Doel: The ghost town rampaged by street artists
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A thick mist rises from everywhere around us. I'd think grey cotton and vapor, like dirty clouds, because seldom has pollution taken such a physical shape before my eyes. The earth literally inhales and exhales dirt and smoke as if it were mechanical monster with bad breath and long, clanking fingers of cranes. It gurgles and trembles under our feet. Men walk around in safety vests and helmets, between big plastic containers in blue and red. Lanky towers blink intermittently whilst signaling somewhere beyond the barrier of rotten air. As I make my way through the energy plants of Antwerp, upon the river Scheldt, between its port and nuclear power towers, I'm more like a paper doll in a dystopian tale by Orwell or Bradbury than an actual living, breathing person. Yet in the split center of this energy plant sits a village, or at least what's left of it. Doel, a 700-year-old Flemish town, merely a few streets long and wide, used to stand in the middle of fields and fresh grass, an idyllic landscape even home to the great painter Peter Paul Reubens. It was a village remembered with serenity and peace, where the first Belgian stone-mill was held and the largest population of swallow colonies in Europe frolickers about. Since the 1970s it’s been eaten away at by machinery and implants being installed by a state-funded corporation in order to expand industrial plans for the Antwerp port. Although protests by the citizens have been fervent for the past forty years, when in 1999 the government requested the official evacuation and demolishment of the town, roughly 1,300 people were forced to grab their things and leave their homes. Since that year, the inhabitants have slowly bled out of the city. Their homes and activities sold to the government for a cash premium, or threatened of expropriation. Regardless, to this day no government plans have officially been put into action yet, so the houses and homes still stand, waiting for their demolishment without any set date for death. What’s left is an almost completely abandoned collection of vandalized homes and shops, and what some would call a ghost town, enveloped in the fog of industrialisation. I say “almost completely abandoned” because 22 people still live in Doel, a total of 11 households refusing to let up both their properties and their fight against the government. Rooting in this brave group of people is an activist group named Doel 2020, resisting government actions since 2007. These campaigners claim that the government has no legal right to such land, and advocate that a second container dock isn't necessary since the first one is being used to less than a fifth of its capacity. They fight back in peaceful protests, banners, and numerous appeals in court. For example, initially, as part of the campaign against demolition, artists from all over the world were invited to render the town something like an open-air museum, so to make the village as valuable as possible. Artists such as Luc Tuymans and Michelangelo Pistoletto lent a hand, and internationally famous Belgian muralist ROA sprayed four of his signature animals on the walls of the abandoned buildings.
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