brussels-Capital Region “perspective.brussels”, which also is in charge of the project, mentions on its website. This shift from a municipal to a regional level also makes it possible to define the perimeters of the urban planning facelift “across multiple municipalities”, as Claire Scohier explains, “if we take the CRU (the Poincaré Urban Renewal Contract) for example, it spans across the districts of Molenbeek and Anderlecht”.
At the same time, there is also a reconversion of plots of land where property developers are building houses, aiming to accommodate a wealthier class. The major player: the real estate operator Citydev. “The mechanism is to publicly subsidise private real estate projects that target the middle class,” explains Emmanuel Lenel, a sociology researcher at the University of Saint Louis, “meaning that there is a range of incomes that allows you to be candidate for acquiring a lodging of Citydev”. These residences are already visible throughout the district. Rue de la Bougie, Rue de Birmingham… The region therefore seeks to induce social mixing by attracting a more affluent class.
In a historically working-class district – “quartier populaire”
Indeed, since the first waves of migrants in the 1960s, which were “called for” to provide labour in the heart of the heavy industries along the Brussels Canal, up until the current migration flows, the slaughterhouse district remains a place of refuge for newcomers from the all over world: Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey, Romania, sub-Saharan Africa, Syria…. By offering them more or less formal work, they are enabled to settle in Belgium, often within their origin language community.
So what exactly does the city of Brussels want to “revitalise”? Because right now, these basic (“populaires”) economic activities such as the slaughterhouse, the market or the used car trade are functioning well. They are far from being in the “lethargic” condition implied by the term “revitalisation”. “The use of this word implies a dynamic that does not correspond to reality at all,” comments Claire Scohier.
The workforce reacts to the call, as well as the customers. However, these activities are weakened because they do not align with this “hygienic” vision of the city and with certain changes in consciousness: a vision that favors a decrease in popular (populaires) economic activities and instead aims at an increase in activities that are in accordance with residential functions. That is to say: the creation of green spaces, recreational areas and housing for example.
The Abattoir site and its surroundings are therefore a scene of tension between political interests, interests of those that finance public authorities and the willingness of local actors, such as Inter-Environnement Brussels or Forum Abattoir, to include and maintain current activities in the renovation plans of the neighbourhood. For this district is rich in an unprecedented mix of nationalities, which are not necessarily taken into account in the urban planning project of the public authorities.
A fragile balance put under tension
“The public authorities talk about the slaughterhouse site and its surroundings as if they were a piece of uncultivated land which is to be colonised,” continues Claire Scohier, “that is not at all the case”. This is a neighbourhood with a history, with its own particular buildings. “It is not yet an empty, abandoned industrial heritage. It is a neighbourhood in full activity, with things very much in place”.
Immersing oneself in the Abattoir site over the course of a day also makes it possible to notice the mix of languages spoken and the tensions inherent in the activities currently practised. Activities that face an uncertain future…
Language mixing and segregation
The population passing through the Abattoir site therefore highlights the unprecedented mix of spoken languages. However, a temporal segregation can be observed. They do not carry out the same type of activity at the same time. And this mix of languages does not seem to be considered by the public authorities in their policy of “citizen consultation” when setting up the Heyvaert PAD or the Poincaré CRU, for example. Associations such as the Forum Abattoir or the IEB have the desire to accurately depict the reality on the ground, so that the characteristics or points essential for a smooth process or the maintenance of the current activities are taken into account and respected in the neighbourhood’s revitalisation work.
However, in this work of documentation and information of the popular (populaires) actors of the site, the language barrier is difficult to overcome. Cataline Sénéchal, facilitator and researcher for Forum Abattoir, encounters this obstacle in her work: “Even with languages I can speak well besides my mother tongue, it’s very difficult to go into detail”, she says, “and when we do citizen participation, we should have an ideally egalitarian relationship with the people that we discuss with. Unfortunately, my conversational partner is going to be insecure because he can’t manage to express his inner thoughts in a language that is not his own”. The non-profit organisation Forum Abattoir must therefore integrate a different approach to overcome this difficulty of communication with local actors who come from all over the world. “You have to look at things differently: look at what people do and observe that. In order to determine the needs and what is essential to the activity that must be conserved and considered”, Cataline Sénéchal continues, “unfortunately, in my opinion, we really miss a whole series of opinions, of perception. Everything that we can’t hear, can’t understand, everything that we can’t see, or see being done”.
