Idle chimneys and a leopard print in Charleroi

When I left the Charleroi-station, and while still pondering the admirable renovation the building had gone through since I last was there some 3 years ago , a nagging feeling descended upon me. Something was off in the cityscape outside ... something was missing in the skyline!
And indeed, none of the chimneys of the further off plants was bellowing smoke – no thunderous greys, no poisonous browns, no infernal flames ... All was quiet out there, nothing but the still silhouettes of steel plants and slag heaps against an overcast sky.

Only then I vaguely recalled a small article in the paper a while ago about the last blast furnace in the region having to shut down. Yet another blow for industrial employment in struggling Charleroi.
Of course, rational economists will mutter about creative destruction, they will point out the inexorable logic of global specialisation and will readily dispense advise about how to convert to higher value added activities.
Of course, yes, that’s the only way for economic survival: Progress! Flexibility! Embrace Change! Convert! Innovate! Adapt or Die!

Being myself both a (supposedly) rational economist and a melancholy flâneur, I must confess that also the economist in me has of late become rather melancholy. Bewildered by the current economic mess in the West, obviously, and increasingly doubting about the sustainability of the prevailing economic dogmas.
But well, while thus pondering & wondering, I still had enough of my wits together to board a yellow regional bus to bring me to the Charleroi photography museum, an isle of humanist photographic reflection & memory in this troubled region (and the destination of my present visit.)

And that suburban bus brought me a most endearing example of human resistance to capitalism’s insistent exhortations of change and novelty. The woman calmly sitting in a seat in front of me must have been well over 60 and her attire was extraordinary in its out-datedness – her dyed black hair was done in a vertiginous conical beehive, held together in the back by a comb and several pins. And of course she had on butterfly glasses in the best sixties tradition. But what really did me in, was her raincoat: an old worn raincoat sporting a leopard print, and with that distinctively mat shine of old waxed materials. Her grocery bag too was of the kind of waxy plastic I last saw as a child. She did not at all appear as an overaged fashionista, and her overall dignified demeanour saved her from looking pathetic.
In fact she seemed just a woman who had taken care of the things she had loved to wear, someone who quietly had gone on to cherish transient consumerist novelties although these had not been destined to stay very long in the world.

And somehow I felt this woman’s stubbornness in her attire was also linked to what is so poignant about Charleroi – its many traces of the past are mostly not about carefully restored grand buildings or objects of great significance & aesthetic worth.(though they do have some 19th C bourgeois jewels too!).
Theirs is rather a hotchpotch heritage including obsolete industries and shop fronts and consumer objects and designs that were not meant to last, and which elsewhere have long been discarded and replaced by the unrelenting innovation of economic growth.
It’s a paradox in fact, the sheer decay & poverty of this industrial town (with capitalism's global shifts having condemned these local industries which so faithfully served a burgeoning voracious consumerism ), have also worked to preserve some of the humble things that elsewhere have long been swallowed by our insatiable consumerist urge for novelties.

PS – But of course (of course!) I wouldn’t want to lock up Charleroi in a backward reserve of a certain kind of industrial-consumer society and I can only applaud (of course of course) the signs of change and progress that do are popping up everywhere (an ambitious reconstruction program of la ville basse has been launched recently).