This text was published with the book 'CARS'. It's about economy of arrival cities, about Brussels and its central role in secondhand car sales in Africa and so much more...
One Sunday I find myself strolling through Brussels. I’m headed down a street just a stone’s throw from the Gare du Midi, Brussels’ international train station. Traffic is a nightmare; the streets are swarming with people. I’m surrounded by every language known to man, or so it seems. An anthill of Babylon of sorts.
A street vendor offers me some DVDs featuring films I’d never even heard of. He seems so determined to make his sell, as if we go way back, and he knows exactly what I’m looking for - I almost believe him.
People are clustered around wherever I look. Drinking beer straight from the bottle, peddling counterfeit cigarettes, lugging shopping bags back and forth or just waiting – what for, no one knows. At least they don’t, that’s for sure. The street exudes a cacophonous exoticism, which is enhanced by colourful signs luring you into shops such as ‘La Maison du Mouton’, ‘African Exotic Market’, ‘Polski producti’, ‘African Meat’... And everywhere I look: people, an ever-growing number of people.
To my left: the entrance to a large market, to my right the Heyvaertstraat unfolds itself. Groups of Africans hang around at the corners at the top of the street. They take on the role of guards, on a single mission: to prevent me - the intruder, the outsider – from accessing their street.
That’s the number of used vehicles being shipped from Belgium to Africa each year. The port of Antwerp is where their long journey towards the African continent commences.
From the farthest reaches of Europe all kinds of second hand cars make their way here. Belgium has been the hub of the African car trade for a while. A handful of streets on the border between the Brussels municipalities of Molenbeek and Anderlecht play a crucial role in this business.
About half of those 350,000 cars, vans, tractors, motorcycles and caravans pass through the car dealerships in and around the Heyvaertstraat in Anderlecht. The street, at barely 800 meters long, is known as the car business Mecca. In fact, the Heyvaert district has become quite well known throughout Africa, and West African buyers in particular are prepared to part with fistfuls of cash for used vehicles.
The 70s and 80s were an extremely bleak couple of decades for this neighbourhood, with barely any economic activity and derelict, dilapidated buildings all over... Many inhabitants decided to seek their fortune elsewhere, and rightly so. Those who stayed did so because they simply had no choice.
Let us now venture down to Lebanon. The late 80s saw the civil war slowly coming to an end, finally allowing the middle classes to come into their own. Consequently, the market for luxury goods and cars received a considerable boost. One entrepreneurial Lebanese medical student in Belgium saw a way to earn a pretty penny and began to export used cars from Belgium to Lebanon. Not long after, the rest of the Middle East followed suit, and soon enough cars from Brussels became one of the most sought after products in those parts.
Used cars are not ‘manufactured’. What’s on offer depends entirely on when owners decide to get rid of their old cars. When demand is on the rise, it is therefore difficult to quickly increase supply. Cars were being sourced from all over Belgium by now. However, they had to be stored somewhere awaiting transport to Antwerp, the starting point of their journey to the Middle East. That’s the only way the business could remain economically viable. Cureghem, Anderlecht had plenty of space on offer. Its industrial past was still very much present in its empty warehouses. Moreover, the meat industry - which had been very lucrative for decades around the Abattoirs – had also left the area, forced out because of the ever-stricter rules on food safety. The car business was happy to take their place. After all, cars are not nearly as picky, as long as they have a roof over their heads.
I squeeze through the first part of the street, past groups of Africans, colourful carpets on display and all kinds of DIY items spread out on the sidewalk. As soon as I pass the Laundromat on the corner the atmosphere becomes less hectic, yet the bunches of Africans are omnipresent. Large warehouses full of cars are interspersed with smaller garages where every available centimetre seems occupied by shiny cars. The further I venture down the street, the more often I notice the same recurring pattern. A dingy African restaurant, a small convenience store on the corner and a local Western Union office are the only businesses that are not directly linked to cars. In the backstreets, I discover a bakery, a mattress salesman and a thrift store stacked with washing machines and refrigerators. People move from left to right, go into shops, leave garages... Everyone looks busy, though no one seems to be doing anything. There might be someone tinkering with a car, but mostly people just seem to be having heated discussion, gesturing wildly.
