Thursday, June 27, 2013

Charleroi, Belgium - Ruined, but still Breathing

Part 1:

After waking in Arlon, running family history errands, and cycling until my knees ached, I took the train from Ciney to Charleroi (70km). As I approached Charleroi, I noticed more and more graffiti on the regional train exteriors and along the rail route. I postulate the graffiti is a sign of the worker class society of southern Belgium.

When alighting the rail station I biked unconfidently toward Nicholas' Boissart's house. I was immediately displaced on the road as a function of no bike lanes and numerous roundabouts which added to the complexity of traversing the urban landscape. But eventually I arrived at Nicholas' house.

I learned about Nicholas Boissart in the Wall Street Journal about three years ago because he gives urban ruin tours of Charleroi. The City used to be a bustling industrial City but like other Cities such as Pittsburgh or Baltimore which had their greatness of industry during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the industry became obsolete or too expensive to operate and products dwindled, jobs moved away, but the factories remained. Nicholas takes people out to see these monstrous ruins and see the City which once was. All I had to go by was our brief email exchange and a photo characterizing Nicholas.

I knocked on the door of an old house from the early 1900s and Immediately upon entering the house is an artist's house. Poles lay in the hallway, large obscure metallic pieces hang, and the 2nd largest scarf knitted from Belgian's citizens are stacked in the corner (The Irish took the Blue Ribbon). Nicholas is taller than I would have imagined (~6'3”), as for some reason I imagined him soft spoken. This was not the case.

Nicholas seems Latin from his gestures and even acts scenes from some of his souvenirs. “Many things in my house are souvenirs and have stories” as he explains one hilarious story of how he came across a phallic toy in Antwerp during an artist show where there were hundreds of them.

As we share a beer from Trappist monks in Rochefort we exchange our histories. The history I told him was of my great grandfather, Francois Boudart who has a street named after him from his industry contributions. I told him I postulated Francois contributed to the industry in Charleroi. He loves this story and when being interrupted by a phone call from his friend he first explains he is with an American who helped ruin Charleroi (he jokes). After his phone conversation he casually decides the tour starts now. We head off to City Hall.

City Hall is no ruin but in fact an opulent building with marble floors and columns and intricate interior designs. We listen in on an ongoing City Hall meeting and he tells me the citizens are discussing what to do with old abandon buildings. This meeting reminds me of many abandon buildings in Baltimore, where there are some plans to re-purpose some buildings, but because of the great quantity of empty buildings, the job is hard.

We exit and the abandon building tour continues. We walk through a shopping district and Nicholas explains “The buildings above the shops are empty because they are either too expensive to renovate or people have moved to the suburbs”. Again, the similarities between American Cities and Charleroi are at first alarming, and then as we continue our walk the feeling is comfortable because there appears to be little difference between Charleroi and an American City's evolution.

Despite the blight, there are nice buildings which have well executed etchings in the buildings.

Nicholas loves these buildings because of their history and care put into constructing them. I like them too. We then continue to the Industrial University and the architecture from these buildings:


I love the font style, which reminds me of Paris' metro signs.

Later the installations in the roundabouts were a preview of the industrial ruins of Charleroi. 

More on the darker side of Charleroi to come

Part 2:

At the outstretched hand roundabout there is the Charleroi art museum which set the stage for the ruin tour to come.
Here are some samples from the museum I took from the internet.

The exhibition shows mainly dark colors and a ghastly view of blue collar life in Charleroi. Given I have taken a ruin tour, consider the activity of Charleroi during its heyday as you look at the following pictures.

Finally, the tour begins. We are dropped off at the end of one of the canals. The canals were (and in some cases still are) the main thoroughfare to transport industrial goods. In the case of this next photo, we played a little frogger against the “Claw” to avoid being smashed by recycled metal.

When the claw dropped the various hunks of metal, the sound was not only thunderous but also quaked the earth. After this tremor, Nicholas comments “Imagine this place during all the activity back then, you probably could hear nothing!” We waiver onward and the industry becomes more dense. The cooling tour is a first sign.

No, not for nuclear reactors, this was most likely used for gas power generation of some kind. As we walk further we become up close and personal with the industry. See this next large abandon factory.

