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.

Stefan Lernous

Stefan Lernous

Theatre producer at Abattoir Fermé (1973)

Can you describe what you do? Where you are based, the neighbourhood you live in, your daily routine, the people you work with, the scene you feel the closest to.

I work as a director in theatre and opera and I run my own company called Abattoir Fermé. Mechelen is the city I grew up in, it is where I work and long ago I decided I wanted to live here. I’ve always lived in or around the centre, but recently I’ve moved closer to the border with Hofstade and Zemst. As I got older I came to realise that the more I work, the more peace and quiet I need. I had to make a choice between moving or working less, and I can’t do the latter. I’m simply far too passionate about my job. But quite often I do feel like retreating to my home office with my books.

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 small enough not to lose track of anything, and large enough to avoid becoming narrow-minded. Once the locals get a feel of who you are, they can be pretty easygoing. You’ll find a lot of inhabitants feel very strongly towards ‘their’ town, and rightfully so. During the summer it’s one of the most beautiful cities of Belgium, and it’s always very cosy.

I like Mechelen’s recent ambitions as a city, which over the last ten years have been steadily rising and over the last five years have been peaking. There is a strong desire to grow on different levels, including the local cultural landscape. The city has gained a ‘can-do’ attitude, and this is a recent change I like a lot about Mechelen.

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

Mechelen has a lot of what one could describe as a ‘classic city-marketing appeal’, which extends from the parks to the gorgeous houses, from museums to marketplaces. There’s café’s, restaurants, and many interesting and colourful people to meet. It’s located right in between Antwerp and Brussels. Everything is within reach and it’s pretty relaxed as far as the general atmosphere is concerned. The city is clean, safe and open to new ideas and initiatives.

As far as its ‘edge’ is concerned: for me, ‘edgy’ is a way of life, and a necessary part of a healthy society. Our company Abattoir Fermé has built a reputation making work that’s considered ‘on the edge’. But Mechelen is still a rather ‘wholesome’ town, although it has become more and more open to new ideas.

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

I dropped out of school, and I had no idea what to do next. I was more or less unemployed for several years, barely able to pay the bills. Therefore I’m grateful we can enjoy a solid social security system, I cannot stress enough how this saved my life as a young man. I was able to invest a lot of time in my fringe theatre groupe Abattoir Fermé, unaware at the time that I was preparing and studying for the job of my life.

The city was also of vital importance in our further growth: small grants for rehearsal space and offices, cultural festivals in the city, and obviously being named City Artist for 2018-2019 is a big honour and a challenge for us! All this has firmly cemented our bond with this city.

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

One: We have some very good restaurants in Mechelen. But I love eating and there is plenty room for more and ever better restaurants.

Two: I would love for a city to actively support programs that bring children together with the elderly. As a society, we have placed a taboo on death and mourning, on all that is dirty and crazy for decades. Through education, culture, city-planning and so forth we can try and fuse all the colourful layers of humanity back together.

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

That’s easy. I would meet with them on a sunny day for a drink on a terrace on the central square. Afterwards we go for a bite to eat on the Vismarkt and then we could go and see a show by Abattoir Fermé. I would also take them to the Kazerne Dossin, or we go for a stroll through the Vrijbroekpark. We might have a drink at the Zennegat. I would also show them the interiors of a couple of beautiful privately-owned houses.

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

I have many anecdotes about growing up and living in Mechelen, but here’s one that is not so much an anecdote as a given fact: At first some of the people in Mechelen might seem a bit cross. But I can also honestly say that, if you approach someone from Mechelen in a friendly and respectful way, you will quickly find yourself engaged in a conversation and you will discover that the ‘Mecheleir’ can be very inquisitive.