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Life After Coal

As coal mining is phased out, a Belgian example could inspire Slovakia’s mining towns to seek innovative approaches to their post-industrial future. From Dennik N. by Michaela Barcikova and Ria Gehrerova 4 November 2019

TOL editors’ note: Brown coal mining is a major employer in the Upper Nitra area of  western Slovakia, and the effects of its planned phase-out on the local administrative center of Prievidza and nearby mining towns are far from clear. Slovak government figures have stated that state subsidies to the sole remaining coal mining company, Hornonitrianske Bane Prievidza, will end by 2023. The subsidies currently amount to about $115 million a year. The company employs 4,000 workers and another 11,000 indirectly, Reuters has reported. According to a proposal drafted by the ruling Smer party, miners who lose their jobs could receive lifetime monthly payments of 200 to 800 euros ($223.27 to $893.10), depending on length of service. The mining company is prepared to contribute 17 million euros of the 110 million euro estimated total costs associated with closing the mines, with most of the rest coming from EU funds, the European Investment Bank, and the state budget.

 


They call it the green city. Genk’s new nickname belies its hundred-year history and the lasting imprint of coal mining in this Belgian city.

 

After the black-coal mines closed down and the underground shafts were filled in with concrete, so that no one would even consider reviving the mining industry, Genk was forced to contemplate what kind of city it wanted to be.

 

When the last mine in Genk was shuttered in the 1980s, few here imagined that the city would come to be seen as a success story. The end of the mining industry brought 20 percent unemployment and growing dissatisfaction among the citizenry. Decaying buildings were the only visible reminder of the mining companies.

 

In the course of time, however, Genk has become a prime example of how a city can manage to move on to a post-industrial future.

 

Some Slovaks see Genk as a successful model for their own mining towns, among them Maros Sefcovic, a vice president of the European Commission who oversaw energy policy during the previous Commission’s mandate. He also ran for president in this year’s Slovak elections, losing in the second round to Zuzana Caputova. Genk is mentioned several times in the Slovak government’s action plan for the transformation of the Upper Nitra coal region, where mining is scheduled to be phased out within the next five years or so.

 

At our first sight of the grandiose edifices erected by the mining companies in Genk, we knew this city of 66,000 had little in common with the Upper Nitra towns of Novaky or Prievidza, making comparisons very difficult.

 

“These are our castles,” Paul Boutsen says, indicating the former mine administration buildings. He is known around town as one of those who fought to keep the mines running. Novaky’s mining headquarters will never resemble castles, and yet Genk has faced similar challenges to the ones Slovak towns will meet in coming years. At the least, they can draw inspiration from Genk’s refusal to lie down and die.

 

First Attempt at Mine Closure: Two Dead 

 

Life in Genk revolved around the mines. Nearly every family had at least one mine worker and some families produced whole generations of miners. Far from being just ordinary big employers, the mining companies built housing for the workers and schools for their children, ran football clubs and social clubs and even a symphony orchestra.

 

The companies saw to it that workers kept their houses in good repair and trimmed their gardens. The mine director was more influential than the mayor. There were benefits for miners: three cubic meters of free coal for every family, low-interest mortgages, free rail travel. They earned average wages, roughly the same as a Belgian school teacher.

 

The life the miners knew could not last forever. In the 1960s, to stem the flow of budget funds to the heavily subsidized mines, the government tried to close one of the three pits in Genk, where some 5,000 people worked. Miners feared for the future, and in 1966 they went on a full-bore strike. During a march between two mines, they destroyed railroad tracks linking Genk to nearby towns, overturned electricity pylons, and knocked down traffic lights, the New York Herald Tribune reported. Two miners died as police moved in to suppress the protest. The situation was so tense that the Belgian government was forced into pledging not to close any other pits until the miners found new jobs, and it raised miners’ pay.

 

In the end, the Zwartberg pit was closed, but the pressure on politicians was so intense that they lacked the will to touch the remaining two mines for the next 20 years.

 

Mourning the Mines 

 

Would you go back to the pit if you could?

 

“Yes, definitely,” replies Jos Medo, who spent 14 years underground.

 

But wasn’t it bad for your health?

 

“It was,” he admits.

 

The walls around us are hung with portraits of miners whose lungs turned black from the coal dust they inhaled. Jos Medo and Johannes Ooms don’t speak of mining as an ordinary job or a job that destroyed their health. They talk about it with the tender pathos reserved for memories of the good old days.

