Thursday, 19 May 2016

How a memorial meant to be a symbol of Belgian resilience became a symbol of Belgian dysfunction

For two months after the Brussels attacks, the impromptu memorial at Place de la Bourse was left to decay. It will finally be cleaned up tomorrow.

In the hours immediately after the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March, people were unsure what to do. It seemed safest to stay indoors, but as the afternoon developed without incident people wanted to come outside to show their solidarity.

Unable to reach the locations of the attacks themselves, they came to Brussels' most well-known meeting point to pay their respects: the steps outside the giant Leopold-era stock exchange, The Bourse. They began laying flowers and candles on the street in front of the steps, writing messages in chalk on the building and draping flags over the intimidating lions guarding the entrance.

The over-the-top building is unmissable in central Brussels. It was one of the so-called 'Leopoldian follies' built by Belgium's King Leopold II at the turn of the 20th century with money from the Congo - gaudy eyesores such as the Palais de la Justice which seem like they were built for a grand empire rather than a tiny buffer state.

Today only two rooms in the mammoth stock exchange are used for trading, as Belgium's stock activity has been merged into Euronext and is mostly conducted out of Amsterdam.

Why the steps outside this strange, incongruous building became a meeting point for Bruxellois is anybody's guess. Members of the cities various ethnic communities tend to gather there after their home country has won a football match - and the place is packed after Belgium's Red Devils win a game. It is also the focal point of gay pride celebrations every May and various political demonstrations.

But this past weekend, the gay pride celebrations had to be moved elsewhere in the city. That's because the flowers and candles laid in front of the Bourse nearly two months ago after the attacks have not been cleaned up. The site has turned into something resembling a garbage dump: dead flowers, broken glass, old flags.

Brussels residents have been left perplexed as to why the dead flowers have been left for so long. They launched a petition begging the city authorities to clean up the mess, but received no response for weeks. Today, there are reports in the Belgian media that the site will be cleaned up tomorrow. But most Bruxellois won't believe it till they see it.

There are all kinds of theories as to why this took so long. The obvious one is that the paralysis of Belgium's warring governing authorities meant that nobody wanted to take the initiative to clean up flowers left by mourners, for fear of offending. Others have insisted that two months is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to leave dead flowers at a memorial.

Another theory might seem strange to outsiders. Some posit that the mayor of Brussels has left the flowers on the site in an attempt to justify a controversial new pedestrian zone. Last July, Brussels authorities closed down Boulevard Anspach, the main thoroughfare running through the city centre, to traffic. The boulevard runs right past the bourse, and the flowers have been able to take up so much space on the road because that road has now been pedestrianised.

But as I've written before, the new pedestrian zone is controversial with many Brussels residents and businesses in the centre. They say the city has made no effort to make the pedestrian zone a pleasant place to be, and as a consequence people are not coming into the centre any more.

So, the conspiracy theory goes, the mayor has left the dead flowers on the street as a way to justify his controversial pedestrianisation project. "It's been left there to rationalise the continuation of the poorly planned piétonnière," one Brussels resident theorised. "As in, no one can criticise our zombie pedestrian streets now, because this is where we mourn."

Personally I think this conspiracy theory is a bit far-fetched. The more plausible explanation is simple Belgian government dysfunction, and the all-too-typical failure of anyone to take responsibility for fixing a problem. Everyone in the city administration seemed to think that cleaning the memorial was someone else's job.

The whole thing has reminded me of my chronicles of the burnt bin outside my apartment back in 2013. At some point someone had torched a dumpster on my street corner, leaving a sort of strange garbage-and-melted plastic sculpture in its wake.

But, because the bin happened to be sitting at the border between two Brussels communes, nobody cleaned it up. The burnt bin was left there for nearly three weeks. Each day I took a new picture to document the strange artistic tribute to dysfunction.

It appears that the Bourse memorial clean-up suffered from the same Belgian buck-passing. For everyone involved, it was somebody else's problem. At least it appears that by tomorrow, this strange saga of the abandoned Bourse memorial will finally be over.

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