PostedJanuary 15, 2022, 10:26
A small Flemish city emptied of its inhabitants is working to come back to life, after a legal victory won in 2019.
With its deserted streets and walled facades, Doel, north of Antwerp, is Belgium’s most famous “ghost town”. But its 21 inhabitants now have the hope of seeing their city reborn. It would be a dramatic turnaround for a place that has been steadily emptying since the late 1970s, when its population was 60 times larger.
Best known for hosting a nuclear power plant, the small Flemish city was the victim of a project to extend the gigantic port of Antwerp which pushed the inhabitants to flee… but ultimately never saw the light of day. As a result, the town has become a playground for graffiti artists, as well as a kind of morbid attraction for curious tourists and “urban explorers” who come to film themselves in ruined buildings.
“We can still live here and come and settle”
The police patrol regularly to prevent vandalism and prevent the installation of squatters. Only a church and two cafes remind visitors that the village is not completely deserted. “It’s not a ghost town… Of course if you come here on Sundays, or especially in the evening, you see the empty houses and that’s what gives rise to this type of comment,” explains a resident, Liese Stuer. “It is very important that people know that we can still live here and come and settle,” she adds.
Doel’s fate took a turn for the worse at the end of the 1990s, when the Belgian authorities decided to expropriate and raze several urbanized areas around the port of Antwerp to build a new container quay. If most of the inhabitants left, a handful of diehards remained and decided to challenge this project in court, while promoting street art to brighten up empty houses.
New inhabitants and renovation
After a series of twists and turns in court, victory was won in 2019 when the Flemish regional government confirmed that the village could be kept. On the form that the resurrection of the place will take, discussions are continuing between authorities and inhabitants.
In December, the municipality presented a plan aimed at gradually welcoming new inhabitants and renovating an old beached boat, while building a new quay for the needs of port traffic.
“We know that the village will not disappear… It does have the image of a ghost town, but it shouldn’t be,” assures Matthias Diependaele, Flemish Minister in charge of Finance and Real Estate Heritage. The Flemish government now owns all but one of the houses. “The most difficult thing is that we know for a fact that right next door there will be port activity 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he adds.