EssaysWeekend

Letter from Antwerp I: Trains and Diamonds

by Burt Kimmelman on July 5, 2014

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(all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

ANTWERP — The Rubenshuis is not a long walk from the Station Antwerpen-Centraal (the Gare Anvers Centrale, if you like). Antwerp’s central train station rises above a wide promenade that can get you there. This marvelously sculpted stone terminal is defined by its gilded domes and clock that keeps accurate time. Its tall paneled windows sit atop graceful arches that frame passage in or out of high doors. The station looks out on the promenade and announces to arriving passengers the phantasmagoria arrayed before it, which is Antwerp.

Leaving the grand station, you enter into the flow of life. Beyond the main entrance, steps lead belowground to the metro. Further on, trams of various designs and sizes glide on street-level tracks heading in a number of directions, drop off or pick up passengers at a number of stops. Thousands of people walk about, on a gray and chilly Friday.

The promenade is quite broad, most of it meant for mingling. A single lane to one side is dedicated to automobiles, another to motorbikes and bicycles — so what is actually a boulevard stretching on and on feels and looks like a huge plaza filled by people who seem mostly to be at leisure, who are casually eating, talking, strolling about, dressed in many fashions and speaking in a number of languages, who are alive to everyone else, who are alive in the moment — as might be expected of a large port city. Some people are entering or exiting fast food joints (like a Quik for hamburgers) grouped along one side of the wide concourse. On the other side people sit in brasseries indoors or at plein aire tables with electric-coil heaters overhead for late winter evenings,drinking coffee, beer or wine, perhaps eating a pastry. Waiters thread themselves among them. Across a slender lane from there are shops selling mobile phones and the like. The lane leads to lesser streets of small stores and restaurants.

If you were on your way to the Rubenshuis (the Rubens House), coming from the magnificent station, you would enter into this sea of humanity, head up the promenade and, in a multitude, traverse an equally wide thoroughfare reserved solely for the purpose of getting cars, trucks and motorcycles from one side of the city to the other. Hundreds of us form to get to the other side at a single traffic light, where we will enter a new portion of our boulevard, set up for more serious shopping — an out-and-out, no-apologies, open-air wide walkway framed by fancy and faux-fancy department stores — some of which are in older buildings decorated with stone filigree and on upper stories gentle statuary. There are also newer structures of glass and steel, the curse of the International Style’s afterglow, rising up before our eyes. We have to pick our way around some construction sites as we realize that those lovely statues will soon tumble into oblivion.

Behind us, in the distance, is the train station. To be amazed by it from afar, especially once having sighted the department stores ahead of us, was to savor how this historic structure made of stone, glass, iron and gold remains as a paean to another era. In its utter grandeur, its delicate yet massive beauty, the station commands the vista so very comfortably. My American-tourist’s too-quick, casual glance backward nearly tricked me into thinking that a soaring gothic cathedral was what had inaugurated the bustling plaza we had just left behind. In reality the vibrant sections of the immense terminal — the building articulated, vivid, in its splendidly tall domed towers — are a unique blend of classical Roman and Italian Renaissance styles. One might imagine the onlooker’s sense of anticipation as the building’s design became ever more palpable, more real, once construction began over the course of a decade starting in 1895.

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In its entirety the station includes a long train shed built later, which communicates with the ticketing area in the stately stone edifice that now anchors this even more massive structure when seen from a distance. The hugely tubular shed, its design and feel of a more recent time, is nevertheless quite graceful. It contains multiple levels of track and pedestrian platforms and walkways taking people past rows of cafés and jewelry shops, some selling expensive diamonds. This long conduit, as it were, extends about a quarter mile. Attachment is not really the appropriate word to describe how it coexists with the magnificently old-world lofty structure at one end of it — the older building is what holds everything in place. The much more extensive train shed (here, too, the term belies the experience of it) is truly complementary. Inside it a steel-and-glass dragon’s tail gently undulates under its elongated dome; its passages gradually weave up or down, with stairways composing both horizontal and vertical events.

Yet it’s the grandeur of the original creation — its self-consciously beautiful stone- and ironwork, its own huge scale outside and in where there are high vaulted, decorated ceilings — which nowadays decrees the promenade and beyond that the shoppers boulevard. In ambition it must have been meant to be comprehended as one of the world’s great landmarks, a historic architectural site, and in fact it is. I can’t help but think that Sebald missed the point of it in his novel Austerlitz, seeing it as a monument to Belgium’s colonial triumph. It might be understood as that (even if Leopold II’s Congo was his own private operation — to say nothing of how profoundly duplicitous, ruthless, and morally criminal it was). The sheer splendor of the station exudes its turn of the twentieth-century, giddy sense of confidence and expectation. The sensuous domed towers intend upward, as do Europe’s great cathedrals. Yet this heartbreakingly beautiful old building, which is perhaps sui generis, does not derive from the Middle Ages. Hart Crane’s notion of a hymn might come to mind (in Brooklyn Bridge the “immaculate sigh,” the “prayer”) except that this “cathedral” means to mark time instead of eternity. I suspect that the present boulevard, for all its sense of holiday, was not much anticipated, however. Was it merely careless civic planning that the station, this great work of art, really, sends newly arrived passengers out onto a most worldly pilgrimage culminating in the tawdry, twenty-first-century urbanity of shopping within voids formed by glass-and-steel boxes (“Ik shop, dus ik ben,” “Je fais du shopping, donc je suis”)?

