Cobblestones and Glass
Brussels May 1, 2055
My eyes watched the sky lighten outside the window. I had barely slept. I would be in prison by the end of the day. Our 8-year-old son Louis slept peacefully in the children’s dorm room a floor above. We had told him I may be away for a while. We told him why. His stoic embrace, tearless, gave me a passionate resolve.
Fabien lay peaceful beside me, melatonin induced. We had a small party the evening before with the whole house and our dearest friends, The Luck Party, with many games themed around chance and daring. The evening put a comedic face on potential doom. Fabien had decided he preferred to wake up with Louis.
I grabbed my watch, 6:30. Time to get moving. I kissed Fabien on the forehead. 'Take care, Niels,' he mumbled softly.
Our studio room, was on the 3rd floor of the house. We bought the cooperative shares with our friends 12 years ago. The maison de maître had been converted in 2030, at the peak of the cohousing craze, to turn the ground floor and basement into communal spaces: a study, a lounge, a kitchen, a laundry room, and a play room. Our children were growing up together, always easier to throw ‘em in a corner and divide babysitting between nine adults.
Alone in the kitchen, the sky azuring outside the double paned patio doors, waiting for the kettle, I smiled at the 14 chairs around the table - the dream of our parents’ generation, this place.
The cohousing fad started with the Homebody, founded by four coloc, sitcom-perfect friends, who got partners and kids and wanted to keep living together. They squatted a place and rebuilt the inside for community living. A documentary was made about them that went viral, and the Homebody became an anarchist landmark, regularly running ateliers about facilitation and carpentry. With rents and prices rising, co-housings began to pop up everywhere. By the mid 2030s, the rentiers had co-opted the whole idea, evicted people to build chic ‘cohousing’ with the same shared-space layout and climate proofed with hempcrete available from the legalization of marijuana in 2024. The private cohousings were always painted white, symbolizing cleanliness and coolness. White lux houses for white rich people. Corporate built, capital owned, corrupted by the market.
The kettle bubbled. I sipped my tea. Today, I would do something about that corruption.
I got on my bike to get to the safe house. I had a bit of time. I decided to take a long route, get some air, keep calm, and visit the places that would remind me of why I was about to do this.
I rolled down the bike lane on Avenue de Jette, the cool breeze from Parc Elisabeth blowing across the city blocks. The houses were covered in various creeper plants, more attractive than white paint, cheaper than renovation. The benches, sculptures, garden boxes and playground pieces that turned the street into a plaza were empty, awaiting the people that gave them meaning. After the Bruxelles commune copied Amsterdam and committed to expelling fossil-fuel vehicles from the city by 2050, most of the neighboring communes deprioritized private transit and repurposed streets to resemble the Super Islas of Barcelona. This freed space was particularly valuable after the pandemic of 2039, when outdoor social meetings became crucial to mental health. On a street like this one, I grew up. On this street, green and common, I had raised my son.
Passing the row of houses, I knew they hid green jewels, the Island Parks of Brussels. Every summer was a brutal struggle--lethal for the elderly, inescapable for the poor, the smothering air confined people in dark basements during July and August afternoons. In response, the neighbors of housing blocks were knocking down garden walls to combine their spaces into inner parks, to have more space to escape, and plant more trees. Neighbors kept property rights to their dozen square meters of lawn, and generally the value of the houses increased with combined gardens, more green to look at, more air, more shade.
Taking a swerve on Boulevard Belgica, over the train tracks, dangerously busy with cargo and commuters, I passed the old Gare Maritime of Tour and Taxis. In the dawn light it glimmered as the last hope for Belgium’s economic future, if we would survive that long.
After a new virus was released from the permafrost in 2039, havoc wrecked nations, far beyond what was seen in the COVID pandemic of 2020. This one had the mortality that corona had only projected. Politicians delayed response to avoid economic impacts. Once the fatalities hit, industrial workers in the global south stayed home in strike. Supply chains were nearly frozen for a good three months, and were backlogged and chaotic for the next few years. It took a terrible toll on small businesses in Europe, unable to get the materials they depended on that were no longer manufactured nationally. The Belgian government responded by ordering companies to reopen and repurpose factories.
Here, at the Gare Maritime, the chic ‘coworking’ spaces constructed in 2020 were turned into training workshops of local artisanal production: soldering, tailoring, carpentry, pottery, upcycling, material fabrication of all sorts. And of course, since the food price crisis, the cobblestones along the center hall had been torn up to plant an agroforest, like in the rest of Brussels.
It was hard to find a single cobblestone left in the city. I turned onto Avenue de Port - only a name now. The only paths left were the old concrete bicycle lanes along the sides. It was now an ‘Avenue de l’Alimentation’ an enormous strip of crops combined for complementarity as densely as possible, from carrots to fruit trees.
The Tour et Taxis Parc behind the Gare Maritime was no longer the grassy plain where my father had proposed to my mother. There were very few open fields left anywhere in the city. The grass all turned yellow in the summer anyway. Everywhere, the priority was trees, shade, cooling.
