Chic, hipster and down to earth: How the Flemish quarter grew a unique Brussels community
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Chic, hipster and down to earth: How the Flemish quarter grew a unique Brussels community

Rue Antoine Dansaert, set in the middle of the fashionable Dansaert district, is often proclaimed as the heart of Brussels design, of hipsters; a place for an elusive brand of Dutch speaker. But is that all more fiction than fact?

While not entirely incorrect, this perception could be considered at the very least dated. At one end sits high fashion, a brewery at the other, the street cuts from the city centre to Molenbeek and covers a variety of tastes.

Once a hotbed of industry, the story of Rue Antoine Dansaert – named after a communal councillor – dates back to the beginning of the 19th century.

A look at the names of the surrounding squares and streets shows a snapshot of the goods once traded here, as well as the religions that left a mark on the city.

The first shoots of gentrification came to Rue Antoine Dansaert in the 1980s with the opening of the Stijl fashion house, showcasing the work of the “Antwerp Six”, including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. From there it just spread.

Gentrification comes to Dansaert

This move piqued a new start for the street, throwing off perceptions of an abandoned former industrial space, as an explosion of creative people brought life back. This change was dubbed the “Dansaert effect”.

In essence, this “effect” transformed a deteriorated working-class neighbourhood into a hip one, thanks to wealthy young people moving in and setting up. This, in turn, drew other trendy people to the neighbourhood, as those with lower incomes were pushed out, and the pressure on other neighbourhoods of the city increased.

The Dansaert quarter has made itself a name both in Belgium and internationally thanks to its chic and hipster-like atmosphere.

Currently, residential apartments sit behind classic facades while 19th-century industrial buildings have become functional lofts. Additionally, many of the pioneers who opened up shop in the street have now been replaced by high-end chain stores.

But not all.

At the other end of Dansaert sits a part of town with a very different vibe. Once thought of as the quiet part of the street, the canal district is starting to develop a style of its own.

As rent went up in the eastern side of the street, that pioneering atmosphere from before has moved on, said Ann de Canniere, an urban planner in the team of the ‘Bouwmeester’ (chief architect) of the Brussels Capital Region. At one stage it was about the “Dansaert-Vlaming”, now it is becoming more about the “Canal Vlaming,” she added.

“You feel a change as you move along Rue Dansaert: at one end you have to go up two steps and ring a buzzer to get into stores,” according to de Canniere. “As you move westward, however, this starts to change, and goods are displayed on the street,” she added.

“There is a totally different atmosphere once you pass the basketball court,” said Karoline Vlk, one of the owners of cocktail bar Life is Beautiful (LIB). “You discover a far more craft-driven community down here,” she added.

By craft, she means everything from a jewellery maker, a shoe repair to a brewery and a cocktail bar. A far cry from the clothing boutiques that pepper the first half of the street.

“One potential reason for the drastic changes in culture seen within one street is as simple as city development,” explained de Canniere.

The gentrification of Rue Antoine Dansaert can be traced to the 1980s when Stijl opened up, showcasing the latest fashion of the big Antwerp based designers. Credit: Jules Johnston

The Dansaertstraat (Rue Dansaert) was first constructed as a wide parallel road to the Vlaamsesteenweg (Rue de Flandre), added de Canniere. The first part, between the Beurs (Bourse) and the Nieuwe Graanmarkt (Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains), was a direct connection with the old harbour docks. The prestigious apartment buildings are located in this part, she explained.

The section of Dansaert in question was part of a later extension connecting the initial street to the canal. Architecturally different from the older section, this is precisely where the new neighbourhood has developed.

“This part of the neighbourhood is seeing change, and it is good to be part of what’s going on here,” added Vlk, who is also a part owner of the LIB alcohol “boutique”, situated just along from the aforementioned basketball court.

Geen Nederlands? No problem

The development of this offshoot of the city is not just cultural, as even linguistically speaking, this often considered Flemish neighbourhood is challenging expectations.

“St Gilles is undeniably French, Chatelain too, but this is a neighbourhood that’s a bit less defined,” said Dimitri Van Roy of Brussels Beer Project (BBP).

The BBP brewery is situated at the end of Rue Dansaert, alongside a taproom with a selection of beers brewed on site. Not only is it one of the bigger draws to the neighbourhood, but it is also a contributor to its future. “People like BBP are keeping the industry in the city. It is a pioneer of the neighbourhood, and hopefully a sign of more things to come,” explained de Canniere.

“As a company set up by two French speakers, it is funny that BBP sits in an area that is thought of as Dutch-speaking,” said Van Roy – a native Dutch speaker. The brewery doesn’t even have a Dutch speaker working behind the bar at the moment, which is something people seem to miss occasionally,” he added.

BBP isn’t the only one without a predominantly Dutch speaking staff, as cafes and restaurants around the neighbourhood favour multi-lingual workforce for a more international clientele.

“People are becoming more open to freely speaking languages in general,” explained Sven Gatz, Flemish Minister for Culture, Media, Youth and Brussels Affairs. “We struggled with languages for so long in Belgium, but now other languages are not seen as a threat,” he added.
“It’s a very mixed neighbourhood. It’s just very Brussels,” added Harouna Saou, co-owner of LIB. “Sometimes we have customers where you can sense a certain linguistic sensitivity, but I wouldn’t say it was any single language, in particular,” said Vlk. “It is one of the few places that people assume you speak Dutch,” she added.

“There’s just so many different types of shops surrounding us,” said Saou. The clientele might be different, but we are all here, we all interact,” he added.

As he said. Very Brussels. 

By Jules Johnston

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