As we drive near to the port of Antwerp, a few houses come into view, lonely structures in the midst of the Polder plains. We turn right into a solemn street. Our light-hearted conversations abruptly halt and we continue driving in silence, for we have entered Doel, a small town near Antwerp.
It once counted over a thousand inhabitants, but now a mere twenty inhabit the ghost town. The fate of the village has been in limbo for decades, threatened with demolition due to the expansion of Antwerp’s port. While surrounding towns were quickly swallowed by the port of Antwerp, Doel managed to survive. Over the years, plans changed, inhabitants put up an admirable fight, and the government was never able to execute any of the plans drafted up for the seemingly doomed town.
Now an empty shell remains, with the last who stayed holding onto a glimmer of hope that Doel might survive – but at a significant cost.
The street is eerily quiet. It isn’t the emptiness that unnerves me, but the weeds sprouting from each crack, the unmowed lawns, once lush manicured grass, now wave untamed in the cool air. Grand houses show a glimpse of the former lively town. Graffiti adorns its walls, and slogans remind visitors of the town’s struggles.
We park our car by the church, one of the few buildings the government maintains in the village. The illusion of a deserted town is quickly broken by a parked bus. Doel attracts many types of tourists these days. Urbex photographers, as well as film students and the curious tourist walk the streets of this abandoned town. The bus leaves shortly after our arrival and we are alone, once again.
An elderly lady is sweeping the front porch of a house, and I notice the building is void of broken windows or graffiti. She stops and waves at the passing bus before continuing to sweep without a care in the world. I wonder what the inhabitants think of all these visitors.
I quickly put my camera away as I pass her on the other side of the street. I feel embarrassed, a shameless intruder satisfying my curiosity of all things decaying on my visit to Doel, her town… her home. After walking a few hundred meters, I look back at the woman. She was still sweeping as a young photographer approached her. She doesn’t avoid him, instead, they start a long conversation… Maybe they don’t mind the visitors after all.
As we make our way through the empty streets, we encounter many signs warning against entering the buildings. Out of respect, we never do. Through the broken windows and open doors, we catch glimpses of the abandoned homes –a home where families made memories – now reduced to a few chairs, pots and pans, and rubble strewn around the floor…
We walk up to the dyke, usually a serene place where one can enjoy nature around you. Instead of a peaceful scene, the port of Antwerp greets us. As the second largest port in Europe – and one that can accommodate the largest container ships in the world – it has a constant need for expansion. Even if that expansion comes at the price of the surrounding villages and the families who have lived there for many generations.
The sunny weather is in stark contrast to my feelings, which are turning more sombre with every step I take, with every house I pass, with every slogan I read. I need a moment to myself as I leave the dyke and walk back to the car.
On the side of a house, I spot a paragraph neatly written in white paint. I stand in front of the text, for seconds, no, minutes, maybe five, or closer to ten. I read the words over and over, which plunge me deeper and deeper into sadness.
Have taken the place of my grief,
I might be able to express in words
What I can now only tell with tears.