Something’s in the air. No one knows quite when it began or how, but people are stopping in the street, heads are turning. What’s going on here? What’s happening to Brussels?
Once isolated, the symptoms have become a rash. Mysteriously and without warning, we find good coffee in our streets. New restaurants are no longer an annual event, they’re opening by the week; some are Tibetan. The city is kicking its dirty car habit and flushing the arteries that once clogged its heart. And a posse of young artists has moved into town, a parade of new galleries marching behind them. Even Louise has let down her bourgeois guard. Whisper it softly, but a city best known for its stodgy comforts might now be discovering its cutting edge. If the Economist ever designs a global hipster index – measuring cities’ growth in beards, check shirts and gin bars – Brussels is quietly working its way up the ranks. Craft ales? We invented them.
Veterans aren’t surprised by all of this; we simply wonder why it took so long.
Having the best beer, best chocolate and best town-square was never a bad deal, but somehow those things distracted from the real story. Brussels never belonged to the Bruges belt of pretty canals and merchant townhouses. This place is a humble jumble of quirkiness, scruffy and dishevelled, one giant vintage store where everyone is welcome not only to browse but to move in and stay for a while. A century of surrealism has shaped a whole people’s visual imagination and lives on in cinema commercials and bus-stop billboards; our street corners are giant comic-books.
This cultural hotchpotch has drawn the city’s map and shaped its politics. Brussels’ perennial indifference to town-planning has created not chaos but a patchwork of distinct villages, while our shop-fronts have mostly resisted the homogenising hand of the global consumer brands. The result is a messy and complicated urban playground, just right for an influx of artists and creatives and the people who support them. This is more than a story of low rents.
Who knows what catalysed this reshaping of the city? Cultural trends and the people behind them spread quickly these days; perhaps it was simply Brussels’ turn for a slice of cool. How the city responds will be intriguing to watch. The decision to pedestrianise a giant slab of the city-centre was single-minded and efficient – a defiant gesture to those who would put cars on our pavements if they could – so let’s hope it spreads to other parts of town, starting with our beautiful squares that serve as car-parks.
All of this belongs to a bigger debate about Brussels’ infrastructure and its attitude to public space. A short journey to work in the morning reveals the city’s contradictions: proud restaurants wake up surrounded by piles of plastic bags; pedestrians squeeze along narrow pavements while cars inch their way to the office; metro stations take a decade to refurbish. Just like any other big city? Maybe. But the fight for decent public infrastructure strikes a deep chord here. A couple of years back, #bxlmabelle and #bxlpoubelle were trending daily, and those rows will continue so long as people see private wealth alongside public squalor. The city’s relative poverty in comparision to its wealthy surrounding regions is one more conflict driving the country’s identity politics.
But while we battle to reclaim our streets, let’s pause to enjoy Brussels’ new place in the cultural firmament. The coffee’s great.