Can you describe what you do?
For four years now, I’ve been co-running Bar Stan: a neighbourhood bar I opened with four other Leuven-based, creative idealists. It’s an easy-going hangout spot for both the young and old, local or tourist; located just outside of the pretty saturated, more commercial centre in the once- vibrant interbellum quarter Nieuw Kwartier. We serve no-nonsense, fresh food packed with flavour – all day long. Besides this, I also organise Camping Flamingo, an urban yard sale that was originally located on the small square right in front of Bar Stan, but now moves freely around town. All in the name of boosting local creativity and small entrepreneurship on the one hand, and enlivening public space on the other. Two points Leuven was lacking in, in my opinion. The common aim is to bring something extra, something “edgy” to the city of Leuven. There’s actually a huge group of creative people in Leuven wanting to really change this city from a boring and dull provincial town once owned by rural, visiting students to a vibrant and inspiring creative and sustainable laboratory where highly motivated locals can really make the difference. I now live a five-minute bike-ride away from Bar Stan in a flat built during the 60’s in a less densely populated area, between the nearby forests in the south and the city centre in the north. I find these 20th Century urban peripheries highly interesting – especially having just recently finished my Masters in Urbanism, writing and designing strategies for Leuven’s future sustainable development.
How do you perceive Leuven?
Leuven is usually referred to as a small and safe, middle-class provincial town benefitting from the presence of KU Leuven, Imec, and other massive research companies; while also being overrun with students and totally lacking any edge or real urban identity. Over five years ago, this was most definitely the case – a lot has been changing since then, though. Before, many Leuven-based creatives would up and leave town, opting for nearby Antwerp or Brussels instead, which arguably did offer much more creative in- and output. Thankfully nowadays, Leuven is catching up at double speed thanks to the many initiatives set up by creative locals, and made possible by a drastic change in local policy: creativity and sustainability are the new buzzwords, with ateliers, co-workspaces and innovating concepts popping up fast. It has to be said though, this isn’t only happening in Leuven, but in many other similarly-sized cities too – think Kortrijk / Courtrai, Mechelen / Malines or even Roeselare / Roulers. In a way, this has become (good) mainstream urban policy.
Although its abundance and top-notch quality, culture in Leuven is still lacking some “edge”, and tends to be quite dull and elitist. There’s also a lack of small, independent venues, bringing pure and honest music and activities in an easy-going environment. The presence of 50,000 students makes things quite complex, with both City policy and venues mainly catering on the students’ needs. Parties, street-art, and festivals in Leuven are often, regardless of whether directly or indirectly, organised by local councillors themselves. This, off course, is totally wrong and contradicts the way in which a “real” city, with an active, local underground scene, should operate.
I hands-down prefer the small, human-scale projects; which adds a healthy dose of warmth, identity, tension and edge to the city.
What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?
Creativity in Leuven is mostly interconnected, and is most visible in large-scale businesses, like production and advertising companies, or IT start-ups. The presence of the University enhances Leuven’s international appeal, with technological possibilities made easy to reach – just think of the recent MindGate project, which emphasises precisely this cross-over connection between science and creativity. Nevertheless, I hands-down prefer the small, human-scale projects; which adds a healthy dose of warmth, identity, tension and edge to the city. This is all question of local policy and scale, though. Real “edge” often comes from underground scenes or bottom-up initiatives that are enabled to grow and experiment in some sort of grey-zone – and before they become too big for their boots and mainstream, in absolute control of local policy. In Leuven, every square metre of any old warehouse or not-so-obvious market space is immediately owned or taken over by local government; while every new, bottom-up initiative immediately has to share its agenda with local politicians, placing it under full City control. Things are evolving positively though, with more and more ideas from young people receiving policy support. For instance, creative collective ONKRUID exemplifies how things have changed, upgrading itself from the City’s blacklist to their number one event organiser.
In your view, how has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
In a way, my interests in urbanism and shaping cities have found a very decent laboratory in the small city of Leuven. Having grown up here, I was able to find a solid network, reaching into the local music, food and architectural scenes; all the way up to local politicians. The small and graspable scale make such projects relatively easy to shape, as all the potential contributors are part of one large umbrella network. Sure, Leuven isn’t Brussels, Antwerp, nor even Ghent – but it does have its own unique characteristics, and I truly believe that any city, no matter what its size, can be transformed and intensified by its locals and their creative ideas and initiatives.
I’m a strong advocate for Leuven broadening its spatial and mental map, and for policy losing its urge for overall control.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
I personally hope Leuven will one day truly gain an “urban” feel, with the appropriate urban frictions and a spread-out urbanity, reaching far beyond the current commercial centre. I’m a strong advocate for Leuven broadening its spatial and mental map, and for policy losing its urge for overall control. Bar Stan is trying to prove that Leuven can and should be comprised of more than just some strictly aligned commercial centres, with residential areas surrounding it. A city doesn’t work like a theme park or shopping mall – rather, it’s all about functionality, regardless of its (small) scale or density levels. The intimacy and qualities found in certain neighbourhoods all around town also deserve an urban approach, with spaces and chances for more and improved functionality: bringing people together, building a more sustainable local economy and broadening the spatial and mental map of Leuven.
If you had to take out-of-towners to places that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?
I’d love to show new-comers how the “new” Leuven is taking shape. I would definitely avoid the commercial down-town and its shopping district, which unfortunately has the same generic feel every commercialised town-centre does. After a quick glimpse of the old Town Hall and other historical highlights, I’d take them to the modernist Sint-Maartensdal, the CSA farms at Park Abbey, the re-converted train-buildings of HAL 5, Bar Stan, all the great thrift- and second-hand shops, the best coffee-bars and resto’s, the beautiful Vaartkom neighbourhood and its brand new Sluispark. And to top it all off, ending the night on the Vaartkom canal, on mine and my girlfriend’s ’60s boat Rusty – a very cheap alternative to all the exclusive apartments surrounding us.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?
The Nieuw Kwartier area, where Bar Stan is located, used to be full of bars and shops between the ’30s and ’80s. Our retiring mayor, Mr. Tobback, kind of forgot this piece of urban history when claiming through media that Bar Stan must be shut down, purely because the neighbourhood had “always been an exclusively residential area”. Mistakes happen, I guess, but it did clearly show the current contradictory views on urbanity. I’m relieved to be part of a new policy vision today, alongside creative mind, seeking to change the city in a positive, socially contributive, vibrant and dynamic way. Who knows, one day we might finally get that real edge.barstan.be facebook.com/CampingFlamingo