Spoorzone Tilburg Station

Linguistic directions in De Spoorzone of Tilburg

23 minutes to read
Jan Dijsselbloem

In 1886, the area north of the Tilburg train station became an area where the Dutch Railways maintained and repaired their trains and wagons. People from Tilburg started calling it the Forbidden City, because it was only open to railway employees. 125 years later, the city government reclaimed ownership of the area and started developing it. After a little more than half a decade of planning and development, the area has started to become a more urbanized area. In this area, called 'De Spoorzone', we can now find an abundance of signs, with a variety of indexical meanings and references to old and new. This paper will explore these signs and their meanings, their indexicality, through a linguistic landscape analysis.

Introducing De Spoorzone

Tilburg has a strong historical connection to the railroads. Compared to cities like Utrecht, Amsterdam or Den Bosch, its station is fairly small, being in between the nodes of Breda, Eindhoven and Den Bosch. However, north of the train station used to be a large area where the Dutch Railways had set up their 'Werkplaatsen van de Maatschappij tot Exploitatie van Staatsspoorwegen' (Workshops of the Society for Exploitation of State Railways), also named 'De Ateliers' (a French loanword for workshops). The area was founded in 1868, and it provided work for thousands of people, until it closed in 2011. As it had always been a very restricted, off-limits area, the people from Tilburg called it the ‘Forbidden City’. However, after the disbandment of the workshops, the local government decided to reclaim the area, and to reshape it into a new, much more urban area, connecting the southern part of the city (i.e. the city center) to the northern part, a mostly unfamiliar area for people that have no need to be there. Ever since, the name of the area has been changed into 'De Spoorzone' (the Rail Area), and development of a new urban environment will continue for at least a few more years.

Transforming a place that used to be dedicated to the Dutch Railways, and was disconnected from (most of) the people living in the city, into a multipurpose urban area, is a pretty major shift for 'De Spoorzone'. Its development is characterized by a strong focus on knowledge, living and entrepreneurship. It stretches out for over a kilometer across the heart of Tilburg. At this moment in time, it is being rediscovered, and you can walk around for hours. That is what I did, and was struck by the incredible number of linguistic messages that it contains. The place is covered in everything from graffiti to official signs, connecting both the past and the future, dedicating to what once was and what is about to be. There are many signs that are an ode to the former occupant of the area. A dining bar called ‘Eetbar de Wagon’ (Dining bar the Wagon), which has the tagline: 'Om even te ontsporen'  (To derail for a while), the LocHal (short for Locomotive Hall), and 'De Wagenmakerij’ (the place where the cartwrights used to work) are all examples of names that point back in time. Other signs in 'De Spoorzone' look towards the future, focusing on new knowledge creation, and exploring the possibilities of the area. New knowledge will also be created by Tilburg University and Tilburg School of Humanities, since the faculty has developed plans for laboratories, a skills lab and a few classrooms. Because of this prospect, it is even more interesting to visit 'De Spoorzone', so that we can already get acquainted, using linguistic landscaping as a method to learn more about the area.

"‘De Spoorzone’ tells us something beyond the story of Tilburg: a story of reformulation of the past."

In this paper, I will analyze the indexicality of the signs and names found in 'De Spoorzone', signs that point both towards a newer, modernized version of Tilburg, as well as at over a century of history. Blommaert (2013) mentions that there are two sides to linguistic landscaping. On the one hand there is the need "to grasp the situated and momentary occurrence of a sign", while on the other hand we also need to "grasp the layers of history and meaning at play in a sign, as well as its locational history." The main focus of this paper will be on just that: analyzing the signs in 'De Spoorzone' while trying to find the links to their past, and in other cases the future. Silverstein (2006) wrote that every sign presupposes and entails things, when used. This means that every sign has been placed in a certain location with a certain aim, with the ideology of the sign poster in mind. To start of with a more quantitative approach of LLS, I will first discuss the signs by looking at the languages that have been used, and how they combine. I will then look at the types of signs, ranging from graffiti to billboards and official signs, and by the end of this paper, continuously narrowing my scope, I will look at how these messages fit within an historical timeframe.