I rode on to the Pont Sainctelette, and looked North over the water. Just yesterday, Louis, Fabien and I had followed the canal north by bike, a last family outing before the uncertain. The Avenue de l’Alimentation stretched from the KBC palace to the Monument de Travail. We then passed the royal gardens of Laeken, still the monarchy’s property, but no longer a manicured garden. The royal family announced they would allow the gardens to rewild as a greenwashing stunt in 2041. Citizens would have rather had a publicly managed agroforest. They said so in an ignored petition. But at least the private grounds provided a biodiversity safe haven for pollinators and birds as Brussels desperately rushed to expand food production.
On our family ride yesterday, Louis grew too tired to go on, but we had finally arrived at the Buddha Tower, my chance to make my son proud. This is where I work, the Aquiris north water treatment plant. In addition to the old plant, Aquiris had snapped up and demolished the car industry’s neighboring properties and some of the empty space beside the train tracks, and was digging deep trenches to fill with water. The idea was that these ponds would hold sewage that would fertilize algae that would feed fish as a source of protein for the city, an excellent meat alternative. This kind of wastewater aquaculture processed most of Munich’s sewage until the 1990s. I should know, I am the chief project manager of the aquaculture expansion of Brussels wastewater treatment, a significant civil service that I hoped would play as a get-out-of-jail-free card after today’s events.
Right, that was yesterday’s journey, I thought, looking out over the water, on to today’s.
Crossing the bridge, in front of the KANAL Arts Center, I passed the so-called Pompidou Palais de Pidgeon, a mud construction of several towers that resembled a child-sized Saint Gilles prison. Rather than cells, the Persian-inspired architecture housed several hundred niches where pigeons could come and rest. Their droppings falling into the central empty spaces of the towers was shoveled up and collected to fertilize the food avenues that crisscrossed much of Bruxelles 1000. A large one on Place de la Bourse provided nutrients for the small agroforest that was the Grand Place.
I turned and pedaled along the green promenade of N201, pretty tree-covered paths that made the neighborhood livable for the climate refugees that filled the high-rise apartment buildings around. The promenade should have been a solid recipe for gentrification when the Quartier Nord was being redesigned in the early 21st century. Instagram-perfect penthouses with glass balconies and skyline views next to theaters and exhibition halls and major corporate offices.
I guess the speculators didn’t account for the impacts of the ecological crisis, or maybe they didn’t give a shit, as long as they could cheat their way out and leave the burden to the city. After the pandemics, homeworking was so normalized that most businesses realized it was cheaper to insist on telecommuting and rent office space for meeting days. Office buildings dropped in value and were empty most of the time. As heatwaves made the city nearly unlivable in the summer, the rich singles who should have bought the Instagram lifestyle housing evacuated to the countryside, preferring more space and taking the train in once or twice a week.
Waves of climate refugees had been arriving in greater volume every year. The tent cities that took shelter along the quay and in Parc Maximilien were routinely shuffled out. The migrants with nowhere to go found their way through locks and broken windows into the nearest empty spaces, the abandoned penthouses and quayside luxury apartments, their white paint flaking and staining with each passing year of rising global average temperatures. The chic towers became ideal places for the destitute to rot in isolation, falling into the common addictions of the hopeless. Growth in the construction industry was little more than a guarantee of empty buildings and homelessness.
I paused on the promenade vert and sat on my bike, almost at my destination, delaying the inevitable. I looked up at the skyline. Corbusier’s towering ghosts loomed over Brussels, the promise of prosperity, the realization of poverty. At their feet, the Quartier Nord lay disfigured and abandoned.
And alas, the global sonic booms of climate catastrophe were now knocking deafeningly on the doors of Europe. Droughts, erosions, storms, biodiversity collapse had reduced agriculture yields across the world. Following a pest breakout four years ago that had ravaged wheat fields from the Middle East to Mexico, a global food price spike had shocked the economy. Food now took 40% of the average person’s income. Every European nation was desperately rushing to achieve food sufficiency, to grow more of the nutrients that mattered without depending on global supply chains of chemical inputs. Hence all the food ponds, agroforests, and pigeon palaces and such. Food. A basic human right that we still had to pay for. Fuck that.
I arrived at the safe house, an apartment on Rue du Travail, some of the prettiest old social housing in the whole city. My friends Kat and Youssef were already there, pouring over the blueprints, sipping coffee and munching croissants, giggling nervously.
'Comrades, a new day rises!' I guffawed walking into the room, arms up. We laughed and cheered and hugged, reassuring each other. 'Feeling ready? Sleep ok? It will go fine. It’s all in the trying.'
The rest of the team slowly came in, the frontlines and internal roles of the five fingers. About 30 people crammed into a dining room, chuckling, frightful.
The briefing before the action was delivered by a few organizers. Kat began.
'You know why you’re here. You know where we’re going. The glass monoliths across the Quartier Nord leak energy like a sieve, impossible to efficiently heat and cool. Monuments to money and modernity, wasteful inside out, everyone works from home now - yes workers even have to pay and upkeep their own offices – so the buildings are empty and useless.'