Diane and I had come to Antwerp particularly to explore the city’s famous Diamond Quarter. So before setting out to see some art, having disembarked at the breathtaking station, we exited through the great main entrance, then right away veered sharply left. The diamond district is just there. The perimeter of the Jewish Quarter, of which the diamond district is a part, extends past the train shed, the station’s side entrances pacing the street alongside. We followed Pelikaanstraat (Pelican Street), delineating one of the station’s long edges, beyond the train shed as we peered along the way into a neighborhood whose streets were populated mostly by Hasidim — and whose architecture contrasted sharply with the nearby station.

This area’s pastiche of workaday plate glassed shops and older stone facades would be pretty much replicated in the diamond district, once we turned back to enter it. The urbanscape in both Quarters was an abrupt change. From the luxurious terminal we had merely to cross the narrow street to experience the difference. In fact the Diamond Quarter is slightly ramshackle in appearance. The juxtaposition of tasteful and drab, indeed, was not merely a visual dramatization of the struggle between older and newer societies — the train station’s entrance, the Jewish Quarter’s dowdy structures, perhaps the Diamond Quarter’s unprepossessing diamond exchanges and other buildings (to call them unremarkable would be kind), later the promenade leading to the garish shoppers walk, finally the stunningly beautiful and lavish Rubens House. In actually a tiny area, whose buildings and streets reveal a studied plainness, the largest and most important diamond business in all the world is being conducted — the trading of diamonds, also their selection, classification, cleaving, cutting and polishing — all within a few city blocks. While in Antwerp the people who work in either industrial or precious diamonds are not exclusively Jewish, furthermore, the business is dominated by Hasidic and to a lesser extent other Jews (in recent years this is not quite as much the case). Along with a sizable number of Indians, nearly all of Antwerp’s Jews run a business whose annual worth is about forty billion dollars. Most transactions are conducted in Yiddish.

As we strolled the Diamond Quarter’s streets, which looked quite mundane, we came to realize we were inside a cordon sanitaire whose demarcation was invisible (we didn’t notice the eruv circling the two Quarters together — a six foot-high wire meant to indicate to Jewish inhabitants the limits of their zone, a reminder not to neglect their daily religious duties). There were hints of security procedures throughout (not that we saw actual signs of electronic surveillance). What we were able to construe (later having read about it) made me think of how different the atmosphere in Manhattan is. My memories of walking along 47th Street, going back to the days of the wonderful Gotham Book Mart, include the prominent diamond business there, the jewelry stores’ outsized presence while sharing pedestrians’ attention with other commercial activities on the street and in shops. Today that’s pretty much the same state of affairs. Not so Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter, euphemistically referred to as “the square mile.”

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We took some photos of one another in front of a diminutive, narrow synagogue wedged between two unremarkable, short buildings. Ambling up the street afterward, my phone in hand, snapping the occasional picture, I noticed a large, clean shaven man heading toward me, wearing a yarmulke and thin headset with a microphone wire extending along his jaw; he was carrying a small bag. He missed a step in his deliberate gait when fixing upon my phone, then pivoted to enter an office building nearby. Further on, a Hasidic man stepped briskly out of a doorway and saw me just as I saw him. Our eyes met — sort of. I looked into his; he looked at me but his eyes were without expression, an invisible wall between us, as he surveyed the scene with me in it. If he knew I was a Jew it would not have mattered. (I confess to my voyeuristic delight at seeing another man in full religious black garb riding a bicycle up to one of the diamond exchanges, which, if there were not a modest sign indicating what it was, you’d never have realized the gravity of the place. Admission to the exchanges requires a full background check, surrender of passport, and passing through a metal detector.) We were definitely no longer on 47th Street, or in Crown Heights.

We entered a squat gallery of shops and eateries, putting ourselves down at a brasserie whose tables and chairs spilled out into the corridor. At one point a diamond polisher with dirty apron and hands came by on his break, indulging himself in friendly banter with the staff of our lunch place where we were now having soup (served with warm pita!) that could have come from my grandmother’s kitchen in Brownsville, Brooklyn a long time back. The menu was comprised entirely of Hebrew lettering. Signage on the walls was in Dutch and French. More people eating lunch with us were Jewish than weren’t. The language mostly spoken was Yiddish. Many other people, representing all continents but especially south Asians, were eating there too, conversing over their meals. People came and went after eating or sauntered up to someone at another table to shake hands or to chat with what we thought, given what we had observed on the street, was a surprising sense of ease. At the same time, some of these conversations might have been prelude for future deals.

It was Friday midafternoon, in any case. The rather late and leisurely lunch-taking (by a good deal more men than women) came at the end of the work week, the diamond trading having already ceased in preparation for the sabbath to begin at sundown. Still, at the next door kosher sushi place no one was ordering the “Titanic Sushi” (a slightly-off cultural translation not quite on a par with the infamous Ginza department store’s display of a crucified Santa Claus at Christmas time). The humongous “boat” of fish rolls could be had for the everyday price of a hundred twenty-five euros. Who would have the time to digest such a meal on a stop after work, though, before heading home for what was probably to be the Friday evening’s boiled chicken (hence the fewer women in the gallery, who were home cooking, with the kids)?

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