Semiotic signs in De Spoorzone

Moving through 'De Spoorzone', you will find that the dominant language is Dutch, even more so than I had anticipated in advance. Nearly all official texts (i.e. banners, traffic signs, etc.) are in Dutch. Many other texts are also in Dutch, like graffiti, but these tend do deviate more often from the dominant language. English is the next most frequently spotted language, and shows itself mostly through, indeed, graffiti (e.g. ‘Look Out For The Showdown’ - Figure 1) and when used by companies or venues focusing on the young generation of Tilburgers (e.g. Ladybird Skatepark, Hall of Fame, etc.).

Figure 1: Graffiti in 'De Spoorzone': "Heb Lief" and "Look Out For The Showdown"

Less frequently found is street language, usually in graffiti, and then there are three occasions of Spanish and French. The word ‘amigos’ is used in a few pieces of graffiti - which turns out to be a name tag for a graffiti artist -  and one of the buildings, the 'Deprezgebouw' (Deprez building), refers to the family name, originating from French, that references the two brothers who founded the particular building in 1884. Finally, at one of the restaurants old railroad related equipment is used as plant boxes (Figure 2). One of them had the name of the company on it and gave away its origin: the company, Alstom Belfort, is active in the railway sector and its headquarters are in France, and  ‘Atelier des ailettes’ is French. It translates to ‘Workshop of fins', most likely referring to iron 'fins' that were once used on the roof of some trains to improve their aerodynamics.

Figure 2: Plant box with a reminder of what the area used to be

Except for a few exceptions, signs are monolingual. Some directional signs are bilingual, because the names of the locations they point to are in English, however, added information such as 'kantoor' (office) or 'leverancier' (supplier), have not been translated into English. For the graffiti in this area, we find that most of it is either Dutch, English or street language. Within one graffiti tag there are limited signs of code mixing, however. When tags occur together, or very near to each other, we do see some bi- or multilingualism, (e.g. 'Heb Lief' ('Love' used as an imperative) next to 'Look Out For The Showdown'). All official signs are in Dutch, including banners, traffic signs and signs about ongoing construction.

In the next part of this paper I will look deeper into the forms of the signs in 'De Spoorzone', eventually zooming in at the banners that are placed outside the entrance to the train station, a set of banners in the more cultural part of 'De Spoorzone', as well as the names of a few of the buildings.

Forms of signs

On display is a multitude of signs, which can be used to obtain more knowledge about the language, culture and history of Tilburg, and this area in particular. As I have mentioned before, there are signs in various forms. According to Blommaert (2013) there are three types of signs: permanent, event-related signs, and 'noise'. The first signs are like landmarks, they are more or less permanently in the same location (to change only if a street, for example, has to make way for something else). The event-related signs are placed in their specific place on purpose, but will disappear as time passes by, think of advertisements or recruiting signs. The last type of signs, 'noise', are signs that are in the area, but were not put there on purpose, such as empty cans or parked cars with texts on them. I will not take into account the last group of signs, for there would be way too many of them in 'De Spoorzone'.

"There are three types of signs: permanent signs, event-related signs, and 'noise'."

Banners: official banners that invite and inform people. They are applied on wooden boarding, likely covering it up, and give the area a more appealing look, despite the fact it is heavily under construction. The banners are event-related, and once the wooden boarding is no longer necessary, it is likely they are removed. Banners are also used by companies to show the people traveling through the area that they are working on certain projects, or that they are active within their respective fields (e.g. arts, foods, etc.) within De 'De Spoorzone'.

Bill boards: these are used by companies that aim to share information about their activities, and are also advertisements about living in the area. These are also event-related.

Building names: the buildings in the area all have names. Some are referred to with a number, such as building 84. Other buildings have an actual name, such as the LocHal, the Deprez building, 'eetbar De Wagon' (Dining Bar the Wagon) etc. These signs are of a more permanent nature. If, for example, an enterprise would go bankrupt, and another company would take residence in the building, it might change its name, but it is unlikely that this will happen very often.

Graffiti: graffiti in the area ranges from simple tags (with the following artists most prominent: Jeuk, Acse, Dims, Sneak, CFK, Amigos, and Conan), to messages (e.g. 'Heb Lief'), to more elaborate art in dedicated places (as shown in Figure 3). These signs are permanent, but not as permanent as the names of buildings, because when they get re-painted or removed, they too will be gone.

Traffic signs: these are signs that direct people in a certain direction, or tell them where they are, as well as tell them what they are allowed and/or supposed to do. These signs are permanent, until, for example, the local situation changes.

