Errant European

Ascenseur Strépy-Thieu
Ascenseur Strépy-Thieu

Throughout August and September, Europe’s cities, regions, and nations have been marking various “heritage,” “open house,” or “patrimoine” days. This weekend it is Brussels’ turn, but we also intend to take in some sites in northern France. Value for money doesn’t get much better: most of the sites are free, and some only open for this event.

Last weekend it was the turn of Belgium’s two largest regions, Flanders and Wallonia. We checked out several places in Wallonie, concentrating on the rich industrial heritage of what is now a region known for its depressed economy. In the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was quite the opposite.

As you can see from the photo of the stupendous canal elevator at Strépy-Thieu, Wallonie and Belgium have seen fit to create marvels of the 21st century, just a few kilometers from the UNESCO world heritage site of its 19th century predecessors. Strépy-Thieu and its attendant infrastructure show how investment in transport alternatives for lorries clogging motorways exist, and can be made to thrive again.

For those who still know what a factory is, and who know that “industrial estate” doesn’t only refer to roadside warehouses to store Chinese goods destined for our shelves, check out the “European Route of Industrial Heritage” (ERIH), which has a store of information on its website.

One of Belgium’s most interesting ERIH stops is the Ecomusée (eco as in economic) du Bois-du-Luc, in the former coal belt of La Louvière south of Brussels. The road signs still tend to say “musée des mines,” but once you find the place, there’s no missing its purpose. It’s a veritable company town, built when capitalists had a paternal hold over their workers, even providing housing, shopping, and medical care on site. Quite an innovation for the 19th century.

Ecomusée Bois-du-Luc
Ecomusée Bois-du-Luc

But the paternalism only went so far. That impressive entrance you see in the photo, separating the courtyard of the mining site from the “cité ouvrière,” separates more than residential from industrial. That heavy steel gate between the brick towers is called, rather ominously, a “porte guillotine,” and though it may not have chopped any heads off, the message was clear to striking workers: do not try anything stupid. A far cry from today’s impunity with industrial property, when strikers kidnap management or strap homemade explosives to the machine tools.

But I digress. Much as I laud the work of these institutions which safeguard the industrial past in all its forms, I want future generations to admire what should be our industrial present. And that means retaining an industrial base, no matter how “yuppie” or gentrified our cities might become.

Recently I read in Belgium’s Le Soir (“Industries SDF à Bruxelles?“) that space for industry in Europe’s capital is disappearing at the rate of some 8,600 square meters per month, which, says journalist François Robert, “means there won’t be anything left, if this rate is maintained, in less than a year.” Sorry, folks, that just won’t do. Brussels, or Belgium, or any country for that matter, cannot live by bureaucrats and university students alone. And as much as tourists like to admire Brussels’ impressive sites like the Grand Place and the Atomium, I have yet to see a country achieve 1st world status (or retain it) via package tours.

So admire these wonders of the industrial world that have been preserved for posterity, but avoid crying “not in my back yard” when some entrepreneur wants to set up a little workshop down the street. Your future economic health may depend on it.

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