And the next is a picture of the factory from the other side with one of the barges plodding through.

And a view from one of the docks protected from any falling objects above. A strange kind of dock because of the overhang.

As I'm dumbfounded by the scale of these abandon relics, Nicholas comments about the Roman Empire as it relates to Charleroi's industry. He explains the Roman empire was the greatest empires known to fall. He says one of the main ones was the economy. Roman entrepreneurs were not able to innovate and create new products with the Roman's existing economic system and so they moved. They migrated to present day England, Germany, The Netherlands, or wherever they could where they thrived. These entrepreneurs took with them new ideas, energy, and left behind the smoldering ashes of the economy, when with more and more innovators leaving (and many other factors of course) the empire ceased to be.

Nicholas' comment was most interesting because I remember different reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. They were: corruption, dictatorships, governance difficulty and barbarian attacks, but I don't recall the economy being a central theme of the decline. Also, entrepreneurship (or lack there of) is a most interesting reason of decline.

Nicholas explains Charleroi used to be a City of the best glass makers, coal refiners and metal workers. See these tapestries below, which used to be stain glass windows inside of the Technical Industrial University Building but were removed for preservation.

However, when entrepreneurs could not be, well; entrepreneurs, they sought out places where their ideas could be fostered, and so the decline of Charleroi endured.

As we exit the canals Nicholas has one more spot in store for me. We climb a slag heap (which is essentially spent fuel) to overlook all the factories in the area.

75% of the industrial buildings seen are abandon. Furthermore, the other grass heaps you see are slag heaps. The other green spaces are old factories torn down. All around you see houses. Be sure to zoom in as far as you can when you look at this image; the quality is good (I think you must download the image). Further imagine the stench or poor air quality exhibited from these early dirty behemoths; people must have been coughing.

As we descend the heap de slag, Nicholas and I are picked up by his faithful companion Benito. He has one of the coolest cars in town, a classic Peugeot.

So cool in fact, the shifting is done with what is normally the windshield wiper lever, see next video.

As we cruise around Charleroi we hunt for the closest dive bar, which is easy as there are many. We enter one such dive bar that has a really nice pool hall and includes billiards (the classic one), pool, snooker, and BUMPER POOL!

Wouldn't a Portland bar be more hipster with one of these? Even though we had no idea how to play, one of the locals taught us in perfect english; he used to work for NATO and knew 4 languages. He was also really good at pool.

As we played terribly, I noticed the lottery games present in the bar. But these were most peculiar because they were essentially prehistoric lottery games, as opposed to the modern lottery games in Portland bars. These looked like pinball machines, but you simply launched the ball and when it stopped bouncing around potential slots like plinko you either won or lost.

After we finished our game and beers we headed over to Benito's studio, which was no ordinary studio. The studio is an old factory building which has been converted to an art building. The ceilings are probably 50 feet high and the old interior cranes sit idle as they probably have been for over 50 years. The places smells of not only dust but like a retired auto repair shop. I like the old artifacts of the factory such as the pull cart probably used to haul huge machines or materials from end to end.

From inside the other room there lies the new factory, the art factory. This studio is not only for artists to conceive their next piece but for people to enjoy life. Every weekend the factory opens for business where drinks are served, music is performed, and art is appreciated. is the website of the studio, if you care to explore.

As us three shoot the shit for the next hours I think about Charleroi as the past City and present City. The core of the City was the industry but only a few factories still operate. Charleroi citizens have discussed what to do with some buildings, but can all of them be re-purposed? Should they be re-purposed? People have fled to the suburbs, but how will Charleroi attract people back to live in the City center, like when the City flourished. How does a City accept (not forget) the dark, dirty past and move forward. I pose these questions merely to be thought provoking.

As I ponder this over beers, art, and cigarettes the evening turns to night and later turns to morning I must depart Charleroi to continue my journey northbound. I thank Nicholas profusely for not only the ruin tour and conversation I've shared with you, but the cultural experience of Charleroi by meeting Benito and many other artists in the community. These artists are the ones who make a good life out of what seems to be nothing. In a way, they are the new entrepreneurs.  

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