The shopping complex Rudy is talking about was built decades ago. Back then, somewhere in the 80s, the project generated massive protests. The local community worried about traffic congestion and the disappearance of small retail in nearby cities. But one of their main concerns was that the erosion of the social fabric in their towns was being traded in for – in their view – capitalist consumerism. Years of bickering over building permits and environmental studies postponed the project for years, finding its apogee when Belgium's highest court dismissed the project as a no-go. The mega-mall was eventually built anyway.
Unemployment declined rapidly and for people like Rudy, the mall meant a job and a future. The prosperous times, both for the mall and Rudy – who had made it to store manager – were short-lived. In a span of fifteen years, competition from e-commerce had skyrocketed, while the mall itself became increasingly difficult to reach, as a congested Vilvoorde bridge – which also houses the Brussels ringroad – could not cope with the traffic. At the same time, new and more modern shopping malls kept on popping up across the Belgian capital. Rudy’s mega-mall rapidly turned into an outdated competitor, an unworthy supplier of a modern day shopping experience. It was closed down in 2005. Rudy, and thousands of others, lost their jobs.
Time to come clean. The real story didn't quite happen this way, and certainly not in that order. In fact, there’s no Rudy. But there are François, Sandra, Danny, and many more. They had prosperous jobs under the infamous bridge in Vilvoorde, but it wasn’t in a mega-mall. No, mega-malls are a contemporary phenomenon. The people we talk about, the 3,000 that lost their jobs, worked at Renault Vilvoorde, a large car manufacturing plant and – until it closed down in 1997 – the largest employer in the area. The neighbourhood, now in decay, is scarred by what locals call a social cemetery. At the roundabout down the road, a monumental iron fist reminds us of the tragedy.
The sometimes hard to accept economic realities have driven large parts of the automative industry out of Europe. Countries like Belgium now bet highly on their services sector, with shopping complexes and mega-malls as a possible byproduct. And guess what? There is no better place to witness this transition than here, under the Vilvoorde bridge. It could very well be that these weedy cobblestones will soon be trodden by short-skirt girls with Gucci bags.
‘To give back the soul to a lost neighbourhood’ says the one-liner on the homepage of Uplace. 'Uplace – There’s more in U' is the name and slogan developers chose for the mega-mall they plan to build on the polluted site of the former car manufacturer. Initially, this seemed like a sweet deal for the regional government, who quickly granted building permits in return for cleaner soil and commercial development. At the same time, not everyone believes the brownfield development will benefit the local community. There are serious concerns over unmanageable traffic congestion and a real fear that the mega-mall will draw consumers away from local mom and pop stores. Years later, with 70 million euros already invested and 50 per cent of the retail space rented, Uplace’s building permits are once again under scrutiny, possibly delaying the expected opening in 2018. These delays, combined with serious concerns from the public, puts the service economy and mega-mall-o-mania in even tiny countries like Belgium in question: Do we want such commercialisation, and if so, is this the best way to give the Rudy’s of our time their job back?
Thomas Hertog is a critical thinker with an insatiable curiousness. He is an international trader, National Geographic enthusiast and frequent traveller. He worries about the antelopes dying in Kazakhstan, and the number of kilometers his food travels.
Filip Coenen is the ultimate optimist. As an active entrepreneur, he’s always looking for the next market opportunity. His mission is to live fast and die old.
Photographs by Koen Liekens, a Brussels-based photographer. He started a company that publishes photobooks for city marketing campaigns. You can find more of his photos at www.koenliekens.be.