That’s how many Lebanese citizens left their homeland to settle around the world. Their diverse religious backgrounds do not prevent them from maintaining a strong ethnic identity abroad.
The Lebanese maintain an extensive international network, which they use for business purposes around the world. As soon as the demand for vehicles in West Africa started to grow, local Lebanese jumped right on the bandwagon. Soon, relationships were established with Lebanese car dealers from Brussels. From Brussels, more and more cars were shipped out to a growing variety of destinations, but most of them remained (and still remain) limited to West Africa. After all, the Lebanese are mainly represented in the former French colonies in Africa, a legacy from the days when Lebanon was placed under French military administration. When Lebanese studied abroad, they did so especially in the areas under French influence, meaning West Africa. In East Africa, on the contrary, there are mainly Pakistani and Indian communities who control major trading networks. That’s why African shops in Cureghem are often owned by Pakistanis.
This way global geopolitical events trickle down to every day life in this area. Once the car trade began to grow, the neighbourhood around the Heyvaertstraat not only attracted shippers, but also garages, car washes and restaurants that gladly offer their services to the shippers themselves, their customers, agents, and random passers-by.
In the morning the streets are almost deserted. Trading gets going in the afternoon but continues late into the evening. Opening and closing hours are broadly interpreted around these parts. Here people do business at any time of day, or night.
Trade in this street is governed by a strict internal logic. Every stakeholder is perfectly aware of these unwritten rules, and like agile acrobats they make their way through the street’s hustle and bustle. To the outsider, however, it comes across as absolute chaos, nothing short of complete mayhem.
Not everyone wandering this street actually works there. For some, it’s where they found their first job in Belgium, but in the meantime they might have moved on to other, more stable, better paid jobs. Yet all of them occasionally come back to the Heyvaertstraat to meet up with friends and if at all possible, to participate once more in life on the street.
That’s how many people are officially employed in the Heyvaert area. Drivers, mechanics, garage owners, administrative staff... The shady agents and other personnel loosely attached to the car trade are not even considered here. Employment in the businesses dependent on the car dealerships (car washes, car accessories, garages, tire centres, restaurants, bars...) is not taken into account either. For the most part these jobs involve low-skilled labour, of which there is a major shortage in and around Brussels. Between 2000 and 2010, Brussels had to come to grips with a large influx of migrants, most of whom were lacking any formal training. At that point in time a lot of industrial and unskilled labour was lost in the Brussels region, which partly explains its rising (youth) unemployment.
Precisely those kinds of industries are vital to the integration of many (African) immigrants in Brussels.
Within those sectors newcomers get to form a network of compatriots that can help them, and find a job that is easily accessible. The commissionnaires or ‘mediators’ track down potential sellers. Occasionally people drive down the street hoping to sell a car. The commissionaires, who are in close contact with the buyers, are quick to spot them. They immediately approach the sellers, and try to convince them to close a deal with them, and only them. The final customer can be someone who is staying in Belgium temporarily on the lookout for cars, but also buyers who are active in the motor trade in their West African homeland. Once a buyer and seller agree on a price demand, and the sale is closed, the mediator will be rewarded with a commission.
Those intermediaries can be found on the street during the daytime. It is a job that does not require many qualifications. Few official documents too. It’s a job you can get hold of quite easily, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job. Not everyone is made from the right stuff to do this kind of work, seeing it is so tough. Closing the deal is paramount, and the job itself is anything but secure; you never know what you can take home at the end of the day. Many are called, but very few hang in there.
Besides the commissionnaires, the ‘suppliers’ also play an important role. They scour the whole of Belgium and Europe in search of used cars fit for exportation. You only rarely see those suppliers down the street, as everything is done over the phone. One can find a suitable car at a reasonable price, get in touch with a potential customer and arrange the vehicle’s transportation. Most vendors prefer to work directly with shippers.
The estimated value of the remittances which the Lebanese, scattered all over the world because of the Diaspora, send home each year. That’s a whopping 18 percent of Lebanon’s GDP.
Migration has a significant impact on the economy of many countries. One of Morocco’s richest cities is Nador, a port town in the northeast. Nador itself boasts very little industry or trade, but its wealth is based entirely on remittances from Moroccans abroad. The same goes for countries such as Senegal, Congo and Egypt. They confirm the economic importance of migration for the homeland and the ever-increasing transnational entanglement of interests.
