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.

Willy Thomas

Willy Thomas

Artistic director of Arsenaal/Lazarus (1959)

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’ve lived in Brussels since 1979 and worked there until 2005. The complicated realities of this city have become my compass in life and work. As an actor I have always questioned my position in relation to society, and my personal achievement in the world at large.

In 2016, I returned to Mechelen as the artistic leader of a theatre called ARSENAAL. Together with the wonderful theatre collective LAZARUS we try to organise a creative space that promotes openness and participation. This implies dealing not only with artistic and cultural people, but also with social workers and engaged individuals from all walks of life.

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 has all the ingredients of any super diverse contemporary society, only on a smaller scale. There is a positive and constructive vibe. I have the impression that most of the people recognise the good work that has been done by the city council over the last few years. The smaller scale seems to be very attractive for young families. At the moment Mechelen may still be a somewhat sleepy town, but you can tell the future holds more creativity and energy.

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

I think the scale of the city is very inviting, with a city council and a policy that puts people first. There is a clear struggle going on to turn this into an inclusive society. On the other hand, too much optimism can always backfire, so I try to stay vigilant when things are going too well.

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

Mechelen has definitely changed my life in a significant way. For the first time since 1981, my work is based outside my hometown. After a long process of urban cultural trial and error in Brussels, I now have been given the opportunity to develop a city project based on the day-to-day dynamics of a city over a period of several years. This would be impossible to do in a complex environment like Brussels.

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

After only two years of working here, it would be pretentious to state any claims about this. But the city-project “De grond der dingen” we are developing for the moment will definitely try to provide some answers to this question.

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

I would advise the same anyone should to when they arrive at a new and undiscovered place: wander around and allow yourself to get lost! Make sure to pay a visit to the magnificent city hall, as well as the youth organisation ROJM – two places that are true and powerful symbols of their respective times.

And don’t miss our workspace in the beautiful renovated museum Hof Van Busleyden, where we expose and discuss all the residents’ proposals for a better Mechelen for our project ‘De Grond der Dingen’.