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anatomy of a slum

The 2600, in the north of Antwerp, is one of the most often cited trouble neighbourhoods: A Moroccan-Turkish-African cluster that saw riots between Moroccan shopkeepers and drug dealers in August. But a few days inside the neighbourhood raises a set of questions: Are these just plain old immigrant neighbourhoods, like we know in North America? Or are they "parallel societies," with no interest in integration, as Germans and Belgians increasingly believe?JERRY LAMPEN for 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."

Europe's new immigrant neighbourhoods – such as Tingbjerg in Copenhagen, Slotervaart in Amsterdam and Kreuzberg and Wedding in Berlin – have become flashpoints of conflict this year, as they face the dual challenge of devastating youth-unemployment rates and outside threats in the form of new far-right, anti-immigrant movements that have spread quickly, targeting these districts as hotbeds of alien religion and anti-European thought.

The economic crisis has left many of the newest Europeans trapped – in many cases, in neighbourhoods like the 2060. The severe labour shortages of the 20-year boom that began in the 1990s attracted millions of immigrants, many from poor places. But many European countries never bothered to give them full citizenship, and pretended they were "temporary" workers (an approach that never works) or simply ignored them. Now, at the worst possible moment, their children are in trouble.

Ghetto, or parallel society?

This Antwerp neighbourhood is at the centre of the new tension. So far this year, there have been four riots or major street fights in the 2060 involving young men of Moroccan or Turkish ancestry, the most recent a knife-wielding clash between Kurdish and Anatolian Turks in early November. Reports of drug crime have also been on the rise.

The large and powerful far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party has targeted the troubles in the 2060 as evidence of their belief that Muslims can't or won't be assimilated into European society and are instead creating isolated "parallel societies."

Conversely, some on the left claim that the racism of such parties is forcing migrants into ghettoes.

Neither theory, once you're inside the neighbourhood, quite fits the reality.

A decade ago, many of the second-generation immigrants of the 2060 were becoming successful Europeans, a new immigrant-offspring middle class visible in business, politics and the media.

All evidence suggests that the current residents very much want to become full-fledged Belgians, albeit with different religions and sometimes skin colours: A survey this year by the Soros Foundation found that a strong majority of Muslim immigrants and their descendents in Antwerp – almost 70 per cent – said that they identified themselves as Belgian first, a better rate than among many other immigrant communities.

For politicians such as Mr. Janssens, the failures of places like the 2060 are a frustration and an embarrassment, as well as a policy challenge. If some migrant enclaves, like many in France or Germany, are ignored and neglected by their governments, the 2060 is doted upon.It is the subject of scores of important interventions and projects.

There are new parks, community centres and libraries; an impressive public-transit system; a robust adult-education program; and even a city-run temporary slaughterhouse to allow Muslims to sacrifice sheep on the first day of Eid in sanitary conditions. (This year, they offered a "humane" option, in which the sheep could be anesthetized first, for those devout Muslims who also happen to be animal-rights proponents.)

"We are really determined to make this a successful neighbourhood," Mr. Janssens says. "But this is proving to be a challenge in these economic conditions."

An escape from nowhere

As an outsider, my first response to the 2060 is to wonder what the big deal is. A few minutes' walk north of the diamond district, the geometry of the streets becomes tighter, the scene a mix of thriving commerce and tight-packed houses, many of them tile-fronted 19th-century row houses not unlike those you would see around the canals of Amsterdam or the Hague.

Some streets are verdant and pleasant; others have uglier, public-housing apartments. But this is hardly the isolated, tower-block wasteland I have seen in Paris or Glasgow. Still, it is very much an immigrant landing pad – what I've elsewhere called an arrival city. Half the people living here were born in a foreign country outside the European Union, and in the densest blocks of the 2060, a third of the population is Turkish or Moroccan.

A majority of these people come from rural villages: The Moroccans are mainly from the Rif Mountains, the Turks from the villages of Anatolia and the southeast, and even the Poles (the largest current group of immigrants) are mainly from the rural villages of Silesia and the southwest.

This is a very typical European mix – indeed, it is similar to the rural-born mix that flooded Canada's immigrant neighbourhoods after the Second World War, raising similar fears of giant immigrant families and alien beliefs swamping the population.

Jamal Elboujddaini came here as an infant in the 1970s. He was born in "the middle of nowhere," a remote village in northern Morocco, where his family were subsistence farmers and life was often desperate. His father joined thousands of other Arab men in boarding ships to Western Europe to fill the labour shortages of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

His father had expected to stay a couple of years, save some money and go home. But it rarely works out that way: His industrial employers, having invested in training, wanted to keep him on, and other migrant Arabs became his social network. In 1974, he brought his family over, including the newborn Jamal.