Thus, the lack of time or human resources such as interpreters prevents an optimal circumvention of this linguistic barrier. Therefore, the people currently living in the neighbourhood, in the perspective of public authorities, cannot even take part in decision-making processes that will impact their daily lives. Their voices are not heard because there seems to be no willingness to understand them. They are excluded from the debate.
In addition to this language barrier, the very model of “citizen consultation” advocated by the Heyvaert PAD and the Poincaré CRU also raises questions. The participation meetings organised in June 2018 were not held with the unanimous approval of the inhabitants and workers, already few in number. The educational tools put in place were not decided on collectively, neither. The summary of the Heyvaert PAD put online on the perspective.brussels website is incomprehensible to an uninformed public. “For example, Cataline and I have tried to make the PAD generally understandable, because it’s a public enquiry,” says Claire Scohier, “because for us, reading it is no big problem. But we realise that when the average Heyvaert inhabitant reads it, she or he doesn’t understand a thing.” She points out, for example, the fact that the names of the streets simply don’t appear on the maps of the Heyvaert PAD perimeter at any time.
Corentin Sanchez, present at the citizen consultation meetings of the Heyvaert PAD, also highlights this lack of consideration for the socio-cultural realities of the neighbourhood. “The authorities prepare nothing. One of the last meetings I went to from the Heyvaert PAD was in French. Not even in Dutch, only vaguely,” he says, “So there is the question of language and information channels. For example, the opinions expressed at this meeting are not considered in the public enquiry. The meeting itself is useless: you have to go and write your opinion on the website and post it”, he continues, “therefore there were some residents who complained about that. They said: “Come to the neighbourhood, come and talk directly to the people. Because the people themselves don’t come here”.
The inhabitants and workers of the district affected by the urban planning contracts of the PAD Heyvaert and the CRU Poincaré also pointed out that they had the impression of not really being heard, as reported in the synthesis report of the citizen consultation meetings of the Heyvaert PAD, which is available on the perspective.brussels website. The comments recorded by the public included “regret that the participation phase started that late, even though the development of the PAD is already well advanced”, the “fear of lacking transparency in the decision-making process”, a “proposal for a different procedure including more participation”, or an “observation that public meetings should be organised in neighbourhoods in order to reach more people”.
Thus, in practice, these meetings revolve more around information than consultation on decisions which have already been taken. And the question, which language the affected people speak, is not being considered. Many do not speak French or Dutch. Or at least they do not have a sufficient command of the language to be able to contribute in the context of these sessions dealing with major concepts. “It’s dramatic, all these languages that arrive in the neighbourhood, that mix and are not heard!” concludes Corentin Sanchez. Voices are therefore excluded from the debate. Because of a linguistic obstacle for which the region fails to generate the necessary means to overcome it. The urban planning facelift of this working-class (populaire) district is underway, leaving interests of local actors of foreign origin unconsidered.
We are therefore currently at a pivotal moment in the life of the Abattoir and its surroundings, a melting pot of languages from all over the world. And the balance of power could tip in favour of the public authorities. For these popular (populaires) economic activities, however deeply rooted they may be, are far from being irremovable and see themselves greatly destabilised.
“Today, the site is active. It functions with flaws, but it provides employment, there’s a whole economy, a synergy between the types of people it attracts. If you touch that, you touch a very fragile balance,” concludes Claire Scohier, “it’s partly taken into consideration. But you feel that behind this facet, they still want a change. And that’s very, very present.”
So, the Abattoir site, as we know it today, with its mosaic of languages and cultures, may well in time no longer be …
This Tale was first published in French here.