The Mechelen Hundred

Portraits of a city's people, today

Nestled between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen has often been overshadowed by its larger neighbours. Yet teaming up with the City of Mechelen, our line-up of 100 of the city’s most prominent people, places and projects proves the extent of its potential. From artists and creatives to critical thinkers and fighters, these are the powerhouses driving Mechelen forward one step at a time.

Jan Wouter Van Gestel

Jan Wouter Van Gestel

Professional singer-songwriter at Tout Va Bien (1992)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m a singer-song writer signed with Warner Music, so basically I make music for a living. I was born and raised in Mechelen, but I’m currently based in Leuven, more specifically in one of its suburbs named Kessel-Lo.

Everyday, I try to wake up early. I make myself a strong coffee, go for a long walk, and have another coffee at my favourite café. Then I try to find my way back to the piano in my living room. Once I’m done playing, I go to the local event space Hal 5 for a workout.

How do you perceive Mechelen? In your view, what kind of city is it? Its people, its cultural landscape, its vibe? How does it compare to other, similarly-sized cities?

Mechelen is growing fast, and now there is an influx of young people, which obviously sets the tone. There is clearly a lot of creativity going on and new projects getting always being initiated, but despite all this rapid change, Mechelen has managed to keep its authenticity.

Mechelen is situated in between Brussels and Antwerp, something which is reflected upon in the local mentality. The residents tend to be pretty blunt, but at the same time there is a lot of positivism.

What would you say is Mechelen’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

Mechelen has a timeless quality to it, but at the same time there’s always something happening, especially in the summer. There’s a constant stream of new initiatives being started up, and they all want to make things better, because the inhabitants of Mechelen really love their city. So I’d say that’s what gives Mechelen its edge: the people.

How has Mechelen contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

The city had a huge influence on my personal development. When I was 15, Mechelen wasn’t what it is right now. I wouldn’t say it was dangerous, but it could definitely be rough at times, especially for a difficult teenager like me. I started to make music as a response to my environment. It was my escape, a way to make sense of the world around me. I played my first gigs in Mechelen, the first people who supported me were from Mechelen, and I made my first professional deals at the art-nouveau cafe ‘De Gouden Vis’.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

Mechelen lacks a proper music hall. If you want to see a successful band perform, you usually have to go to another city. I also think there should be some proper rehearsal facilities for local and upcoming bands. Another thing Mechelen has to invest in is its nightlife. The city is great for bars, but sometimes people just want to dance.

To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Mechelen?

I would take them to the Vismarkt around 15:00 for a cocktail and to soak up the general vibe. After that, I would go to Sava for some tapas, and Unwined for a nice glass of wine. Around 23:00 I would take them to De Gouden Vis to enjoy a Gouden Carolus and have a nice chat with some random locals.

Can you talk to us about a local legend, a neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

In the middle ages there was a guy, let’s name him Ruben. One night, Ruben went to a local bar to enjoy several of Mechelen’s divine beers, the Gouden Carolus of that time. In the middle of the night, he stumbled out of the bar and started walking (because Ruben loves to walk when he is drunk). At one point he sat (fell) down on the Grote Markt and looked up: the tower of Mechelen, the St. Rumbold’s cathedral, was on fire. He panicked, ran back to the bar and convinced everybody that the tower was going up in flames. The whole town was woken up and together they all tried to extinguish the fire.

But of course, there never was a fire. It was a blood moon shining behind the tower, which gave the very intoxicated Ruben the impression that St. Rumbold’s tower was burning.

Bottom line: Ruben is an idiot. Because of him they still call us ‘De maneblussers’, literally translated ‘The Moon Extinguishers’.