 

Jos Medo spent 14 years working underground. Here, he demonstrates the noisy machine used to dig mine shafts. Photo by Tomas Benedikovic.

 

“Work underground is special. It’s your identity. You need to cooperate to stay safe. You’ve got great responsibility, even though you’re one of the least important workers,” Ooms says.

 

Medo, like Ooms, still regrets the passing of the mines. It is hard for us to understand their feelings. It’s true that the mining companies took good care of their workers, but on the other hand, they also exploited them in a cynical fashion.

 

The men who drove new shafts, working in the dustiest conditions, earned the highest pay. The fine dust settled in their lungs and turned them to stone. The mining companies bribed them to undergo a slow death. “The majority of those who earned the most are already dead,” 76-year-old former miner Ooms says.

 

After working in the mines for 27 years, he was eligible to take retirement as soon as the mining ended. Other miners he knew were not so fortunate. Many fell on hard times. Some could not hold down factory jobs because they were used to a completely different way of working.

 

When the pits closed, Medo moved away to Antwerp for a job cleaning industrial machines. This was worse than working underground, he says. “We knew there was a lot of dust in the mines, but in industrial cleaning you really don’t know what you are breathing. Work in the mines was definitely better.”

 

Many miners opposed the mine closures because they didn’t believe this would bring any positive changes to their lives. They could not picture life without the mines. They had watched as new firms came to Genk, only to depart within a few years or go bust.

 

“These big multinational capitalist firms simply came and went,” Ooms says. Siemens came to Genk in the 1960s, as he recalls, but packed up and left before the first mine was shut down.

 

For many workers and their families, mining represented a guarantee of stability they were unwilling to break away from, so much so that they kept coming back to the city’s mines even after they closed down. They began gathering in the neglected mine buildings, bringing with them documents, helmets, working clothes, and tools, and they started a small museum. Some started giving guided tours on weekends for city residents.

 

To counteract the isolation many miners and their families felt after losing their jobs, Ooms and other former miners started a club in the museum building where people could meet and reminisce about the mines that once brought the entire city together.

 

A Dying City 

 

Former Genk Mayor Jef Gabriels begins his account of the city’s regeneration. “When we knew there was no other choice than to close all the pits, we concentrated on five areas.” When the remaining two mines, Winterslag and Waterschei, closed in the 1980s, 10,000 workers lost their jobs – every sixth inhabitant of the city. Some took retirement, others were left jobless.

 

The first priority was to find new jobs for those who wanted them.

 

The old mine tower is part of the museum on the grounds of C-mine. Photo by Tomas Benedikovic.

 

Second was a retraining program to get people ready to start looking for new jobs. Over 14 months, 6,000 people were trained, Gabriels says.

 

Third, city managers wanted to convince people they could feel secure and safe even when the mines were gone. The city invested in infrastructure, expanded the sewer system, improved public lighting and greenery.

 

Fourth was the issue of maintaining the abandoned buildings and unused land the city had on its hands when the mining companies left.

 

The fifth and final area was housing. The houses once owned by the mines couldn’t simply be sold off. “When you control something for 40 years and then suddenly you stop, you know what happens,” Gabriels says, cautiously sketching the housing problem.

 

Many families weren’t capable of maintaining their houses, he thinks, and the city lacked the powers the mining companies once had, to deduct the costs of home repairs from miners’ pay. Refurbishing the houses could be costly, for example adding bathrooms to homes built in the 1930s that lacked them.

 

According to Francine Quanten, the long-serving head of strategic development for Genk, the total costs to the city from closing the mines and phasing out the coal industry came to about 75 million euros. The city itself contributed the biggest share, about 30 million euros. EU funds provided 20 million euros, and another 25 million euros came from private investors.

 

“This program came to an end in the late 1990s. If we had continued to focus only on the social aspects, we would have become a poor city with a lot of poor people,” Quanten says.

 

“Before the year 2000, we started asking what role we wanted to play in the region,” adds the current mayor, Wim Dries.

 

Mining vanished, and the Ford car plant – built in 1963, it was a major employer in town – couldn’t be relied on in the long term.

 

“The industry our city was built on was dying,” Quanten says.

 

Black Holes 

 

On the edge of town, pithead towers and other mine structures, once the pride of the city, show the signs of 20 years of decay.

