I was missing chaos when I found 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 together with their belongings, no passengers on top of buses, cars that actually stop at the red light –the ordinary was failing to excite the eye and mind and the civilised world was once again comfortable, yet colourless and dull.
Somewhere not far from Antwerp lies Doel, a small village the Belgian state is giving up on 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. Some 25 people are still refusing to do so, 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. They are empty, devoid of residents, overtly displaying heaps of dirt and unkempt gardens filled with greedy weeds that grow uncontrollably. Some houses collapsed, others are still standing. And in the creepiness of an area that leaves the impression that a cataclysm made everyone pack and run, a strange and unexpected sight! Every single wall is covered in graffiti, making Doel a colourful if far from cheerful place in the gloomy mood set by the Belgian weather.
European graffiti artists 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, 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 escaped its fate.
In spite of itself, Doel magnetises visitors, however, no doubt thanks to its creative graffiti that gives life to its eerie 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, visually interesting enough to be inspiring, and even earn itself an identity made of spray paint models. Graffiti made Doel worth a visit, if only for a while. And with discussions to erase it from the map dating back since 1970, my guess is that you still have plenty of time to go and take those pictures, too!