I could hardly believe my eyes: sitting quietly in a gritty neighborhood not too far outside the city center of Lille was an abandoned warehouse, and I was inside it. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood up a bit, and when my shoes crunched on small pieces of glass underfoot, a small flock of pigeons flew around the dull brown rafters overhead.
How did I come to find such a place, you ask? I was wondering the same thing. Earlier in the day I had taken the subway into the city from the university on the outskirts, where I couchsurfed the previous evening with Alex, an engineering student. I risk giving Lille a bad rap by saying this, but I had heard from several of my Belgian hosts that Lille wasn’t much of a city.
After spending a few hours wandering around the quaint yet unspectacular old city, I decided to rent a bike for the day using the municipal bikeshare system. This proved to be an excellent decision, because otherwise I never would have ambled into the industrial neighborhood where I found the warehouse. After biking through several large plazas, one park, and past sequentially quieter residential squares, I parked the bike at a station near an elevated section of the metro.
Like a concrete snake it undulated across a massive empty lot that appeared to be a former train yard. To enter the lot I first slipped through a gap in a deteriorated brick and mortar fence, then stepped carefully down a rough dirt embankment that was littered with broken glass and discarded cigarettes. This was the furthest possible thing the nice ladies at the office of tourism in the city center could have imagined me doing when I stepped in earlier in the day to ask them about any events going on–yet I felt adrenalin coursing through me as I breached the aging walls of the train yard.
Not too far from the train tracks sat a worn-down building, its facade covered in graffiti, its windows mostly broken, and its many tall entry doors boarded up to prevent trespassers from entering. The building extended for what looked like two or three city blocks, and on the other side of the empty street was an old factory with a smokestack looming above it. The sky was clear but a cold wind was blowing, and dust from the empty lot twisted in the air with an assortment of other debris. I had perhaps walked down the side of the building for a minute or so when I noticed a crack in one of the doors. When I peeked in, I saw that someone else had tagged up part of the interior with graffiti, which gave me hope that I would be able to enter.
Not much farther down I finally came across the entrance to the warehouse: it was actually sort of anticlimactic. For one reason or another, one of the doors had never been boarded up, and when I tugged on the dusty bottom it gave enough for me to crawl under. I was finally inside.
The first thing I noticed upon entering was the smell. The multitude of birds that made their home here had turned the floor into a Jackson Pollack-esque collage of droppings and loose feathers, and even in the drafty space the noxious scent of ammonia tickled the back of my throat. A long line of skylights stretched all the way from one end of the building to the other, allowing for sunlight to muscle its way through the dusty mullions. At the very far end of the warehouse–in the same direction that I had originally come from–was a small grouping of chairs and a stray train car at rest in the corner.
When I walked over to the other end the ground became even more saturated with cigarette butts. For a moment I wondered if I would find any needles–the last thing I wanted was to walk into a heroin den–but it seemed that whoever was using the place to smoke up in didn’t do any hard drugs. That was also when I noticed several joints rendered in spraypaint on the walls, so I knew that I was safe.
In fact, I was more than safe: I was thrilled at finding this place. Every so often the wind picked up and rattled the doors ever so slightly, and whenever the metro passed by a soft whooshing sound would echo through off the walls and fade back into the dust. I stood and listened for a while, admiring the quiet, overlooked beauty of this place, and then I left the way I came in, shutting the door behind me.
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