 

When black coal was discovered in northeastern Belgium’s Limburg region, mining companies in the various towns all wanted to attract the most capable workers. How to convince them that your pit is the best place to work?

 

“Mine directors commissioned the best architects and they competed among themselves to design the most beautiful buildings,” says Boutsen, a social worker and activist, first against the mine closures and later working to preserve the neglected mining structures. “What would Limburg be, if we demolished all the mine buildings?”

 

Life, and value, leached out of these structures for 20 years after the mines closed. At the beginning of this century these historical monuments were deteriorating, their facades full of broken windows, thick coats of dust on the silent machines. In order to save the buildings there needed to be a concept of how to adapt them. Not all the buildings could be repurposed as museums.

 

Other cities in Limburg were going through the same kind of transformation. A group of mayors came together to form a regional platform for the mining area. Every month they met with miners and managers to discuss ways and means of revitalizing the abandoned mines.

 

“The mayors wanted the best for their cities. Most of all, they wanted to convert the old mines into museums where visitors could experience what mining was like,” Boutsen says. This was far from the only idea hashed out at the meetings, however.

 

“We didn’t decide in favor of small and medium businesses, shopping centers, expanded housing. That would have been very easy, and many other cities took that road. There was an opportunity to bring something completely new to the city,” Quanten explains.

 

At the time, as the mayors were debating the future of their cities, young artists had already started gathering on the site of the old Winterslag mine in Genk. The city had bought the site from the company responsible for phasing out mining and rented it to artists for a symbolic payment as a venue for occasional, and later regular, cultural events. Saved from total decay, the buildings and open spaces soon began to attract positive attention.

 

Genk and other cities faced a further challenge: persuading young people to stay in a region whose population was rapidly aging and where they saw no prospects for the future. The region urgently needed to improve the quality of life through sports, culture, and recreation. “In Genk, we bet on innovation and creativity,” Quanten says.

 

Today, the city’s refurbished mine buildings are home to a college of design, a cinema, art installations, office and conference spaces, and a center for green energy research.

 

The steel maze is one of the attractions of C-mine. Photo by Tomas Benedikovic.

 

Three of the seven coal mines in Limburg were in Genk. The site of another mine, in nearby Beringen, now boasts a 10-meter-deep scuba diving pool stocked with different kinds of fish and a reef of wrecked cars. A shopping center nestles beneath a tailings pile left over from the mining days.

 

In Houthalen, the former mining company building has been converted into a center for startups and organizations in the field of green economics, and in Heusden-Zolder, old mining equipment is on display in one building and a hotel is planned for another. EU funds contributed 23 million euros for renovations.

 

“If we had started earlier and not let the buildings go to seed, it wouldn’t have cost so much,” Boutsen says.

 

Some aspects of life in Limburg’s old mining towns have carried on. The district market in Heusden-Zolder was once a major event, and today, some 4,000 people attend a weekly market on the revitalized site.

 

“The market used to be held once every two weeks, on payday. The wives would stand at the gate, take their husbands’ pay and rush off to the market to buy groceries,” says Boutsen, who spent a summer during his student days working in a mine.

 

The wives adopted this tactic in hopes of preventing the miners from heading straight to the pub and drinking away their paychecks, he says. Back then, more than three dozen pubs made the mining district a raucous place.

 

Slovaks, Don’t Wait. Close the Mines

 

C-mine is Genk’s showpiece. “C” stands for culture, cinema, creativity, and coal. The center rose on the site of the Winterslag mine. Two tall mining towers remain, nowadays surrounded by the design college, movie theater, and a giant steel maze.

 

The city envisioned C-mine as a dynamic cultural center pulsating with life, although when it opened in 2012, it was feared few townspeople would visit the area, located a half hour walk from downtown.

 

“But as there’s a cinema, everyone goes out there. Every resident of Genk has been to see it,” Dries, the mayor, says.

 

The second redeveloped mining area in Genk is called Thor Park. Named for the Nordic god of thunder, Thor Park’s ambition is to become one of Europe’s five most successful centers for innovative energy research. “We are on the way to achieving that goal,” says its director, Ronnie Belmans, a professor at Catholic University of Leuven.

 

“That man is the tops. When the prime minister wants to know anything about energy, he calls Belmans,” says an enthusiastic Paul Boutsen.

