Loving Brussels, whether you like it or not

Brussels Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Didn’t even know Brussels had a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I like to think I can find some version of beauty anywhere. No podunk too dunky to find a po little piece of purty in it. And with some time and a camera, I reckon I could fill up a memory card just about anywhere and at least have myself a passable screensaver.


But Brussels. Oh Brussels.


Maybe it’s because I’d just spent the weekend in Paris, a city so beautiful you can nab something nice while putting the lens cap on wrong, but Brussels just… It just wouldn’t cooperate.


Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of beautiful things there. Old facades, careful corners, and hunks of history sitting in the sun or resting in the rain. But every single dern one of ‘em had a big heap of crap in front of it. Canine or municipal. Pigeon-piled or city planned.


Brussels looming architecture

Have a classic little mansion? Why not loom a glass monster overhead?

But that’s just it. It’s not planned. For a city renowned and maligned as the home of bureaucracy and civil interference, Brussels seems to have grown up without any oversight whatsoever. In fact, I just learned that in urban planning, the term Brusselization means: “the indiscriminate and careless introduction of modern high-rise buildings into gentrified neighborhoods” and/or “haphazard urban development and redevelopment.”


Want a big beautiful church? Here, have seven. And each one gets a buddy, snuggled up nice and close, perhaps a neon Pizza Hut or an obese hotel that wishes it was in Miami, but usually a neo-brutalist concrete monument to capitalist dominance and sociopathic success.


Or you can just let it rot and paint eyelashes on the saints. That’s cool too.

Brussels church adjustments

But somehow in the chaos, the glaring glass and clumsy corners, I kind of fell in love with Brusselsian ugliness. It’s not exactly ugly, it’s just…kind of flailing. Uncontrolled and accidental. Tripping over itself and knocking over the altar. It’s kind of like life, built in steel and drywall and error.


Brussels sidewalk diningI’m glad not every city is scrambled eggs like this, but I’m also happy not every city has the unity of Paris, or the modernity of new Amsterdam, or the rotting Victorian urbanity of Oakland. And as San Francisco struggles with a malignant housing crisis, and the principle of supply and demand suggests we should build some modern high-rise buildings in our gentrified neighborhoods, I pray we don’t Brusselize ourselves into oblivion.



But strolling around the city, down traffic-afflicted streets with torn up cobblestones, I started to fall for the place, and by the time I sat to dinner in a sidewalk cafe with a peculiar blend of Moroccan, French, and Malaysian flavors, wouldn’t you know it, I’d filled up a memory card.


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