An old abattoir seems like an unlikely place for cultural and social endeavours in the EU capital of Europe, yet it seems to be happening all under one roof – a roof down slaughterhouse road.
Well, actually it’s called Rue Ropsy Chaudronstraat and it’s located in the city of Anderlecht, southwest of Brussels.
The area has been in use since 1842, but the history of the abattoir starts in the year 1890 when the slaughterhouse was built. It survived two world wars, demolished cattle freight routes and demolition plans until 1983 when the current company took over the site. By then the abattoir was running at a huge loss, so with the support of the city of Anderlecht, they discontinued the running of the then antiquated and loss-making slaughterhouse.
With the construction of a metro line, 150 stakeholders and an interest free loan from the city of Anderlecht, the “Slachthuizen en Markten van Anderlecht” (Abattoirs and Markets of Anderlecht – subsequently ‘Abattoir’) was established, restructuring and modernizing the abattoir into the market hall it is today.
Ever since, the Abattoir has been the biggest covered market in Belgium. With about fifty traders, and 100,000 visitors every week, the conditions for renting a store in this market are simple: you sell food products and make sure that you have a street vendor license.
“The Abattoir is a unique place. People with all kinds of backgrounds come here. Jewish, Muslim and Hindu traders stand side by side here peacefully,” Paul Thielemans, public relations officer at the Abattoir said, describing rare conditions under which all denominations can trade goods equally. “They all have the same goal, which is to earn money for their families.”
The Abattoir also gives disadvantaged, low skilled people and foreigners opportunities by offering internships, to make life easier for them when entering the labour market. And they also run an annual street soccer tournament for the homeless, whilst also developing activities with refugees that promote inclusiveness.
The Abattoir is located in a disadvantaged area of Brussels, with Molenbeek being its neighbouring city to the northeast side donning the title of “EU’s Jihadi Capital.’ The area suffers from criminality and high youth and immigrant unemployment rates compared to the rest of Brussels.
“Politicians have never given the area a fair chance, but in the last ten years we have clearly seen a change of mind,” Paul commenting on the political situation, “the neighbourhood is no longer neglected, and we are getting support from the local level as well as from the EU level with funding.”
The Abattoir has subsequently secured €7,479,067 from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for the 2007-2013 period, with a total investment of €18 million to enable the project to diversify its activities further.
On 21 December 2009, the board of the Abattoir decided to add to its commercial activities the concern for socio-cultural activities as well on its site, and created the Cultureghem; a not for profit organisation designed to help with integration and adding a ‘human dimension’ to the Abattoir.
Eva De Baerdemaeker is the head of Cultureghem discovered the Abattoir needed a social aspect, and a safe place to meet and play due to the context of the surrounding neighbourhood. “We do something with the space to help achieve that goal, open for everyone, to connect with one another.”
Cultureghem runs, among other neighbourhood activities, Kookmet – a pop-up restaurant that works with the locals, children, and organizations to help people learn to cook and eat together, DeBaerdemaeker believes that, “around food, everyone is just a person, they are equal.”
Every Wednesday Kookmet also hold a cooking class for children to learn how to cook vegetarian, because they realise that even though they are under the roof of an abattoir, more people are turning to more sustainable food choices.
From top to bottom
The Abattoir has also decided to utilise the massive spaces created by the market – both on the roof, and the underground cellars.
Once finished, the flat roof will ultimately be developed as an ‘aquaponic’ urban farm of about 4,000 m2. It should therefore be possible to produce fish, fruit and vegetables locally at the same time as protecting the food market from overheating and the cold.
The project is intended to be green and sustainable. Reusing the heat produced by the fridges and using solar energy is proof of sound ecological management. Added to this is the use of rainwater and improved waste management.
Far away from the bright green roof, down in the dark, damp underground space that inhabits the cellars – mushrooms are being grown. In two humidity controlled mushroom tents, each yielding around 200kg of mushrooms per week which are dried and sold.
Interestingly, in the 1930s there was also an attempt to find a more profitable use for the cellars by growing mushrooms, an activity which continued into the post-war years until it became uneconomic.
Today, the modern day mushroom endeavour is considerably successful, with the creation of extra employment, and turning an unused space into something profitable.
Modernising what it means to renovate an old industrial building to not only provide food and employment, but also strive for social inclusion in a time when our society needs it most – the Abattoir isn’t just a repurposed old building; it is a home for all those underneath it.
Images by Miriam Deprez.