The history of Luxembourg is intimately linked to migration: emigration, immigration and internal migration are key factors that have shaped the population of country. The Land of the Red Rocks is particularly affected by these movements, notably at the end of the 19th century. In Dudelange, the Documentation Centre on Human Migration is an important hub where visitors can learn about the diversity of Luxembourg society. As part of Esch2022, the Moving Lusitalia project shines a spotlight on Little Italy and the stories of its inhabitants.
A land of emigration becomes a host country
Luxembourg, a land of emigration throughout history
Prior to the birth of the steel industry, Luxembourg was a poor and rural country, with its agriculture unable to feed an increasing population. Many inhabitants left the country in search of a better life and headed to the plains of the Danube basin in the 18th century. The exodus intensified at the start of the 19th century. Luxembourg residents emigrated to Brazil, Argentina and especially the United States, and numerous colonies of Luxembourgish people began to form across the world. Did you know, for example, that in 1908 a total of 16,000 Luxembourgers lived in Chicago? Today, almost 200 years after the arrival of the first wave of emigrants, families continue to speak Luxembourgish in the windy city!
Steel sparks a social revolution
The industrialisation of Luxembourg, in particular the development of the iron and steel industry following the discovery of iron ore deposits in the south of the country, resulted in a major change in the demographic and social fabric of the country. From 1870 onwards, farm workers in the north of the country left their land to work in the mines and factories in the south. The boom was so impressive that from 1890 the emigration practically ceased and Luxembourg became a country of immigration.
However, north-south internal migration was not sufficient to cover the needs in terms of the workforce and foreign workers began to arrive in several waves: first the Germans, then the Italians and more recently, starting in the 1960s, the Portuguese.
The arrival of workers in Luxembourg had an impact on the urban planning of cities. In Dudelange, Little Italy is a prime example of a workers' colony developed to house this new workforce. Created at the end of the 19th century, this neighbourhood, which was lodged between the factory and the mine, offers proof of the history of migration in the Grand Duchy.
The Documentation Centre on Human Migration
The Documentation Centre on Human Migration (Centre de documentation sur les migrations humaines - CDMH) is located in the former station in Little Italy. Built in 1897, the station and railway line were used to supply coal to the new iron and steel works and to transport iron. Many immigrants have passed through the area where the centre is now actively involved in the study of migration trends in Luxembourg and the Greater Region.
The CDMH has a broad scope: it develops the archives linked to the waves of migration, manages a specialised library, initiates and supports research and takes part in the dissemination of academic knowledge. In fact, the idea of a 'Museum without Walls' quickly became embedded in the museum's strategy. It is not just a question of collecting and preserving the past. It is, above all, about taking advantage of the location in an emblematic building in the heart of a district which is closely linked to migration.
Therefore, the museum spreads out into Little Italy, 'a typical neighbourhood of the heroic times of industrialisation', according to the CDMH. Nestled in the hillside between the mine and the factory, it offers a unique testimony to the workers' housing of the early 20th century.
Little Italy - the past, present and future
A short introduction to the migration in Little Italy
By taking a journey through time and unravelling the history of the Little Italy you will uncover the economic and social history of the Grand Duchy.
At the start of the 20th century, the neighbourhood was mainly inhabited by Italian immigrants however, over the years, the first inhabitants moved out as the housing built for single workers proved inadequate for families. The crisis in the steel industry in the 1970s had a major impact on the district and many Italian immigrants returned to their homeland. A different history of the district then gradually began to unfold with the arrival of Spaniards, families from ex-Yugoslavia, the Portuguese and Cape Verdeans. Over time, it is the Portuguese community which gradually becomes the most important in the district.
Throughout the 20th century, the neighbourhood's housing deteriorated but, curiously, this did not prevent immigrants from continuing to live in this area. The Italians opted to reside in the district owing to its proximity to their place of work, however, the newcomers, on low incomes, chose to settle in the region due to the inexpensive rents. It was only after the closure of the steelworks that some renovation work began: the facades have now been decorated with bright colours and the houses have been refurbished to include more modern comforts, which would have been unthinkable due to the dust and smoke from the steel works that previously blackened the houses. At present, even if the area remains popular, the sharp increase in prices on the Luxembourg real estate market has led to the first signs of gentrification...
