As I set off to explore Charleroi, one of Belgium’s youngest cities and one sometimes labelled as northern Europe’s answer to Detroit, a friend gave me some helpful advice: “You’ll see when you get to the centre, it’s just a hole, an enormous hole.”
I nodded sagely. It is not an unreasonable way to describe the plight that has befallen Charleroi in recent decades, as its traditional coal mining industry disappeared, steel production suffered and unemployment has risen.
I realised a while later that something had been lost in translation when I stood next to an enormous crater destined to be the location of a shopping mall.
It is one of several large projects that collectively amount to some serious surgery on the city centre. According to the city’s 2015-2025 strategic plan, the task is nothing less than to “restore a taste for living, working and having fun in the city for the people of Charleroi’’.
Away from the construction cranes, there are signs that the city may be beginning to change in other ways — ones that are less superficially striking but which matter in a 21st century economy. The signs are tentative, but Charleroi is starting to get a cooler reputation.
This was explained to me in an arts and crafts market being held in a bright green former car wash. Nicolas Belayew, a 33-year-old graphic designer, and his partner Corinne Clarysse, organisers of the market, are exactly the kind of newcomers — and returnees — that Charleroi is looking for.
They met while they were studying in Brussels and the couple ended up moving to the city, Nicolas’s home, when they realised they could afford four times as much space to live in. This gave enough room to set up an art studio.
They are also the founders of the association linked to the market, “6001 is the new 1060’’, a postcode-based pun on how their quarter is set to become as trendy as St Gilles, one of Brussels’ up-and-coming neighbourhoods. “Our starting point is that there are a lot of activities that we like that are lacking here. So when they don’t exist, we try to create them,’’ says Mr Belayew. “That seems to be something about Charleroi — this spirit to try things.’’
Paul Magnette, the city’s energetic 44-year-old mayor and the minister-president of Wallonia, says he got a kick out of a recent newspaper article describing the city as “a little Berlin’’ — an improvement on the Detroit comparison.
He says the acres of space offered by former industrial sites is one reason why artists and musicians from Belgium and northern France have been attracted to Charleroi in recent years.
Ironically, another is the city’s “bad reputation’’. Mr Magnette gives the example of Brooklyn and notes that with the reputation comes the idea that there are “lots of things to discover, lots of energy, and lots of potential’.’
While it is impossible to say how far an influx on young creative talent can play a role in Charleroi’s epic long-term effort to turn its economy around, the city’s authorities are taking its potential seriously. A key part of their regeneration plan is to push Charleroi’s reputation as a centre of cutting-edge arts.
It already has strong roots in this area. Charleroi is home to Belgium’s most important centre of contemporary dance and a municipal art collection of 6,000 pieces, including a number by René Magritte, the surrealist artist, who spent much of his early life in the city.
Pascal Verhulst, cultural attaché in Mr Magnette’s team, helps oversee a €40m cultural investment programme. Part of those funds will help convert a former regional branch of the national bank of Belgium into a cinema. Nearby is Le Vecteur, a multipurpose cultural centre painted black-and-white.
Other key locations are L’Ancre theatre, which offers residencies to actors who have just finished their studies, and BPS22, a modern art museum. They are all a short walk away from each other.
One reason for the potential of the creative scene to develop further, Mr Magnette says, is the fact that the centre of town is not that big. “In Montreal they have what they call the artistic quarter . . . to an extent the centre of Charleroi is an artistic quarter itself. We will have a quite impressive concentration of art, culture . . . everything is in walking distance. You have a high concentration that should have a high impact.”
Mr Magnette says the arts have a role to play in addressing a challenge that he describes as a “divorce between social geography and economic geography’’.
Charleroi had an unemployment rate of 25.9 per cent in August, compared with 16 per cent in Wallonia as a whole. The city has 21,000 jobseekers, 8 per cent of the claimants in Wallonia, the region’s statistics office says. The city has about 200,000 inhabitants and under 25 per cent are over 60 years old.
While there are about the same number of jobs in the Charleroi area as there are members of the active population, two-thirds are held by people who live outside the city, he says. And improving the wider cultural scene will help to boost its attractiveness as a place to live.