Other signs: other linguistic signs in the area include pamphlets - there is one about Stalin, which claims to be trying to ‘humanize the bastard’ - but also re-used items from the times it was still a maintenance area for trains (e.g. the plant box mentioned before), and signs giving the reader instructions (e.g. there is a particular sign that redirects visitors to the other side of the building). These signs can be both permanent or event-related.

Figure 3: More elaborate graffiti art


Now, let us have a look at the indexicality, the meaning, of the signs in 'De Spoorzone'. I will look at them both in a historical way and at what they refer to now. I will discuss a few different specific categories of signs mentioned above, and will leave others for what they are. Some signs just might be traffic signs, like those that you will find anywhere, and even though they can still tell us quite a lot, they reside at the very outer limits of the scope of this paper. The most important signs are the signs that visitors of 'De Spoorzone' encounter when coming from, or going to the station, and while moving through 'De Spoorzone'. Here, for starters, we find a number of banners that point towards both past, present and future.


Figure 4: Four banners in De Spoorzone

It is a bit of a give away, since they actually use the words ‘future’ and ‘heritage’ in the blue and the green banner (Figure 4). The one on the left says: 'De Spoorzone biedt zicht op de toekomst' ('De Spoorzone' offers a view of the future), while the green one on the right says: 'Tegen het decor van industrieel erfgoed beleef je De Spoorzone' (Against the backdrop of cultural heritage you will experience 'De Spoorzone'). Knowledge – ‘Kennis’ – is connected to the future, and the picture of someone wearing VR goggles, used in the top left banner, also shows that some type of virtual reality might be part of that future. This is a forward pointing sign, referring to what is yet to come, that which is still in development. On the right side of the collage, on the other hand, we find a metaphorical reference to both the now and the past. The area, as we have discussed already, shows many signs of its past. In the introduction we learned that the maintenance area for the Dutch Railways opened in 1886, and was in business until 2011. The internet is home to many pictures of that past, but I would like to share one striking example, which I found on Google Maps (Figure 5 and 6), when I went back in time in Street View. For the location where now we have the multilane 'Burgemeester Brokxlaan' (Mayor Brokx lane), which runs through 'De Spoorzone', I found a picture on Street View from 2009, two years before the Dutch Railways closed up shop, showing a narrow road parallel to a fence that closes off the work area.

Figure 5 and 6: Google Street View 2009 and 2016 in De Spoorzone

The blue building, with the taller brown and gold structure on top, on the left is still there, on the right hand side of the left picture is what we now know as the 'Burgemeester Brokxlaan'. But in the top right corner, we see the name of the street on which the picture was taken: 'Atelierstraat' (Workshop street). The fence, indeed, seems to keep outsiders out, like the nickname Forbidden City suggested. It is striking to see that Google Maps already has given this street its current name, virtually printed on the road surface.

"It is striking to see that Google Maps already has given this street its current name, virtually printed on the brick road."

Looking at almost the same picture, made in 2016, we see that the ‘Atelierstraat’ has actually partially disappeared and became the bicycle lane parallel to the 'Burgemeester Brokxlaan'. In the picture on the right, you still see the blue, tall building, but the area has become much more accessible.

Back to the banners, especially the two on the bottom of the collage in Figure 4. We find two signs that point towards the present: on the left, the focus is on living in 'De Spoorzone', stating: 'De dynamiek van de stad in je achtertuin' (The dynamics of the city in your back yard), while the banner on the right focuses on entrepreneurship: 'De Spoorzone biedt ruimte aan creatief ondernemerschap' ('De Spoorzone' offers space for creative entrepreneurship). There was another sign in 'De Spoorzone', a tall, rotating bill board (figure 7) that was still advertising to sell (or rent) the houses that are shown on the banner above, so without directly stating it, the combination of these signs indicates that this banner also points towards the (near) future (i.e. that future when the houses will be built and people are able to live in them).

Figure 7 - A bill board advertising houses in 'De Spoorzone'

A look at the buildings in De Spoorzone

If we look at the historical buildings, we see that some of them have kept their name from back in the days, such as ‘Gebouw 88’ (Building 88), which we will focus on in a little while. Other buildings, and companies that have opened shop in the buildings, often have adopted names that reflect on the past. In Figure 8, you see many signs, showing directions to a number of the buildings in 'De Spoorzone'.