Moving Lusitalia, a century-old neighbourhood reinvents itself
Little Italy has been and continues to be a reflection of the demographic changes witnessed in Luxembourg due to migration. Also, the neighbourhood has demonstrated an amazing ability to reinvent itself as a community, through citizen participation with inclusion and diversity as the overriding premise.
The Moving Lusitalia project, set up by the CDMH as part of Esch2022, showcases this progression. It is an exhibition that tells the story of the neighbourhood via the experiences of its people and through time, using a microhistorical approach. To achieve its objective, in 2021, the CDMH launched a call for participation in order to identify, record and showcase the life stories, memories and objects of all the citizens who have participated or are still participating in the everyday life of the neighbourhood. In 2021, the CDMH also organised several meetings with the inhabitants to analyse the so-called 'Italian period' (1880-1970) and the so-called 'Portuguese period' (late 1960s-early 2000s). It also set up a round table to discuss the future of the district.
The Moving Lusitalia team have developed an internal interactive exhibition and an external trail in the neighbourhood. The opening ceremony will take place on 25th April 2022. It will start at 6 p.m. at the CDMH for a visit of the exhibition, followed by a concert by the Italian artist Maria Mazzotta at the Boulodrome of Dudelange. The CDMH exhibition will run until mid-December 2022.
Three questions for Heidi Rodrigues Martins, sociologist at CDMH
The Moving Lusitalia project tells the story of the neighbourhood through the experiences of its inhabitants throughout the decades. Why was this microhistorical approach chosen to compose the history of the district?
Moving Lusitalia presents a history through time of everyday life in the Italian district of Dudelange. Contrary to what one might imagine, adopting a microhistorical approach does not mean telling a scaled-back story. In fact, we start from a local perspective - the history of a neighbourhood - in order to illustrate the global, Luxembourgish and European context. The global microhistory creates a dialogue between a micro-analytical approach and a broadly developed history. The CDMH has adopted this approach, which overlaps with its philosophy and objectives. Since its creation, more than 25 years ago, the association has been nurturing a common memory created through several polyphonic voices. As such, close links have been established and maintained at local, as well as at (trans)national level.
What will we find in the Moving Lusitalia exhibition? Can you share a little gem from the testimonies collected from the inhabitants of the neighbourhood?
The exhibition, developed with the Tokonoma studio in Milan, is based on the life stories of people who have lived in the Italian district or who continue to live there, as well as on archival documents. The project will occupy the interior of the Gare-Usines. However, it will also take place outside in the Italian district.
The interior will be dedicated to an interactive audiovisual exhibition made up of 'talking objects' connected to the everyday life of the Italian district. While outside, the public will be invited to travel through time with the help of a digital app and walking through the neighbourhood and immersing themselves in the stories of the houses.
The chronicle of 'inherited furniture' represents an unexpected treasure, as revealed by the various testimonies. By following the history of these pieces of furniture that connect several generations of migrants, we are able to question the shared notions of time and space, as well as borders. A classic remix!
The future of the neighbourhood: in the exhibition, by casting a light on the past and the present, is it possible to imagine what the future holds for the district? Will new waves of migration reshape the neighbourhood? Given the situation in the real estate market in Luxembourg, are we going to see a gentrification of Little Italy?
The Moving Lusitalia project reminds us that space is a social product, created by the people who occupy it or pass through it. A space is shaped by those who live in it and appropriate it. It cannot be understood without its temporal dimension and the rhythm of its daily life. The presence of 'mixed identities' has always revealed the unique nature and richness of the Italian district. To this day, the area is constantly evolving. It is true that new urban developments are popping up and, as in the past, some residents will leave the area, while others will come and make it their home.
By predicting the future, we would be obliged to step further away from scientific reasoning. However, we will continue our investigations of the population as meticulously as possible in order to enrich the common historical narrative with as many voices as possible.
We would like to thank Heidi Rodrigues Martins, CDMH sociologist in charge of the conceptual coordination of the Moving Lusitalia project, for answering our questions.