The disappearing village


Doel is no ordinary Flemish village. Its houses are boarded up, graffiti covers the walls lining its main road, and there’s hardly a soul on the street. The schools have closed down, the shops have shut, and most residents have left. But there are still a few villagers determined to stay put.

© Frédéric Pauwels
© Frédéric Pauwels

As the Port of Antwerp expands northward, the Flemish Region grapples with heritage versus commerce

Doel is no ordinary Flemish village. Its houses are boarded up, graffiti covers the walls lining its main road, and there’s hardly a soul on the street. The schools have closed down, the shops have shut, and most residents have left. But there are still a few villagers determined to stay put.

Frie Lauwers is one such resident. When I ask her why she wants to continue living in such a desolate and abandoned village, she gives me two reasons: "I love it - the nature, the freedom. That's mine," she says, pointing to the view of open fields from her kitchen window. She pauses, and her smile disappears. "And because I'm angry, very angry at what has happened here."

The second reason gets to the crux of the matter. Doel is a village that lies on the left bank of the Scheldt River, and its existence has long been threatened by the expansion of Antwerp's port. This threat became all the more real when, just over a decade ago, the Flemish government said that the liveability of the village could not be guaranteed in the long term.

Doel's fate is still not clear. The Flemish Region had set a deadline of 1 September, 2009, for the residents to leave, but some refused. In the end, a court ruled that they could stay until February 2011.

Today, there are about 40 people living there, including a few homeowners, residents like Lauwers who rent their property from the Maatschappij Linkerscheldeoever (the public agency managing the left bank) and a handful of squatters. And for now at least, no one is going anywhere.

"I stay until the day the court tells me I have to leave. Then I go, not an hour before," Lauwers says, her voice becoming increasingly tense. She tells me that the agency sent her a letter saying that she no longer needed to pay them any rent. "I will pay until the last," she says. "I have my pride."

Growing pains for port
Although nobody wants to see Doel disappear, the Port of Antwerp simply has no choice but to expand in the area. "The only space available for the port to expand is on the left bank," explains Annik Dirkx, spokeswoman for the Antwerp Port Authority.

As Flanders Today reported in September, larger and larger container ships are pulling into the port, with more cargo than ever before. This is excellent news for the port, the second largest in Europe, as it maintains its competitiveness with Rotterdam, which currently holds top ranking in Europe. But it is outgrowing its current facilities and urgently needs to expand.

One proposal is to build a container terminal in Doel to help cope with the increased use of containers in world trade, said Peter Van de Putte of the Maatschappij Linkerscheldeoever. Only when the Flemish government's plan for the Saeftinghe area (which includes Doel) is published will it be known whether the Saeftinghe dock concept remains part of the industrial expansion plan. After publication, there will be a consultation period during which the public can submit comments, Van de Putte explained.

Worth fighting for?
The first-time visitor to Doel may well wonder why anyone would fight to save this village. The approach is hardly the most scenic, as you drive through the maze of roads and industrial zones that make up Antwerp's port. The main street as you enter the village isn't much more promising, with windows boarded up, signs warning you not to enter properties and abandoned petrol stations.

When you drive down to the edge of the river, though, you realise what the village could have been. Running the length of the village is the river and a dyke along which you can take a stroll. Dominating one end is a 17th -century stone windmill, a protected building since 1946 and today housing a tavern.

In the distance is the cooling tower of a nuclear power station, a source of employment for the area. There's also a church in the village, although a sign on its entrance notes that it's now only open for special occasions, baptisms, marriages and funerals.

Lauwers, who grew up in the area but not in Doel itself, put her name down on the waiting list of people wanting to move to the village eight years ago. "I was number 434," she recalls. Presumably most of the others gave up before their time came. Five years ago, her wish was granted and she joined the ranks of those seeking to revive Doel.

Among the revival ideas that Lauwers has helped launch is Kunstdoel, or Art Doel, a group that has tried to convince the authorities to preserve the village as "a cultural and artistic enclave inside and in harmony with the port of Antwerp". A key motivation for the campaign was to try to present Doel in a positive light and counter the image propagated by television of a place full of "junkies, dangerous dogs and crazy people," says Lauwers.

The group invited international artists to come to Doel and create artworks inside some of the houses in an effort to prevent them being demolished. Another of its projects finds external walls and windows of empty houses covered with art. "Art is expected to replace the chill of vacancy with warmth and resuscitate the village," according to KunstDoel's website.

Despite these efforts to breathe new life into the village, Lauwers isn't optimistic about the future. When I ask her what chance she think there is of the village surviving, her answer is simple. "None".

The village has been left to deteriorate too far, in her opinion. Only the official agency has been allowed to buy property there, and no new residents have been permitted to move in. Slowly the amenities that keep a village community alive have disappeared. The empty streets have become a place for car racing at night, buildings have been vandalised, and it is not unusual for the "copper cutters" to appear, forcing Telenet to return regularly to reinstall the villagers' television connections.

"We are a strange community," Lauwers acknowledges. But it's a community, she says, that wants to keep fighting for what it believes is justice.

We Are All Going Crazy

Photography exhibition introduces the village of Doel
The Flemish village of Doel, disappearing due to an expansion of the Port of Antwerp, has attracted artists who've decorated its walls, and also photographers, who are now on show at the Botanique in Brussels. We Are All Going Crazy highlights the village's sense of loss, as pictures of dilapidated buildings and empty rooms hang next to others of forlorn individuals.

The collective project, which includes works by Belgium-based photographers Isabelle Pateer, Cindy Hannard, Frédéric Pauwels and Thomas Baltes, aims to highlight the "progressive destruction of this village" and the "strange fate of this lost corner between the docks and the Scheldt."

Each photographer takes a different approach to the portrayal of the village. Pauwels' work is in black and white and includes three sets of six photographs mounted together like windows. The net curtains and the old-fashioned flowery wallpaper suggest a place stuck in a time warp and the abandoned doll and just the top half of a child's face send out a message that this is no place for children. (See photo, page 1) There is no hope or joy to be found in these wonderfully composed images.

The titles of Pateer's photographs almost speak for themselves. One picture in tones of grey,
pale blue and white depict an uninviting beach with electricity pylons and a nuclear cooling tower is entitled "Desolation" and comes from the series Unsettled. The Dutch photographer's work alternates between landscapes showing the transformation of the area and portraits of its youth.

Baltes includes several portraits in his selection of photographs, including "Marcella in the shop", an elderly woman with long grey hair standing amid the chaos of a general supplies store, and one of "Piet" who is wearing his hat and jacket indoors to keep warm, a skinny dog jumping at his side.

Hannard's work, black-and-white images mounted on thin card and stuck flat against the wall, is the most abstract on display. Some of the town's graffiti finds its way into her work, as do doors with peeling paint and overgrown back gardens, but Hannard is keener to focus on the geometric shape than the actual object.

Until 12 December
Botanique Koningstraat 236

The disappearing village

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