Figure 8: Sign in De Spoorzone showing directions to the buildings

Manybuildings are simply numbered, 76, 79, 81, 83, 84 and 88; these still use their former numbers and therefore are historically linked to the era of the Dutch Railways. The Hall of Fame – combined with Ladybird Skatepark – in the left column, are as the founders of these venues call them on their website, cultural 'factories', where different sorts of cultures are offered the chance to be expressed, ranging from skate boarding to Brazilian percussion and photography. It is located in an old maintenance building, but it linguistically doesn’t show any connections to its past, so these locations focus on the present, and point in a sideways direction.

The ‘Wagenmakerij’ and the ‘Koepelhal’ both have kept their respective names from the past. 'De Koepelhal' was build in 1902, and the 'Wagenmakerij', which was originally built in 1868, was partially destroyed during World War II, the part which still remains today is also known as building 92. These buildings used to be in use for the maintenance and repairs of trains, as well as individual parts of trains. 'Wagenmakerij' translates, with some freedom of interpretation, to ‘the place of the cartwrights’, or 'cartwrightery'. 'De Koepelhal' is named after the shape of its roof, which is dome-like. These buildings are now in use as event halls, but still point, both visually and linguistically, to the past.

"Some names of the buildings are indexical to both their past, as well as the now."

Some names of buildings are indexical to both their past and the present, such as 'Ontdekstation', 'Kennismakerij', 'Locomotiefhallen', or LocHal, and 'Club Smederij', because these are more recently made up names. The ‘LocHal’ is the largest building in the area, and bears the name of its former function, as a maintenance hall for locomotives (Figure 9). ‘Ontdekstation’ (Discovery station) is a former maintenance shop from the Dutch Railways as well, but is now a place where children can explore, discover and experiment. The word ‘station’ links this building to 'De Spoorzone', but in a sideways direction rather than to the past, since it is located close to the train station. ‘De Kennismakerij’ may be a wink to ‘De Wagenmakerij’, however, instead of a place where trains and parts are being repaired, knowledge is shared and created. The final name is 'Club Smederij'. This is a club that is located in a building where they used to maintain train engines, and one of the events that actually takes place there, is called 'Machinekamer', Dutch for Engine Room. 'Smederij' is Dutch for smithy, the place where the smiths used to work on the engines.

Figure 9 - The locomotive hall in 1939, now known as the LocHal

source: Regionaal Archief Tilburg

Buildings in the Western part of De Spoorzone

When you leave the area within 'De Spoorzone' which I just described, you ‘walk’ back to the station, and past it. But first you walk by 'Theater de Boemel' (Figure 10), the name of which refers to an old-fashioned slow train. Much like such trains, 'Theater de Boemel' is easy to access, and is a low-key theatre, with free entrance to events where they a stage is offered to both professional entertainers and those who perform for the first time. Across the 'Burgemeester Brokxlaan', there is still a lot of room for development, including building 65, which used to be the place where steam was generated to power the area in its early days. Going West, we encounter an old train wagon, which houses ‘Eetbar de Wagon’ (Dining Bar the Wagon), linguistically and visually pointing to the past (Figure 11). Its (online) tagline: 'Om even te ontsporen' (To derail for a while), is a reference to 'De Spoorzone', but is also a meaningful metaphorical wink for letting go, feeling relaxed, while visiting this dining bar. Nearby, restaurant 'Houtloods' is located, which used to be the place where wood was stored ('houtloods' is Dutch for timber-yard).  

Figure 10 and 11 - 'Theater de Boemel' and 'Eetbar de Wagon'

When we go back to our starting point, we pass by a sign of ‘EVE’ ('Eten Voor Eten', Food for Food), a place where food, sharing and drinks are supposed to find each other (Figure 12). When we look at the same building in Google Street View, a few years ago, we find that there was a very different message displayed. In 2014, the building had not yet found its future destination, and the message on the windows reads: 'Culinaire toplocatie te koop/huur', which means: 'Top culinary location for sale/rent'. Now, June 2017, the message reads that in the fall of this year, people will be able to visit the place, a message for the sign reader of today, but to be used in the future.