 

Construction of Thor Park began 10 years ago, when scientists from universities in the region joined with research centers to create a new energy center. The first researchers began work only six years later.

 

Belmans tells us he is working, among other things, on next generation dry batteries: safer because they need no liquid, and longer-lasting than now. The center is also testing prototypes of high-voltage cables made in Japan. “When you tell someone that you’re testing technology from Japan, it means something,” Belmans boasts.

 

Since 2005, Genk has invested 250 million euros into the transformation of neglected mining areas. The city contributed 60 million euros of its own funds, with the rest coming from the EU, the Belgian government, and private companies.

 

The clubhouse in a repurposed mine building at Thor Park. Photo by Tomas Benedikovic

 

Aside from the energy center and its 350 employees, Thor Park is also home to a school for retraining high-school students and adults to switch careers. During the school year about 1,200 people study here.

 

The dominant feature of Thor Park, however, is the looming mine tower. We ask Belmans what it’s like to head a center for innovative energy research and look out your windows all day at this monument to coal mining. “The reflection of the mining tower in our windows may be the most popular photo subject in Genk,” he replies with a smile. Many see in this contrast a metaphor for the old and new worlds.

 

Coal mines are a thing of the past, Belmans believes. He urges Slovaks to close their mines without delay. “If I could, I would give you one piece of advice: Waiting is no solution. Will you manage it? Yes. Will it hurt? Yes.”

 

In the Mine, Everyone Is Black

 

“An Italian lived there. Italian, Turk, Belgian, Turk,” Ryul Marie Louis says, ticking off the houses one by one. She lives in one of the typical brick mine workers’ houses close by the old Waterschei mine. Her husband was a miner, like almost everyone in the neighborhood.

 

The mines transformed not just the appearance of the town but its inhabitants as well. The discovery of coal a century ago brought job seekers from across Europe, and later from more distant countries. In need of experts, the locals first turned to Poles, who had experience with driving kilometers-long mine shafts.

 

The end of World War II brought a bigger influx, this time of Italians, as Italy sought to repair its damaged reputation by sending cheap labor to Western Europe. This wave was short-lived, as Italy stopped sending miners in the wake of a mining disaster in the 1950s, in which 136 Italian workers lost their lives. Later, the foreign workforce was made up mainly of Spaniards, Turks, and Moroccans.

 

“There really are a lot of Turks in the city,” advises the owner of our rented summer house. Is she afraid of them, we ask. “No, but it might surprise you if you go to the center. It doesn’t look much like a European city.”

 

Similar to most houses in town, ours is unfenced. Out front is garden furniture, a big, comfortable swing, flowerpots and an herb garden.

 

In a survey taken in 2011, residents of Genk named the biggest drawbacks as transport problems (driving too fast, unregulated parking), illegal dumping and litter, and burglary. Belgium is one of the safest countries in Europe, and city residents’ subjective sense of security was higher than the average for other regional cities.

 

Nowadays, more than half the city’s population do not have Belgian roots. One-fifth are originally from southern Europe, another fifth from Turkey, and 7 percent are Moroccan. Diversity is even higher among young people – three-quarters of under-30s are of non-Belgian origin, and half come from Muslim families.

 

“We are a very diverse city,” Mayor Dries says. “My daughter is 11. In her class there are five children from here in Flanders, four Italians, five from Turkish families, five from Moroccan families. They sit together in one class and they learn together.”

 

Nonetheless, many here feel that even though the community tries to stay whole, keeping up the spirit of unity, they see Italians, Poles, Turks, Moroccans, and Belgians growing further and further apart. “When the mines closed, something changed,” says Ooms, the retired miner.

 

The mines were the glue that held the city together and thanks to mining, racism was unknown, he believes. Underground, the men had to rely on each other regardless of their place of origin or skin color. They even invented a local argot with words from their native languages. Whenever the conversation turns to immigration, the locals invariably cite a local saying: “In the mine, everyone is black.”

 

“There is much more conflict between people than 20 years ago, everywhere in the world. I must agree with those who say that in Genk, this was partly a result of the mine closures, but it’s also driven by events in the word, the migration crisis. But I still think that we in Genk stick close together,” Mayor Dries says.

 

After the Mines, the Car Factory

 

In 2014, Genk underwent another stress test when, after 50 years in town, the Ford car plant shut its doors. In the best times, the plant employed 13,000 people, and although just 4,000 worked there toward the end, up to 10,000 people were touched by its closure when local service providers and subcontractors were figured in.

