Transit Island

People in transit wrote a large part of the history of this urban island. Refugees, immigrants, newcomers, departees, fortune seekers, expatriates, pipe-dreamers, visionaries, castaways, outcasts, illegals, emigrants, wayfarers, wanderers and exiles, they all left a story behind.

Migrants from all over Europe travelled to Antwerp between 1873 and 1934 for the crossing on one of the Red Star Line ships, that docked in the Rijnkaai. Because the shipping company had to pay the return voyage for emigrants rejected on Ellis Island, the immigration law was strictly controlled (“no idiots, cripples, infectious sick persons, criminals and pregnant women”). In what is now the Red Star Line museum, the medical checks were carried out. Off to the promised land or otherwise stay behind in the the dregs of society.

‘t Eilandje used to be called Nieuwstad (‘new city’). It’s located between the Scheldt, Kattendijk and three large docks. If all bridges and locks are open, it is still an island.

The island spells its own poetry. I do not mean the ‘Kaaiengedicht’, a poem written by Antwerp dwellers about the river Scheldt that runs along the quays like a typewriter ribbon. This new poem writes itself. While walking, you travel through unfinished urbanity. Temporariness on the move. As a current visitor you are not a tourist, but a discoverer of painted images, of buildings and destinations under construction. They come your way unprepared, you can’t know them from any travel guide, and this rough version will only remain for a while. You connect the many street artworks. Today’s Antwerp island is at odds with the one of the past.


The island itself has also been in transit during the centuries. The district began its existence in the 16th century as an ingenious, impoldered part of the harbour within the city walls. It grew into a flourishing port until the beginning of the 20th century, moved from the 1960s towards abandonment and decline, and blossomed into new prosperity in the 21st century.