A 400-year-old derelict Belgian village threatened with demolition become a magnet for the world’s best street artists. Is it enough for Doel to survive?
I was missing chaos until I found the doomed town of Doel. After a recent trip to Indonesia which gave me a crash course on how chaos can look like, Brussels seemed a tad too orderly and sober by contrast. No monkeys on the roof, no motorcycles that carry whole families plus their belongings, no passengers on top of buses, nor cars that cross through red lights – the ordinary was failing to excite the eye and mind and the civilised world was once again comfortable, yet colourless and dull.
Extending the Port of Antwerp
Somewhere not far from Antwerp lies Doel, a small, 400-year old village the Belgian state threatens to demolish based on a decision to expand the Port of Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest. Doel happened to be in the wrong place. Its inhabitants left. From a population of some 1,300 people in the 70s, now just some 25 people are still refusing to do so, arguing the town is home to Belgium’s first stone-mill and a listed 17th-century house that belonged to Peter Paul Rubens‘s family. But the evacuation order could become resolute one day. Doel is slowly but rather surely going down.
Yet for now, its streets are alive with a weird kind of magic atmosphere, among hundreds of abandoned houses and facilities. They are empty, devoid of residents, and overtly displaying heaps of dirt and unkempt gardens of greedy, uncontrollable weeds. Some houses collapsed, others are still standing. But in the eerie space that feels like a cataclysm made everyone pack and run, a strange and unexpected sight emerges. Every single wall is covered in graffiti, making Doel a colourful if far from cheerful place against the gloomy mood set by the Belgian weather.
European graffiti artists have left their marks on the walls in an attempt to save Doel from demolition, hoping to convince the government to preserve it, if only as a container for street art or an accidental tourist attraction.
But it does not look like the message is coming across. For now, no entry fee is claimed and no one distributes flyers to celebrate the fortunate outcome of a derelict village that was doomed to disappear but has thus far escaped its fate.
In spite of itself, Doel magnetises visitors, no doubt thanks to its creative graffiti that gives life to its post-apocalyptic emptiness. People who are curious enough go to this dodgy but seductive area with a camera and snap some shots. The day I visited, a group of men were taking pictures of their Ferraris and Porches parked against various graffiti backgrounds.
Doel, it must be said, has become an original and seriously cool place unlike any other.
Some of the graffiti artworks are exceptional. It is exciting to be almost alone on empty streets amid the bountiful testimony of street art. Scary, too. This is a genuinely derelict place, not a museum that is meant to recreate the impression of abandonment. The doors to some of the houses were left open just wide enough for the curious passer-by to spot the traces of a questionable kind of occupancy. Squatters, no doubt.
Doel made me marvel – not only at how an ugly place (if you add the neighbouring nuclear plant and the large number of electricity pylons) can become eye-catching and visually interesting enough to be inspiring, but also how it can earn itself an identity made of spray paint models.
Graffiti makes Doel worth a visit, if only for a while. And with discussions to erase it from the map dating back to 1970, my guess is that you still have plenty of time to go and take those pictures, too.