October 4, 2013 7:11 pm

Postcard from ... Antwerp: life in the old docks yet

Red Star Line Museum

Red Star Line Museum

I’m standing outside a shabby concrete warehouse. Rusted hoists and towering cranes loom along the banks of the river Scheldt. Antwerp’s sprawling docklands, the world’s fourth-largest working port, stretch to a sun-soaked horizon.

I’ve left behind the medieval buildings and lively cafés of the city’s historic Groenplaats square to join a new maritime-themed walking tour of Antwerp’s Het Eilandje (Little Island) district, exploring the long-forgotten buildings that witnessed the city’s days as a hub of mass migration to the new world.

At the end of the 19th century, the docks to the north of the city were the last stop for many emigrants before they set off, wide-eyed and hopeful, for New York’s Ellis Island. Some 2.5m people, many of whom were Jews from eastern and central Europe, left Antwerp to seek their fortune in the US and Canada between 1873 and 1934.

The walking tour, organised and booked through the Antwerp Tourist Office, is brought to life by a guide who reads actual testimonials from departing emigrants outside each building. We pass ramshackle warehouses and behemoth office blocks before arriving at the newly opened Red Star Line Museum, named after the shipping company that carried so many across the Atlantic.

Housed in three former RSL warehouses, the museum is the latest addition to a city council-backed regeneration programme that is transforming Antwerp’s docklands into a lively new part of town. As well as new eateries like Lux, which offers dockside cocktails with contemporary Flemish fare, and the trendy Felix Pakhuis, set in a huge converted warehouse, the docks have just hosted the first Island Festival, which is set to take place every autumn, with a line-up drawing on the music, fashion and literary influences of the docklands’ heyday.

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By 2026, more than €450m will have been invested in local infrastructure, while a new tramline connecting the island to the historic Old Town is due by 2016. “I remember the island in the 1980s as a place nobody would ever come to,” says Rick Philips, the tour guide, as we stand outside the gleaming red-brick and glass entrance of the Red Star Line Museum. “Now, I feel this whole area is finally coming back to life.”

As the 90-minute walking tour concludes, I head inside the museum to explore, tracing the journey of departing emigrants from their arrival at Antwerp train station, via the stringent medical checks and compulsory vinegar showers before departure, to life on board the transatlantic ships. Along the way, original photographs, documents and artefacts tell the human story behind the journey.

One of the most treasured items in the collection is a resignation letter by Albert Einstein to the Prussian Academy of Science. Einstein had decided to flee the rise of Nazism in Germany and travelled as a first-class passenger in 1933.

Elsewhere, a gallery devoted to travelling steerage highlights the contrasting experience for third class passengers, herded into cramped conditions below deck, while the first-class passengers feasted on elaborate dinners and danced to the sounds of a jazz band. Amid the original marbled floors and cracked alcoves, carefully restored by the New York architects Beyer Blinder Belle, I feel like I’m actually stepping into the emigrants’ shoes.

“There are still a lot of people on the move and looking for a better life today,” says museum curator Bram Beelaert. “That’s why, after seven years of research and building the collection from donations from surviving ex-passengers, we set out to trace the implicit connection from Antwerp’s role in history to the present day.”

Back on the streets, the district is stirring. The clatter of workmen, transforming formerly derelict warehouses into quayside apartments, is constant.

As the city rediscovers its place in the story of mass migration, the population of Antwerp is growing again. I learn from the museum’s final gallery that more than 170 different nationalities are now represented in the city.

“There’s always a risk that, as the [Eilandje] area loses its gritty charm, it could start to feel increasingly sanitised,” says Philips. “But, if it leads to more developments like the Red Star Line Museum, and more understanding of Antwerp’s role in the world, that is the kind of evolution I really want to see.”

www.redstarline.org; admission to the museum costs €8 (under 12s free), closed Mondays.

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