Gimme Shelter

The following is an article I wrote explaining the survivalist tactics of the Brussels skateboard community to ensure a roof over their heads when it rained because nobody else cared. Thanks to the dedication of Youssef Abaoud, Bart Rapelberg and a few others the Byrrrh DIY skatepark still exists. As a post-scriptum to my article, the park relocated from Tour et Taxis (where another concrete bowl is getting its finishing touches as I type) to the old RTL studios also known as the Pyramid at Avenue d’Ariane 12 in Woluwe St. Lambert. Open everyday 6-11pm with kids sessions on wednesdays and sundays from 1-5.30pm. Support your local skateboarders!

Thanks to The Creative Book and Sanj at The Quarterly for listening to our story and getting it printed. Also thanks to Lee Kirby for the photos and Chris Turner for the film!

Brussels might be a political mecca, but it definitely isn’t a skateboarding mecca. The omnipresent rain and surrealist idea of street paving will grind away at a skater’s dreams and not in a good way. That said, the locals are a resilient bunch that stick together and know better than any other counter-culture that if you want something done, you’re better off doing it yourself. The call to arms came after one too many sessions were spent breathing the exhaust fumes of an underground carpark or sharing bus terminal halls with many an unsavoury character. Brussels needs an indoor skatepark now!

The late-great indoor skatepark located in the suburb of Anderlecht shut its doors 10 years ago, and things have never been the same since that fateful day. There were the Brigitinnes bowls near the city centre, but officials were quick to have them buried for safety reasons. A few pre-fab parks popped up here and there but they were too small or poorly designed. Some of the older skaters got organized and negotiated with the city to design and build a public square with skateboarding features. It’s better than nothing, but its nothing in comparison to what’s been built is much smaller cities and towns across Belgium. Regardless, the same major issue remains: All of these recreational substitutions are outdoors and helpless to the precipitous elements.

Enter Youssef Abaoud: A skateboarder through and through of Moroccan descent with 30 years of skateboarding experience under his belt and the scars to prove it. The scattering of grey hairs that crown his head are the only tell-tale sign that Youssef isn’t a young buck. His positive attitude and relentless energy are testament to the fountain of youth he sips from each day. Even though there are no official documents to prove it, Youssef is the Mayor-elect of Brussels with friends in every borough and his ear connected firmly to the sounds of the street. Hearing the desperation of his constituency, Youssef embarked on a journey to find shelter for his friends.

Whilst labouring south of the canal, Youssef discovered the vast and mostly vacant Byrrh warehouse. Byrrh was a slightly obscure yet popular aperitif made of wine, mistelle and quinine – not beer as the name could suggest – during the post-second World War era. Unfortunately the French drink’s popularity never spread further afield that a few neighbouring countries and gradually sank into oblivion. What remains of this alcoholic beverage in Brussels is the listed warehouse located south of the city centre. The enormous redbrick building currently sits centre-stage in a heated political battle pitching re-development and privatisation against local and social service.

All the skateboarders want is a roof over their heads then they will take care of the rest. There are empty buildings and warehouses dotted across the city, but with the steady influx of European civil servants and lobbyists moving to Brussels each year, real-estate prices steadily climb to stratospheric heights. The local authorities are no good either, as they bicker over budgets and hide their incompetence behind red tape. For a city that is quick to defend its position as the heart of Europe, Brussels is still very ignorant to the real needs of its citizens. Somewhere far down on the political agenda between safe cycle lanes and homeless shelters, you might find skateparks.

In this political limbo, Youssef saw the opportunity to put a roof over everyone’s head and seized it. He negotiated with the owners to use one of the large empty chambers rent-free and build a few ramps to skate. With the help of Bart, Maurice, Yves, Old Mike, Moms, Alexis, Piet and a handful of close friends, the wheels were set in motion to build an indoor skatepark. Bart and Maurice took their experience as set designers to work the jigsaws and drills, whilst Piet perched from the top of tall ladders to re-wire the lights and Old Mike distributed the tools from his truck. Yves runs the infamous skateshop Ride All Day (20 years old this year!) and made sure everyone who passed through his doors heard about what the local skateboarders were doing. When he wasn’t supporting skater-owned brands at his shop, Yves was cycling halfway across town to support his friends erect skater-built ramps. For those of us who worked desk jobs during the day, we learnt to build transitions and banks by night. Everyone dug deep into their pockets to help keep the dream alive and a couple of well-placed industry connections offered a helping hand to fund our fun too. All Youssef asked in return was a couple of euros entry fee to keep the lights on and fridge stocked with cold beers – a bare necessity for tired sweaty skateboarders.

It wasn’t long before news of the Byrrh started to spread and people started to come from further afield to enjoy a good session. Winter was in full swing but suddenly the local skate community was thriving again with old friendships rekindled and younger generations mingling with the often forgotten older guard. As popularity grew, things got more coordinated with a Facebook page to keep everyone updated about opening times and hyped with video clips of last night’s session. Bart set up a workshop for his skateboard-influenced designs, Tommy and Youssef pasted their photo prints on the walls for visual stimulation, Yves put up some free product for the best trick comps and Maurice and Moms hit the decks for a few late night parties. Soon people made the pilgrimage to Byrrh not only for the skateboarding, but the culture too. The Byrrh has become more than just a skatepark, it’s a community centre for the neighbourhood, the city and the region.

The grey clouds of autumn slowly moved in from above, bringing outbursts of rain but also the ominous expiry date to everyone’s fun. At the end of September, Youssef and his merry band of board fellows had to vacate the premises, taking all of their hard work with them and the memories too. A last ditch effort to keep things rolling was made during the end of summer when a small ramp was erected on the wasteland surround the Byrrh – A last settlement for the local skateboarders to regroup before the winter set in and sent them on their ways.

Even if Brussels is best known for its institutions, indulgent diet and inevitable rain, another natural phenomena also blesses the city each year that you won’t hear about anywhere else except if you live here: The Indian Summer. Somehow, the heat wave that crossed much of Southern Europe between June, July and August always makes a last stop off above Belgium bringing warm sunshine and good vibes to the city. For Youssef and the local skateboarders, this year’s Indian Summer also brought new hope with news of an empty warehouse just South East of the city centre ready to take them in. Like Noah and the Ark, Youssef will lead the skateboarders to shelter from the rain. Nobody knows how long the rain will last, but the skateboarders will continue to ride the storm regardless.

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