 

The mayor says the plant’s departure caused far less of a shock than the mine closures. “Three years after the Ford plant was closed, we had the same level of unemployment as before it left,” Dries says. The current unemployment rate is around 9 percent – “the lowest since the mines closed.” Still, that figure is four points above the national average.

 

Over those first three years, a new assembly hall for the transport and logistics company H. Essers rose on the site. It’s now the biggest employer in Genk.

 

Ford, like the mining companies before it, gave its workers high severance payments, the equivalent of 10 monthly salaries. When the mines closed, negotiating the payments had been more complicated and took time to complete. The first miners who agreed to leave received almost a year’s salary. Those who stuck with the talks longer received their full pensions and were eligible to take early retirement.

 

“Some of my friends who were 30 or 40 back then got their full pensions for the years they’d worked,” Boutsen says. At the time, this meant monthly checks of more than 1,000 euros for life. The different severance packages led to hard feelings among the miners, he says, a situation that played into the hands of the mine owners as they no longer feared the outbreak of mass protests.

 

Quality of Life for All

 

We were told that the Sledderlo neighborhood was home to Genk’s poorest, mostly migrants cut off from the rest of society by language barriers. We walked through part of Sledderlo numerous times on our way to the industrial zones on the edge of town. Expecting a poor, rundown part of town, we saw instead apartment blocks and family houses with well-kept front gardens, not unlike many neighborhoods in a typical Czech or Slovak city.

 

Boutsen, who did social work in Genk for many years, says the area used to look worse, and it’s not immune to drug problems. These became news in April, when police rounded up suspected Albanian drug dealers in coordinated raids across five countries, including in Genk and several other Belgian cities.

 

The city has channeled a lot of money, and the energies of social workers, into its problematic districts in recent years, and the situation is getting better, according to Boutsen. Former miners are also working to improve relations between the various communities. During our stay in Genk, the miners’ club was planning a meeting of mining families. Fliers promoting the meeting were printed in several languages, to underline that the event was not just for native-born Belgians.

 

“We are trying to bring the mining community together regardless of nationality, regardless even of which mine they worked in. Because the miners around here even contended over which of the seven mines was the best, and whose coal was blackest,” a smiling Ooms says.

 

Mayor Dries also sees promise for the large T2 retraining center at Thor Park to help the city’s poor communities.

 

He also has great hopes for Labiomista, an art project running this year on the grounds of the old Zwartberg mine. All that remains of the mine is the owner’s villa, which was sold in 1970 to a local family who installed a zoo there. The villa’s current resident is Koen Vanmechelen, an artist who has spent the past 20 years crossing various breeds of chickens and studying them, with scientific advice. This “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” has its practical side, demonstrating that new breeds can be more resistant to disease, and Vanmechelen also has faith it can show local people that co-living can mutually strengthen, not hurt, diverse communities.

 

Asked if he truly believes that art can help improve the situation of poor immigrants, the mayor says what matters is not just the idea behind an artwork but also how it affects the neighborhood around it.

 

“You won’t find a single cafe or restaurant in the Labiomista park. When people want to eat they have to go into the streets around, where many poor people live. We want to motivate them to start doing business, create restaurants with a variety of different cuisines,” Dries says. This is one route to help local people get to know each other better and slam the door on encroaching xenophobia, he hopes.

 

Although it’s true that thousands of poor people live in Genk, that doesn’t mean they should always focus single-mindedly on social safety nets and renounce the arts or scientific centers. “If your goal is to lift up a city where there is a lot of unqualified labor and where people are facing poverty, you don’t need to cut back on quality or content just because people are poor. We need to do the exact opposite and make sure that people can learn from this,” Dries says.

 

One illustration of his vision is the oversized steel labyrinth at C-mine, a popular gathering area for kids and adults. The poor, too, should have the opportunity to live in pleasant cities with modern architecture, Dries feels.

 

“I see children from different ethnic groups here. They play, chase each other, take photos of each other. They can experience the quality of what we’ve built here. Maybe they don’t know this is one of the best art installations of these times, but they are part of it.”

Michaela Barcikova and Ria Gehrerova are journalists with the Slovak news site Dennik N, where this article originally appeared. Reporting for this story was supported by MEMO 98, Transitions, and the Solutions Journalism Network.


Translated by Ky Krauthamer.

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