Doel, Belgium, the ghost town that’s a paradise for graffiti artists.
By Giovanna Dunmall 4th June 2014. Find Full Article and Photo Gallery Here:-
How did a 700-year-old Belgian village now threatened with demolition become a magnet for the world’s best street artists? Doel’s last 25 residents explain why they’re fighting for their extraordinary town.
It’s noon in a cafe in a small Belgian town. People are eating sandwiches, popping in for a chat or to read the paper. So far, so normal. But the view from the window tells a different story. The cafe overlooks a square full of boarded-up shops and homes. Graffiti covers almost every available surface, including a forlorn children’s playground. In the neighbouring streets, row upon row of vacant and abandoned houses are covered in eye-poppingly colourful doodles or large murals by street artists. To add to the dystopian feel of the place, every so often a large pile of rubble shows the spot where a house once stood, and the giant smoke-billowing cooling towers of Belgium‘s first nuclear-power station loom on one side.
This is Doel, a 700-year-old village south-east of Antwerp that has been at the heart of a political battle for survival for over two decades. A state-funded corporation is seeking to raze it to make way for the land-hungry port of Antwerp. But members of the ever-dwindling local populace are fighting to keep their homes and the village alive. They say a second container dock isn’t necessary since the previous one, which opened in 2005, is being used to less than a fifth of its capacity (the corporation disputes this figure). What’s more, they argue, the riverside village has lush nature, culture and heritage in abundance – plus the first stone-mill in Belgium and a listed early 17th-century house that belonged to Peter Paul Rubens‘s family.
From a population of around 1,300 in the early 70s, there are now only 25 inhabitants left. But they are a brave and well-organised bunch. A 52-year-old named Marina Apers is their unlikely champion. She lives in a house emblazoned with banners announcing that she and her husband will “leave Doel over our dead bodies”. “Every time the government succeed in something, we start legal procedures against them – and mostly, we win,” she says. So far, the EU’s strict environmental laws have been on the villagers’ side: Doel is, among other things, home to one of Europe‘s largest swallow colonies.
Apers moved here in 1991 after being employed as a cleaner at the nuclear power station. She and her husband, Guido, were assured that buying there was a safe bet, but after they renovated their home, rumours started to surface that Doel “was going to have to disappear”.
The decline hasn’t happened overnight, though the majority of inhabitants left just before 2000 when they were offered cash premiums to sell up voluntarily. “They threatened that if people didn’t do that they would be expropriated,” she says, “and if you are expropriated, you get very little money.”
By 2007 there were 350 people left and squatters had started to move in, making some of the deserted houses habitable again. That year, Apers helped set up the campaigning group Doel 2020. One of the ways it planned to ensure the long-term survival of Doel was to turn it into a haven for artists.