Figure 12 - Left: sign on building 2017 © Jan Dijsselbloem, right: same building in 2014, different text, source: maps.google.com

Building 88

Now, one of the buildings that we haven’t discussed yet, is building 88. There are a few more buildings that I did not pay attention to in this paper, because they have not yet found their future, or at least, linguistically it wasn’t clear yet. However, building 88 was supposed to get torn down and make place for new buildings. But rather than taking it down, the city government decided to renovate the place and to dedicate it to entrepreneurship and innovation. Interestingly though, it was wrapped in the Dutch red, white and blue for King’s Day 2017, since it was under renovation, but it has not been unwrapped yet (Figure 13). Over the flag of the Netherlands, four banners are placed, all of them pointing at important elements in Tilburg history.

Figure 13 - banners on building 88

The first symbol, working from left to right, points at a time from even before the Dutch Railways had their maintenance shops in Tilburg, and refers to King William II of the Netherlands. He once said about Tilburg: “Here I breathe freely and feel happy.” This is why he built (part of a) palace in Tilburg, the city where he also laid himself to rest. Because of the connection with the former king, the largest soccer club in Tilburg is called 'Willem II'. The second symbol, a horse in a merry-go-round, refers to the 'Tilburgse Kermis' (Tilburg Fair), the largest fair of the Benelux, as well as one of the oldest. According to Wijffels (2002), the fair has existed already for over 400 years (though not continuously). The third banner refers to the 'Piushaven' (Pius Harbor), the rather small harbor near the city center, which is named after Pope Pius IX (Peeters, 1987). A reminder that Tilburg used to be a city with a very Roman-Catholic orientation (i.e. 75-100% of people from Tilburg were Roman Catholics in those days (Knippenberg, 1992), but the same goes for many, if not almost all, cities and villages in Brabant and Limburg). The harbor opened in 1923 but lost its purpose in the 80s and 90s. However, much like 'De Spoorzone', it has been reclaimed and is now an area where much cultural development is going on. The actual symbol in the banner is a depiction of an iconic bridge in the harbor area. Finally, we see the symbol ‘88’ in the last banner, referring to the building the flag and banners are hanging from. All these signs have important meanings in an historical, backwards pointing, direction, as well as in a sideways and forward pointing direction, because the elements depicted in the signs have played an important part in the creation of Tilburg’s culture and are an important part of what Tilburg is nowadays.


The Tilburg School for Humanities is heading for 'De Spoorzone', maybe now with slightly more knowledge than before. From all the linguistic landscaping elements that we have been looking at, we may conclude that people take pride in 'De Spoorzone', or at least acknowledge that it has been there for 125 years. Although 'De Spoorzone' is built for the future, with the idea of knowledge creation being one of the main goals, according to the banners and a few of the companies that have taken shop in the area, the focus, linguistically, lies heavily on its past. Numerous places share their name with the vacated industrial sites they were redeveloped from, into multipurpose sites, which is a format of passing on older industrial site names (e.g. Wagenmakerij, LocHal, etc.) to repurposed locations. Thus, the linguistic landscape of ‘De Spoorzone’ tells us something beyond the story of Tilburg: a story of reformulation of the past, of an old industrial heritage as multipurpose urban area – a genre of urban renovation.

"The story of 'De Spoorzone' is still very young, less than ten years old."

Within the next few years, 'De Spoorzone' will go through new phases of building, renovating and creating. It would be very interesting to keep observing this recently ‘reclaimed’ part of Tilburg. We are the first generation to be able to enjoy the area, and at this point we are constantly reminded of its history. Every nook and cranny is stuffed to the brim with reminders of these days of yore. Will this practice continue, or will this, like so much else, be a trend that will fade away over time? And what will happen then? The story of 'De Spoorzone' is still very young, less than ten years old, and its near future can be predicted to a certain extent, looking at the plans that are currently on the table. I wonder if the people and the entrepreneurs that will be spending their time in 'De Spoorzone', will continue to come up with names and words that are reminders of the era when it still was known as the ‘Workshops of the Society for Exploitation of State Railways’, linguistically adding to the image of the city as a blue-collar city.

Either way, we should start exploring the area more comprehensively, starting next year, whether as researchers, or as students and employees of Tilburg School of Humanites. For me, this exercise has only been an attempt to scrape the linguistic surface of the area, in order to find out what the signs tell us about their location. We should keep a fresh perspective with regard to the future plans as well as its history, but if we look carefully at the linguistic features, those that are there right now, those that will pop up in the future, and those that once were, my guess is that we will be able to tell a lot about the influence that 'De Spoorzone' has had and will have on the character and culture of the city.


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