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A very complicated notion to handle in the debates on the city is that of the « beautiful » and its corollary: the « ugly ». When they enter the discussion, beware of the slippery slope!

There are many parameters that can be considered when designing an urban development, such as the planned uses, the templates, the materials used and the impact on mobility, of energy expenditure, pollution, and all other concrete effects that will occur for the inhabitants… These are all factors that can be taken up by the stakeholders to form an opinion and participate in the debate. But what about comments on the aesthetics of this or that project? It is difficult to build a position based on such personal and subjective perceptions and feelings. 

However, discourses on urban « beauty » and « ugliness » obviously tend to spread while conveying social undertones and when we scratch the surface of what underlies such arguments, we frequently come across other notions, such as those of « clean » versus « dirty », of « mixity » versus « ghetto », of the « safe » versus the « dangerous » neighborhood… It is as if these words say more about the people who make them than about the subjects they are supposed to refer to. 

The article that appeared in May 2013 in « Libération » (a « left-wing » French daily whose Brussels correspondent is a fervent defender of European neo-liberal policies) was yet another whiff of the kind of thinking that has been castigating Brussels for its filth for ages. Subtly entitled « Brussels not beautiful », it made a lot of noise and allowed the enemies of the « ugly » to give their voice. We no longer count the number of Internet users, elected officials and journalists who have made contributions. Is it a matter of promoting more efficient collection of household waste and the installation of more appropriate street furniture, or is it a social concern aimed at providing optimal sanitary safety for all Brussels residents? If that were the case, I would sign with both hands. 

But the terms in which the question is posed assume that Brussels would be « chaotic » because of its administrative organization, its 19 communes, the disappearance of which some would see in a positive light, as if regional centralism were automatically a democratic advance. They are also based on the assumption that the inhabitants of Brussels are poorly educated: these barbarians take out their garbage whenever they want, throw their garbage out of the window, organize clandestine dumping at night… It is therefore necessary to sensitize them, to inculcate them with good manners, in short, to civilize them. And there’s work to be done: they’ll have to learn to keep their garbage at home until trash day, which won’t be easy for families living in small apartments. Especially since these filthy people don’t seem to be bothered by the garbage bags on the public road, a sight that is, on the contrary, disturbing and disgusting for many tourists, eurocrats and businessmen arriving in the capital of Europe. 


Would it be too much of a caricature to say that this « cleanliness » campaign is essentially the work of expatriates, of households with « cultural capital » and incomes above the local average, and who are not necessarily aware of their arrogance? Without basing myself on the slightest serious sociological study, would I risk qualifying them as people attracted by the central, colourful and lively neighbourhoods, where one can find numerous services and varied shops (such as Saint-Gilles, Forest, the Marolles and why not Saint-Josse, Anderlecht or Schaerbeek, but not Molenbeek: too dangerous)… but who, paradoxically, want to impose their own codes on it? To hell with the tweezers, after all, caricature is intrinsic to such a debate. So here goes: these adepts of « urban beauty » and « popular authenticity », however, hate to be confronted daily with such gloomy visions as those of homeless people sleeping on the ground; they hate to mix with the banality and vulgarity of the working classes: dressed out of the tastes of the day, these lousy people eat chips and frozen food, spit on the ground, throw butts and chewing-gums on the sidewalk, inform themselves at best with « La dernière heure » (and still, when they read), show off at the wheel of their car or their motorcycle; Belgians or immigrants, they are all racists; it happens that they shout at each other without modesty, put on the TV at full blast without worrying about the porosity of the common walls; the kids bawl at noon, the teenagers do the 400 knocks in the public space, while the fathers drink their first mug at 9 o’clock in the morning in bars where the smell of bleach mixes with that of cold tobacco (in spite of the ban on smoking), where peddlers sell watches and DVDs and where the TV is on a loop, and where the mothers pull their shopping carts full of dirty laundry towards the wasserette.. 

Don’t get me wrong: most of the « Brussels not beautiful » critics love the atmosphere of the narrow streets and the old cobblestones, the small shops and the second-hand boutiques… They are not fans of hypermarkets, urban highways or sanitized cities. In this, they differ from the hygienist thinking that once caused the eradication of many working-class neighborhoods. On the contrary, they appreciate these neighborhoods for their « village in the big city » feel. But it would be so much better with more greenery, bike paths, vintage and organic stores, nice cafés where you can sip a fresh juice while nibbling on a bagel and reading « Libé »! One cannot blame them for wanting to transform their environment according to their tastes and adapt it to their social level. Let’s even bet that they are keen on social justice and let’s not accuse them of class racism too quickly. They advocate respect, tolerance, well-being, gender equality, democratic participation, « ethical » and « sustainable » trade and food… 

They forget just one small detail: will their action allow the local population to rise to their level and share with them the same type of income and comfort, or will it contribute on the contrary to change the image of the district where they have settled, to increase its symbolic and real estate value so that a class similar to theirs will massively come to live there while the poorest population will be excluded in the long run? 

I remember a debate that took place in an august assembly of Brussels residents concerned about the quality of their living environment. One participant, noting that urban renewal is often accompanied by rising rents and property values that drive the less affluent out of their neighborhoods, argued that « mochitude » was a good bulwark against this form of social injustice. Basically, in a gentrifying neighborhood, it was better to have a failed urban development than a flashy renovation, to build a public housing block instead of a park, to have a night shop instead of a trendy café, etc. His intervention had provoked the slams, the stunned and reproving looks of a part of the audience, convinced that the improvement of the environment was automatically beneficial to the inhabitants. His position was indeed difficult to defend, yet it had the merit of a certain lucidity: taking into account the power relations that are at work in the city. 

In any case, while waiting for public policies that guarantee all inhabitants to be able to find suitable housing at affordable prices (massive construction of public and social housing, private rent control…), my opinion is made… Long live the dirty streets, the dog poop, the garbage bags! Long live mochitude! 

Gwenaël Breës

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