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Opinion: For Brussels-City, is diversity more than a façade?
On Friday 17 September, Belgian visual artist Karolien Chromiak opened her studio door to find her workspace unusually dark and stuffy. A plastic smell pervaded the still, close, air.
The day before a massive banner had been installed on the side of the building where she works, unrolling down four levels. Chromiak’s workspace is on the fifth floor of the former Actiris building, facing the historic Bourse in the centre of Brussels. She rents her workspace through Level Five VZW, a studio cooperative, along with approximately 80 other artists, designers, architects and social initiatives.
The banner was a promotion for the City of Brussels. Its caption? “Embrace Diversity”. With its rainbow imagery, the banner seemed to relate to Brussels current Pride festival for the LGBTQI+ community. The city had recently launched an action plan to support the community and the banner appeared to be part of this campaign. But behind the rainbow façade lies a more complicated story: about private money, public space and missed opportunities.
The cycle of gentrification
The building where Chromiak has her studio was formerly a public building for Actiris, the Brussels regional unemployment office. Before being sold by the Brussels-Capital region to a private owner it was vacant for four years. The building will be developed into a luxury “dining-retail concept, living, and co-working” environment called The Dome and in the interim is being managed by a “vacancy manager” - known popularly as “anti-squat” practice. Proprietors who wish to avoid vacant property taxes often enlist such companies, who charge less or nothing to the owner while promising to fill the building with social initiatives.
Such vacancy managers don’t pay rent on the building but charge rent to their tenants, who are offered brutal “temporary occupancy” contracts. The end result is win-win: the vacancy manager profits on both sides, the proprietor avoids taxes and enjoys the good publicity of having a building full of non-profit initiatives. The tenants, however, can be evicted at any time. Eventually, such properties are developed into more lucrative projects and the cycle of redevelopment (or gentrification) continues.
So why is a banner obscuring Chromiak’s window? It could be due to the clause in the rental contract which states that the landlord has the right to “make available the building for commercial goals without giving financial compensation to the precarious user”. Precarious user is the literal term, used in the contract itself, for the tenants of temporary occupancy contracts. However, in this situation, it turns out that the City of Brussels had made the arrangement directly with the owner. Neither the vacancy manager nor the tenants were informed. “The problem with being a precarious user is that you are never sure who is accountable,” says artist Kianoosh Motallebi, another of the building’s residents.
It seems, then, that the banner was placed without regard for those who rely on the windows for light and air. It’s here that the façade begins to crack. There seems to be a clash between the inclusivity values projected by the banner and the precarious reality of the tenants inside.
At the same time, the building itself is a story of public space sold for private opportunity. Hanging a banner declaring diverse values both tacitly supports luxury redevelopment while papering over it. Why is Brussels supporting gentrification in this way? What is the arrangement between the owner of the building and the city? Who is profiting?
The misplacement of the banner begs other questions. One wonders if Brussels’ support of diversity is more than a façade. What is the city doing to support diversity on a structural level? What are they doing to confront gentrification, which spreads monoculture and marginalises all minority groups? What kind of diversity, exactly, do they want the Bruxellois(es) to embrace?
“Who is the banner talking to?” asks architectural historian Paoletta Holst. “We need structural change, not an injunction to diversify.” For Rachael Moore, coordinator of Rainbow House, an umbrella for French- and Dutch-speaking LGBTQI+ organisations, the banner is a total disconnect. “The banner implies solidarity. With whom? How are we going to do this solidarity?”
For examples of solidarity in action, the City of Brussels should peel back the banner and look inside the windows of the former Actiris building. If they did, they would find many active community-driven initiatives, such as Engagement Arts, which tackles sexual harassment, sexism, and discriminatory abuse of power in the Belgian arts field. The city could find out about Level Five’s research collaboration Permanent which aims to found a permanent mixed-use cooperative building that works counter to profit-driven urban development. “We are well aware of the role artists can play in the gentrification process,” says Els Silvrants-Barclay, researcher and activist. “With Permanent we are trying to build structures that work against it whilst acknowledging the risks minority groups face in the process.”
With the development of the former Actiris building, the symbol of social security and welfare in Brussels will become a high-end retail and living experience designed for upper middle-class consumption. Here the issues of diversity and gentrification overlap. “Is this really the vision Brussels has for its future?” asks Moore. “How will this luxury development benefit those from different cultural or racial backgrounds? Those who are handicapped, or sex-workers, or first or second-generation immigrants?” Reflecting on the banner itself, she adds: “The image is of a Black person. What has Brussels done for the Black community? And crucially, what are they going to do?”
It seems that Brussels City could learn a lot from communicating with the tenants of the building it appropriates and with those whose image they claim to represent. Rather than be told how we should embrace diversity, we ask the City of Brussels to put its money where its mouth is: take care of equality in housing and the job market, foster safety on the streets for everyone, implement an intersectional perspective across all policy areas and support grassroots organisations. We ask for structural change and for real, progressive dialogue.
In the meantime, Karolien Chromiak and other people at Level Five are in the dark. “I work with photography,” she says. “Natural light is essential.” For artist David Bernstein in the neighbouring studio (pictured), the moment is similarly gloomy. “My studio is a wood workshop, I work with wood,” he says. “Now I can’t get enough ventilation to work safely, which is even more problematic with Covid-19. The banner is like a wall.”
For the community at Level Five, the banner symbolises all that is dysfunctional in the relationship between the city and its residents: the hypocrisy, lack of dialogue, and lack of will for real structural change – an absence of truly progressive partnership-building.
Meanwhile, the banner hangs from the fifth floor of the former Actiris building. If you walk north up Boulevard Anspach, you can’t miss it. “Embrace Diversity,” it tells us, rippling in the sunlight.
A version of this article, in Dutch, first appeared in De Wereld Morgen