The motor trade is a particularly clear example. Benin, a narrow strip of land in West Africa, acts as a trade hub for used cars for much of the surrounding area. People from Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Niger generally purchase their used cars in Benin. Everything about the country therefore exudes the motor business: there are garages, car parks, trucks, and mechanics wherever you look... The thriving business can only be sustained by the representatives and ‘shippers’ who buy the cars in the Heyvaertstraat and ship them to Benin. Once the vehicles arrive in Benin, it’s business as usual for Togolese, Nigerian, Burkinabé, Algerian and Chadian car traders.
At the end of the street you suddenly find yourself in a kind of limbo. There lies a piece of Brussels that belongs to no one, hovering between three municipalities: Molenbeek, Anderlecht and Brussels City. For years this area has been the subject of many discussions on town planning.
For a while a caravan was parked right there, hidden in a corner. Next to it: a bicycle. It’s quite possible no one ever noticed it. Left alone, the anonymous resident lived happily between two very different worlds. Standing at the corner of the Heyvaertstraat, you can look across the canal, and further across a plain toward Molenbeek, and the centre of Brussels. Once you realise exactly how close you are to the heart of the city, it takes your breath away.
In the 90s, a large housing estate was constructed at the end of the Heyvaertstraat. The developers were never shy about their ambitions. In just under three days, all 110 units were sold to young urban middle class families. A perfect match, as the units are close to the city centre but still affordable. Moreover, the families were promised – off the record, that is – that it would only be a matter of time before the neighbourhood would be ‘cleaned up’, i.e. that the car business would be gotten rid of. The protest in the 90s against the nuisance of the cars (heavy traffic, waste, ‘improper’ use of public space) was rather small- scale, but this new group of well-connected inhabitants was much more outspoken about their objections. Their protest grew louder, and could no longer be ignored. Oddly, the visitors to the dealership were soon labelled ‘intruders’ who had no business in the area. Caricatures depicting the ‘dealers’ could be seen all over, and complaints that the Africans talked ‘too loudly’ poured in.
They even put flower boxes on the sidewalks to prevent them from just ‘hanging out’. If you choose to take that viewpoint when looking at the car business, it’s mind-boggling to see an industry of that scale located that close to a city centre. And actually, it is: large trucks coming and going constantly, the incessant noise, pollution... Let’s just say it’s anything but conducive to comfortable city living. People are not just opposed against the industry, but they also speak out strongly against the people working there. They ‘hang around too much’, ‘block the sidewalks’, ‘leave rubbish where they shouldn’t’, ‘talk way too loudly’... The comments are not necessarily intended in a racist manner, but it clearly comes from a place of discrimination. It’s as if the car business has created an ‘us’ versus a ‘them’. And ‘they’ simply do not belong here.
However, if you were to just put yourself in the migrants’ shoes, you’d realise an area like that is a godsend. You can get there on foot, it’s near the city centre, it’s easy to get a job there - agreed: the jobs are poorly paid, and definitely not for everyone, but they provide you with a steady income (and sometimes even training) - shops are all around, the cost of living is quite low, there are people with a similar background on every street corner... in short, for many migrants this neighbourhood is a lifeline, a way to survive in Belgium, giving them hope for a better future. And often there is a brighter future ahead of them. The influx of migrants in Brussels between 2000 and 2010 has given rise to a sort of niche economy, specifically targeting certain groups of people. Some entrepreneurs further develop their businesses over time, others keep on specializing. In any case, it puts in place interesting social dynamics and economic activity for people who can’t necessarily access the traditional labour market as easily. The gleaming Mercedes parked down the street at night are silent witnesses to the success of many of these entrepreneurs.
The average number of visitors on a weekend to the market in Cureghem, at the Abattoirs site.