'Since the food price spike, Delhaize started buying up cheap space in the offices, all the window side rooms, to use like a greenhouse. You’ve seen the advertisements, ‘Delhaize sprouts for Brussels’. It works well apparently.'
'Delhaize has just finished green housing the inside of the Rogier Tower. It’s ideal. Glass on every side. Those slanting glass roofs collect rain water and receive constant sun.'
'And who works there? I’ll hand over to Youssef.'
'Hi everyone. I am called Youssef. I moved to Brussels six years ago after the major storms north of Cairo eroded my fields. I had a sister here. I’ve been living in Saint Josse since then. It’s ok. I get by. There are a lot of people like me in Saint Josse, weathered out of their countries, just trying to make a living. I have applied for climate refugee status.'
'I don’t work in the Rogier Tower, I work in the Finance Tower. You see where that is? But I have many friends who work in the Rogier Tower. We don’t have the same working rights as you Belgians.'
'After the food spike, Belgium changed the labor rights of agricultural workers. Made us real cheap. Energy crisis you know. They need lots of arms.'
'So they tell us, ‘You install the planters in the Tower, we will give you food checks. Once the plants start yielding, we will give you food.’ We work long hours, and not even for cash.'
He fell silent then. The room sat still.
Kat spoke, 'Thank you Yuni. And can you talk about the agromigrant collective?'
'Ah yes.' He took a sip of the coffee. 'We got organized. There are about 300 of us in Rogier, 400 in the Finance Tower. The inside of the towers, there’s not enough light, you can’t grow much. We want to live there, but not as slaves.'
Kat, 'To occupy the towers.'
Youssef, 'Yes, yes. To own it cooperatively, like your cohouses'
She looked around the room, 'That’s where you all come in,' and smiled.
'To the action plans!' She pulled out the blueprints of the ground floor of the Rogier Tower. 'There are entrances here, here, and here. And also here at the old car parking ramps. There are security cameras and guards somewhere inside but we believe it’s not heavily guarded. Yet. It probably will be once the crops become harvestable. It’s 7:10 now. The building doors open to workers at 8:00. But the workers will come later today. Front line is us. Can the collectives in the room say a few words please?'
A black woman spoke, 'We’re the Dry Women – a feminist drought refugee collective, most of us have papers. That’s why we want to help the Agromigrants. Thank you for organizing, Youssef! We are unstoppable, another world is possible!'
A white man, gray haired, maybe in his late 60s, 'We’re the Schaerbekois Association of Independent Cohouses. We have been fighting evictions and demolitions to build private cohousing in the neighborhood. We know the real estate industry are handing towers over to agroindustry, while thousands of migrants flood in each year. This is our city.'
Next a young man with a Spanish accent. 'I’m from the Rooftop Design Coop. We assess and plan rooftop projects, solar panels, rainwater collection, urban gardens and the like. It’s getting harder to co-create rooftop spaces with residents, because the real estate agencies have started speculating on rooftop spaces, buying them up, privatizing the energy or water. There is so much demand and need for these spaces, they’re worth a lot. Power to the people!'
We have laughed and half cheered at the cheesy slogan.
Finally a quiet voice, a young white girl, a teenager by the looks of her, 'I’m with the Daydreamers, we’re a group of teenagers doing civil disobedience to demand a universal basic income. You deserve food and shelter, Youssef.'
Kat announced, 'Ok good to know who’s in the room. These are the leaders of the four ‘fingers. A finger is a marching block of about 100 people. These people have already been mobilized via the channels to meet in different open parks and plazas around. They should be gathering now. We will form fingers at 7:45 exactly, and when the doors open at 8:00, march through. Once inside… Hey are the trunk carriers here?' A few burly looking men raised their hands. 'Great! Once we carry the tree trunks through the doors, it will be impossible to close them fully, and once all fingers are inside, the trunks will be used to barricade entrances shut. Barricaders, you have your other materials for each door?' A guttural, 'Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!' came from a few people in the room.
Kat laughed, 'I guess that means yes. The scene teams are here, ready to stream to portals across the nation?'
'Brunews present and ready to capture!'
Kat, 'Yeah, and I see the other hands. Ok. I’m just checking finally for the muralist?'
'Yeah, Vale here. I will write 'Nurture Tower: Requisitioned by the People' across the inner windows on the first few floors.'
'Alright.' Kate paused. 'I want you to know, whether we get in or not, whether we hold the tower or not, whether we manage to negotiate for a permit to legalize the occupation...I want you to know that this is a statement. We won’t watch our needs be determined by our means anymore. That message is going to reach audiences across Belgium, it’s going to reach the corporations, it’s going to reach the commune, and it’s going to reach the federal government. Whose streets?'
A shout from the whole group, 'Our streets!'
'Vive Bruxelles!' 'Vive! Viva!' We clapped and stomped and whooped and hugged, eyes met, tears came. We grabbed our packs, and left to march on the tower.