Why did Antwerp’s immigrant ghetto get so bad? - The Globe and Mail
It is an early Saturday evening on Handelstraat, a busy and somewhat dishevelled boulevard in the north of this historic Belgian port city, its sidewalks lined with outdoor cafés and tea shops, fish restaurants, butchers and bakeries, all of them buzzing with customers. It’s a typical European street scene, except that most of the people have olive-coloured skin, many women sport head scarves and the throaty sounds of Arabic and Turkish mix with brusque Flemish.
Suddenly there is violence: Chairs are flying, punches are being thrown and people are surrounding a young man who is accused of selling hashish, pummelling him and pushing him away. Spilled tea pools on the sidewalk, and mothers drag their children away.
As the street calms and the crowd dissolves, I approach the overturned tables and start asking questions. A teenager wearing a shalwar kameez approaches me. His name is Jamal, he says, and his family owns one of the cafés. “Look,” he says in good English, “I know this looks really bad to you. But trust me, this is good for us. It means we’re taking back our street.”
I have not come to this dense 19th-century neighbourhood at random. Few people do: While it is a five-minute walk north of Antwerp’s diamond district and central train station, and is quite a lively shopping destination for Muslims from neighbouring countries, this dense cluster of streets, known across Belgium by its postal code 2060, is rarely visited by middle-class, white Europeans. It is a Moroccan-dominated immigrant district, a place one leaves but rarely enters.
I have come in an effort to solve a European puzzle. Earlier this year, I met the mayor of Antwerp, a youthful and optimistic politician named Patrick Janssens, who was familiar with my writings on poor immigrant neighbourhoods in many countries. He wanted me to spend a few days inside the 2060, to watch it with a fresh set of eyes, see what makes it tick and try to find the roots of its malaise.
In exchange, he would give me access to the city’s information and employees, allowing me to speak to scores of families, including the deprived, who are usually inaccessible to outsiders.
It was a unique opportunity to peer deep inside a place that is at the explosive intersection of Europe’s simultaneous demographic and economic crises.
“We really don’t know how to talk about the 2060,” Mr. Janssens says. “We only know it as a set of problems, not as a place with a story.”