When you leave the Gare du Midi behind you, and don’t take a right in the direction of the Heyvaertstraat, but take a left instead, you will come across a market. The largest market in Western Europe. There, hundreds of vendors try to sell their wares every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You will see stalls with fruit and vegetables, live poultry, fish and meat, but also construction materials, last season’s clothing
collections, organic honey, shoes... In addition to the competitive prices, the market also has a wide variety of exotic produce on offer - another reason why so many visitors descend on the market at the weekend. The market doesn’t just pull in bargain hunters from Brussels. People from Flanders and Wallonia, and even people living near the Dutch, German and French borders flock to the market to find products that you won’t find anywhere else, but also to meet up with friends, fellow countrymen or relatives, residing all over Europe because of the Diaspora.
There have been plans to banish the car business from the Heyvaert district, and to move it further down the canal, to the outskirts of Brussels. This move seems logical, considering the nuisance the industry brings along. Having these car dealerships right in the centre of town is odd, to say the least. The locals can clearly call their lobbying a success. Moreover, politicians follow suit, and are speaking out against the car business.
Developers are simply delighted because, in that case, a huge plot would become available within earshot of the (increasingly popular) Brussels city centre. Apparently, the plan is to mostly build residential units, aimed at middle-class families, in the hopes they will kick-start the area’s gentrification. Ever since the 80s that has indeed been Brussels’ answer to the development issues at play in the more ‘vulnerable’ neighbourhoods.
But that does not offer any permanent solution, because Brussels will never be the city it once was. Its population is growing and will continue to grow, which increases pressure on the housing market. This increase in inhabitants is mainly due to immigration. And that’s the rub: migration is not a static phenomenon, but a dynamic process, which constantly alters a population.
Economic activities like the ones going on in the Heyvaertstraat or on the market are of the utmost importance for the economic integration of migrants. If the trade were to be moved, the consequences will be myriad. The business itself will survive, and perhaps even thrive, although it will never be able to escape global economic developments. Those are cyclical, however, a dealer told me, and even though times might be tough today, just brace yourself, ride it out, and hold out for better days.
The side businesses such as the garages, car washes and restaurants, however, will not be able to move along with the car dealerships. Their revenues often hail from both visitors to the market and the Heyvaertstraat clientele. There’s no doubt about it: the move will cause casualties.
Many garages in the neighbourhood are able to sell cars precisely because transport and storage can be organized rather easily. It is questionable whether buyers will be able to make their way down to an industrial park at the outskirts of the city just as easily.
Most likely, the commissionnaires in the street will disappear completely. It’s hard to imagine groups of Africans hanging out on an industrial site that is difficult to access, not to mention a lot less charming.
The impact of the ‘newcomers’ will be significant. As the build of the residential units at the end of the Heyvaertstraat already demonstrated, they are often articulate and willing to lobby quite effectively to protect, or improve, their quality of life. One can but wonder whether the market has any future. Thanks to its one hundred thousand visitors the area becomes quite impenetrable and almost impossible to get to every weekend. By car you simply cannot get in. Finding a parking space is an illusion, and the streets are overrun with visitors. The market provides a plethora of side businesses with again additional extra people.
This often does not fit the beautiful picture the developers and their potential customers like to paint.
Different people experience the neighbourhood quite differently. In fact, their take on things couldn’t be further apart. The varying degrees of empowerment of the local residents are what cause the main differences. The various
immigrant groups lack organisation, the ability to stand up for their own interests. They basically lack citizenship in our society. That is why areas such as this one are at the mercy of politicians and developers who often prefer middle-class residents to migrants.
In Brussels there are other areas with a similar international vibe. The Brabantstraat and the Haachtsesteenweg in Schaerbeek, the Gentsesteenweg in Molenbeek, the Rue Marie-Christine in Laeken... Each of those spots boasts plenty of economic activity and an atmosphere, which transcends the boundaries of Brussels.
Funnily enough, we fail to engage with these neighbourhoods. We continue to see the areas along the Brussels canal as nothing more than impoverished immigrant neighbourhoods. They’re nothing but an annoying eyesore, an unfortunate blot on the Brussels escutcheon. We not only refuse to recognise the dynamics of those areas, we don’t try and interact with it. In not a single ‘canal plan’ (and by now, there are a few) the local economy has been included as a source of employment, social progress, emancipation and wealth, whereas trade is what a society, no matter how diverse or chaotic, is built on.
It’s about time to look, and look closely, in order to discover the beating heart of this neighbourhood, like the roaring engine of a car.
- Kurt Deruyter