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Q&A: Karine Lalieux on Brussels culture - and cleanliness

23:04 27/11/2017
Promoting cinema, local beer and a new fashion museum are among the plans for the Brussels city official in charge of cultural events (and tidying up afterwards)

Karine Lalieux was a criminologist and ULB professor before the Socialist party asked her to stand for election, becoming a federal member of parliament in 1999. She was elected a Brussels city councillor in 2000 and became an alderwoman in 2006, where she is now in her second term responsible for culture, tourism, major events - and for public cleanliness.

In a wide-ranging interview for The Bulletin, she tells us how Brussels, unlike Barcelona, "must remain a place where locals and tourists meet as equals" - and how, in a sprawling municipality, "culture should be everywhere, from Neder-Over Heembeek to the Avenue Louise".

How does being simultaneously a member of the federal parliament and a municipal alderwoman work?

I work a lot and I have a great team. At the federal level I work on foreigners, energy and political enterprise. At municipal level I am responsible for culture, public cleanliness, tourism and major events. I work 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a choice. Otherwise it doesn’t work. But I am giving up the federal position in 2018.

People can be confused by the many levels of government in Belgium. Can you help us understand?

Yes there are many layers to the cake. It is up to the different levels of power to work together. The system is still maturing and we are not yet at a level of complete cooperation and collaboration. I can understand the frustration of the citizen when he is told: "No, that’s not me, it’s the region, that’s not me it’s the federal government, there’s nothing I can do about it." The priority should be to provide the citizen with the needed service. There are various layers of government elsewhere such as Germany or France - this is not a uniquely Belgian situation - and we have to make sure that it doesn't complicate people's lives.

It seems that each local alderperson has areas of responsibility that can be quite different. For instance, you are responsible for culture and rubbish collection

It’s true that at first glance the responsibilities are not a coherent group, but it doesn’t matter. First of all there are the political individuals - the alderpeople (echevins) - and then there is the administration, very competent people who actually provide the services. We as elected local officials have a six-year mandate, they are here for 40 years. They provide the services to the public, we inject our priorities into the departments that we are responsible for but they keep everything going. As to who gets which areas, that is decided the evening of the elections based on the wishes of the various parties and individuals.

I am very pleased to be responsible for culture - it’s very important to me, but I also have found public cleanliness to be fascinating. It involves me immediately with the public. Everyone has something to say about rubbish and its elimination. It’s a very complicated subject which no one has yet completely solved.

How do you keep the city's streets clean - and how do you respond to big events?

The crews are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The normal day starts at 6.30 with the large trucks and other mechanical cleaners, followed by the individual human street sweepers. These cleaning crews are very dedicated to their work, they are remarkable workers and unfortunately, they are invisible to much of the public even though they are there everyday cleaning up. On the central boulevards the crews are on duty non-stop from 6.30 and 20.00 and during the Winter Wonders until 22.00.

Sometimes, when people complain that no one is doing anything I say: Let’s stop your street sweeper from working on your street for the next fortnight and let’s see whether you see a difference.

We want the city to be a lively place with many events but those events should not impact negatively on people's quality of life. Let’s say there’s a major sporting event at the Heysel. Our crews will work until 2.00 or 3.00 in the morning so that locals don’t have to wake up to a filthy neighborhood. For big multi-hour events in the city centre such as Gay Pride, cleaning is simultaneous with the event. For an event such as the Brussels Summer Festival, cleaning starts immediately after the event and then starts again at 6.00 so that the Sunday early riser who goes out to get his croissants is not confronted by piles of rubbish.

And of course, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays there’s no need for a special event to require large cleaning crews. What saddens me is that even though there are more than 4,800 bins in the city and we are adding new ones all the time, so many people just don’t seem capable of that small gesture of dropping their waste into the receptacles provided.

Let's move on from rubbish to culture. What are your priorities?

When I started this job, my first aim was never to reduce the funding and, in fact, to increase it. Culture should be accessible at a local level, in all the neighborhoods, diverse in its expressions, and it should support logistically and financially young and emerging artists. It should be everywhere, from Neder-Over Heembeek to the Avenue Louise.

There are three different areas. The first is the city’s cultural institutions such as the KVS, the Théâtre Royal du Parc, Les Brigittines, cultural centres and museums which together involve all artistic disciplines. I wanted to reinforce these institutions, which do a remarkable job. I wanted them to be more open to their neighbourhoods, with more meshing of artistic disciplines and more available to families, which is why now the cultural centres are open on Sundays, for instance. That said, each institution has complete artistic freedom when it comes to what they are producing. We give them the money but creatively there are no strings attached. I have been repositioning the museums, for instance the creation of the Manneken Pis Wardrobe and the renovation of the Costume and Lace Museum.

The second area is the events that are completely produced by the city such as the Nuit Blanche, the Hopla! circus arts festival, Carte de Visite, Guignolet dans le Parc and Insifon - which are both for children - Let it Beach, Winter Wonders. These are all free to the public.

The third area is partnerships in which we financially support private producers for such events as the Brussels Jazz Weekend. We’re always adding to the schedule, for instance the Brussels Electronic Music Marathon, which celebrates the city's electro scene. All these event producers are very talented and employ very talented performers and artists, so it would be foolish for the city to duplicate their efforts which is why we work with them and support them. There are so many creative people who call Brussels home and every day I have the pleasure of reviewing projects being proposed by these very creative artists and producers.

My main priority is not tourism but of course many of the events already mentioned and others such as the Kunstenfestivaldesarts and the Ommegang attract many tourists and make these cultural events an economic force for the city. Right now I’m working on a street art circuit. We have €100,000 to spend on artists to create the route and even though the main purposes are to beautify the city, recognise this art form and support artists, I am sure that this will attract a certain type of tourist. What I absolutely do not want is for the central city to become nothing but tourists, like it has become in Barcelona. The central city must remain a place where locals and tourists meet as equals and exchange views.

What are your wishes for the future?

First of all, that there always be more culture in Brussels. Specifically, I would like to develop a cinema theme for the city. Brussels is a paradise for movies with cinemas everywhere, so it's natural. There are great festivals, such as the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival or the Brussels Short Film Festival, but I want to create a major event for movies in the city centre that celebrates our fabulous actors, directors and technicians. There are lots of movies shot here, but mostly they are pretending to be somewhere else. I would like Brussels to become a character in the movies, that we see the Atomium and the Grand-Place as we do the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben.

Second, I would like to do something around beer. Of course there is the stock exchange building project in development but I would like to take advantage of the growing sector of micro-breweries in the city to highlight beer and gastronomy.

Third, although we just redid the Costume and Lace Museum, it’s too small and I would like to find a prominent space to create a full-size fashion museum. This may sound very ambitious - but I feel I can be, because we have fantastic teams of very talented people both in the city services and a phenomenal pool of talent in the city.

Written by Richard Harris



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