The 2060 was, in many respects, ideal. The houses may look small and tightly packed to middle-class Antwerp residents, but to a North African they are spacious and dignified, offer quick access to the street – and are cheap enough that a few years' savings made it possible to buy one. With a little more money, often borrowed from fellow immigrants, you could start a small shop. Everyone sent money back to the villages and helped neighbours and relatives make the move.

Mr. Elboujddaini started school as one of a small cluster of Moroccans in a largely Belgian classroom. By the time he was in his final year of secondary school, he was the only Moroccan boy – the others had dropped out, with the school's encouragement.

"Ninety per cent of these immigrants, they are not educated at all in their home country – not even in their own language," Mr. Elboujddaini says. "My father never had any idea about my school, my friends – he had no way of knowing what I was doing outside the house. I was the one who translated the documents to buy the house. It was just luck and coincidence that I made it."

Through cleverness and perseverance, he was able to join his Belgian-born classmates in university, and eventually wound up in education.

It's not hard to find other second-generation Turks and Moroccans of his generation who became successful, but almost all have moved out of the 2060. Mr. Elboujddaini is a rare exception, but he still sends his children to a school in a more prosperous postal district.

This became the pattern: Europe's immigrant neighbourhoods can provide an excellent bottom rung on the ladder, but the second and third rungs are broken or missing, so those who succeed go elsewhere, and those who fail stay behind.

I met a new wave of villagers from Turkey, Poland and Morocco, often renting the houses owned by people like Mr. Elboujddaini. They weren't having an easy time.

Hasan Touzani, 36, came here eight years ago, worked at a series of odd jobs, mainly in shops selling knockoff brand-name clothing, and has five children, aged 8 to 18. Mr. Touzani very much wants them to become good Belgians, but has no idea how.

Like many Moroccan villagers, he speaks only a very rough Arabic – never mind French or Flemish. He fears that his kids don't have any positive influences, and tries to keep them inside.

"We are very afraid of drugs and crime," he says, "and we are constantly looking for activities to keep the children off the street. I am stuck in the 2060 because of my language – but if I had the choice, I'd live in a different neighbourhood to give my children a proper education."

The toxic combination of the economy, hostile politics and abandonment by the more successful has turned this neighbourhood into something of a trap. It has created a lost generation of teens and young men who seem to have nothing to do but hang out on Handelstraat and get into trouble.

"I think the young people, when they make some money, they leave," says Karim Barhdadi, another educated, successful Moroccan I met. "The older people, first generation, they will stay and improve their houses. But most of the people I knew when I was in secondary school, I don't see them around any more. … If you want your children to progress, you have to get them out."

More than the sum of its stats

A frequent error in looking at a neighbourhood like the 2060 is to treat it as a set of fixed statistics: Its population density is five times higher than the city average; its population is much younger; its poverty rate, 15 to 20 per cent, is 60 per cent higher; three times as many people, or 6 per cent of residents, are dependent on government benefits.

Chronic joblessness is very high: Among people 18 to 64, almost half are long-term unemployed, and there is fear that the economic crisis will return that rate to an alarming 61 per cent, where it stood a little less than a decade ago.

But that disguises what actually happens here: Past immigrants move out and new immigrants move in. In the core of the 2060, almost a quarter of the population leaves every year. Of the people who moved to this district in 2004 and didn't return to their home countries, an extraordinary 63 per cent had moved to other postal zones by 2010.

The downside is that, for many poor villagers who have arrived in Europe in the past 10 years, their only encounters have been with other poor villagers. That wasn't the pattern before.

Part of this is rooted in Europe's web of immigration policies, which are both too open and too restrictive. There are a great many unaccompanied, single, immigrant men moving around the European Union, largely either economic migrants or refugee claimants whom the system will neither deport nor make citizens.

As well, most countries have tightened up their family-reunification policies, making it much harder for those single guys to become part of families (which, by every measure, are better for integration).

Some of the violence in the 2060, like the incident I witnessed, is simply established immigrant families fighting back against the criminal activities that sustain these young men, who are seen as alien outsiders.

But I also saw a lot of things that are blocking the path to integration. Most of the neighbourhood's institutions are imported: Almost no teachers or police have made it up from the streets. Belgian police and other officials become frustrated with the workload and try to transfer out. Few are devoted to fixing the district.

"When you work with those few officers who do come from around here, they know everything," says Jan Michiels, a senior police officer in the 2060. "They know who to follow. They know how to see things, and how to control the situation. We need more people like that. I believe that when they can give me 50 or 60 people from around this neighbourhood, we can clean up the neighbourhood."

Moroccan and Turkish neighbourhoods in places like Amsterdam have had success with locally cultivated security forces.

