Thursday, June 24, 2010

Gardens Galore! Part 2

In the 1960s, the Belgian government signed an agreement with Turkey to allow the migration of low-skilled Turkish workers to Belgium. The migrants were recruited to work in industry to help fuel an economic expansion of the Belgian state. Development turned out to be slow, and the work not as lucrative as the migrants had hoped. As a result, for the last twenty years a pattern of chain migration of family unification developed from the closing of migration for work related reasons, political problems in Turkey and the long-term residence of family members in Europe. With the opening of borders in the European Union and political tensions in the Balkans, ethnic Turks from all over Europe (Bulgaria and Macedonia) also began migrating to Belgium in the 1990s.

Thus, there is a large population of ethnic Turks in certain areas of Belgium, especially the Schaarbeek district of Brussels, where we ate Turkish pizza on Sunday after our garden tour. In this neighborhood (with densities of ethnic Turks as high as 40%), if you had not told me I was in Belgium, I would not have known. I became the subject of some light hearted ribbing when I said I wanted to eat Turkish food. Mind you, this is after I said I didn't like Belgian beer. My culinary requests thereafter were viewed with a certain degree of (well-deserved) skepticism and amusement.

Joeren recommended a good place, though, and somewhat to our surprise, we (Stijn, Cyrille and I) found ourselves in a pizzeria. Turkish food, because of the omnipresent kebab shops, are often seen by Belgians as "fast food" AKA cheap, convenient, sometimes good food, but potentially dangerous. Our meal consisted of a cold yogurt-cucumber soup and a hot lentil soup, cucumber and tomato salad and a variety of different kinds of freshly baked bread stuffed with vegetables, cheese and meats (and an egg...?). It was delicious and Cryille and Stijn concurred that this was "a proper Turkish restaurant," even though it was both Turkish and European in its influences--you will not find "pizza" in restaurants in most Turkish places.

There are similar hybrid foodways as a result of Jewish immigration and the now famous Reuben in New York, or Italian immigration and the now infamous cheese steak in Philadelphia. I imagine that the development of these kind of foods are a logical outgrowth of the experience of having small kitchens, a lively street culture in the home country, over-crowded housing, low-incomes and a longing for the taste of home. Maybe also in the beginning of this migration history, there were few women--who likely were the ones who knew how to to cook proper meals--and few grocery stores sourcing proper ingredients. Now, however, there are many generations of families in Belgium, but they still live in marginal situations. Their neighborhoods, like that of most migrants, are often in or near areas of poverty, crime and prostitution. Efforts to improve the situation of Turks (and other migrants) in Belgium have included the development of community centers, and in Ghent, a garden.

Let me be clear, however, that gardens are not the answer. These efforts do not remove, and sometimes they efface, the underlying problems of ethnic differences, systemic inequality and the intractable tensions around the perception of insider and outsider status. They also tend to assuage the feelings of guilt for Westerners around the history of exploitation, and do nothing to really change the situation of most migrants, which is directly related to capitalist labor practices. Ghent has a long, rich and glorious labor history. In the city center there is a large monument and building dedicated to a labor organization called "Voorhuit"--means "forward". For a variety of reasons, many of the Turkish migrant laborers have not been brought "forward" and still live in over-crowded derelict housing from the 19th century.

Social workers helped develop some gardens for the residents of this community (which houses both ethnic Belgians and ethnic Flemish) on an old industrial site. The soil is polluted in the whole area, but the gardens could be located in raised beds on the concrete floor of an old factory. It is a traditional community garden, with individuals having responsibility of separate plots. The garden has suffered from vandals and thieves, and I wonder if it isn't because the privatization of space within the garden invites (and perhaps even defines) theft. The community space also houses a soccer field and a public barbeque. Without intending to be a multi-cultural project, the garden has brought members of the community together in a shared interest in food and foodways.

Like all collective and community gardens, this garden is threatened by development. In this case, by the city of Ghent, which wants to build new housing here. The idea is to move residents of an even more disadvantaged community (largely composed of eastern Europeans of a variety of ethnicities and some Roma) into this neighborhood, rather than tear down the old housing and build better housing in its place. In addition there is a development project that will bring gentrification to the area, something that does not bode well for housing costs, open space or community cohesion. In the meantime, residents continue to use this "public space" to grow onions, play soccer, share meals and make art.


  1. Nice reports, Amy. Just to clear out a few misunderstandings, the community gardens in Rabot in Ghent have, despite expectations to the contrary, not been subject to vandalism (unlike the new building of the court of justice adjacent to it). This probably reflects the fact that the neighbourhood has really appropriated this open and green space. Also, the community gardens are set up as temporary use of space and will have to disappear for a sustainable housing project ('passiefhuis'), mainly for middle class residents. This will lead to a densification of an already very dense neighbourhood, while it could have been used to re-house people who are now living in derelict and overcrowded houses in adjacent streets. The city council is very reluctant to provide service and housing to Roma gypsies in order to avoid attracting more Roma families.

  2. Thanks Stijn! Hard to keep it all straight...!