Underlying it all is the central problem of education: Schools in immigrant neighbourhoods are often the worst, attracting the least ambitious teachers, in what becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of failure. School officials are inclined by reflex to place immigrant students, especially boys, in the lowest educational streams.

Only 8 per cent of Belgian Muslims are placed into the university-bound stream – and as many as 70 per cent of those are girls. As many as 85 per cent go into the technical steam. And 20 to 25 per cent of minority students are leaving school without a degree.

"My concern," says Mariete Smeyers of School in Zicht (School in Sight), a group that tries to attract parents back to the schools of the 2060, "is that in these neighbourhoods are a lot of migrants who are coming here with high expectations – they want to give their children every opportunity possible. And then they are in this place where these poor Moroccan families are the example. And after five years, they lose a lot of ambition."

Teachers leave because they have no idea how to work with unengaged parents, while engaged parents move away in search of higher standards. "It's a pity we can't keep these families in the neighbourhood, because they would serve as examples," Ms. Smeyers says. "Instead, the one-income family dependent on welfare has become the norm.

"The ambition of this group is living on the edge of poverty. That's enough for them."

Black flight and white flight

The core problem is the social mix. The quiet secret of the 2060 is that it has historically served as a fairly successful machine for social and economic integration. But "black flight," as Belgians call the departure of successful immigrants, combined with the "white flight" of ethnic Belgians, has hollowed out the lower middle class of the 2060.

There has been good reason to expect this to improve. The attractive 19th-century houses of the 2060, especially around the new parks, are becoming desirable properties for middle-class Belgian couples to renovate; those streets are becoming filled with coffee shops and boutiques, a nice mix of yuppies and lower-middle-class immigrant families. Of course, none of them send their kids to school here, but the rising property values help North African homeowners too.

"This is a good neighbourhood. The houses are nice, the customers are nearby, there are a lot of people here who want to be successful, who are starting small businesses," says Husiyan Aslan, a businessman who came here from Turkey in the 1970s and whose industrial success has helped finance an unusually successful primary school here.

"But there are just too many things making people want to move out when they become successful, and those who are left behind need a lot of help. The image of the 2060 is preventing us from attracting customers, and it should be easy to change."

After several days here, watching the mix of immigrant commerce and rough-and-tumble conflict, I was reminded of the East London districts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, when I first lived there in the 1980s.

Those 19th-century immigrant blocks were regarded as the country's most dangerous places, with near-weekly street battles between skinheads and Muslim gangs, religious extremism among local Bangladeshis, and drugs and crime. They were places I avoided at night.

Today, that area of London remains an immigrant neighbourhood, but it's the place to be for artists, restaurateurs, technology entrepreneurs and especially members of the new Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrant middle class. This transformation was the product of economic growth, but also of careful government programs.

I had a vision of the 2060, in two decades, turned into a Flemish Spitalfields: People would get off the train at Antwerp's spectacular central station and head a few blocks north, into the labyrinthine streets of Handelstraat, to have a good time.

Prescription for transformation

That is almost certainly the 2060's future. But meanwhile, what is standing in the way? I told the mayor that three things seem to be missing:

First, a way to turn its thousands of tiny immigrant-owned businesses into medium-sized businesses – by attracting consumers northward from the diamond district, by eliminating the typically strict Belgium business regulations, by creating symbolic landmarks to lure pedestrians and by making Handelstraat less like a planned shopping street and more like a Moroccan souk.

Second, a top-quality secondary school, one that is not just up to the standards of the city's middle-class neighbourhoods (which is a distant enough ambition) but far better. It would be something like Britain's "academy" schools, which are funded directly by the national government in order to turn around troubled neighbourhoods. In other words, the 2060 needs a model institution that will not just bring children back, but make middle-class families from outside compete to get in

And third, more yuppies: By demolishing the pockets of dismal high-rise public housing, Antwerp could create mixed-income developments that would include condominiums, loft apartments and artists' spaces (sales would finance the redevelopments).

This diversity would recreate the social mix that has made North America's immigrant neighbourhoods (New York's Lower East Side, Toronto's Spadina Ave.) so successful. This mix of incomes, occupations and educational aspirations tends to inspire people, and turn troubled places into upward-mobility success stories – as long as there's economic growth.

There's no growth at the moment – certainly not in Belgium, one of the harder-hit countries in the euro crisis. Once growth returns, if other immigrant-driven countries are any model, it will be these new Europeans who lead the way.

But in the meantime, there's a simmering political force that sees them as nothing but a threat: A deeper economic crisis could turn the pressure on Handelstraat into something far darker. Here, at the bottom of the continent's melting pot, it is going to be a difficult decade.

Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau and is the author of Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World.