Lille – The cultural journey continues

Being a former European Capital of Culture, Lille is successful in staying culturally attractive. This is made possible by a growing number of cultural organisations, as well as by highly open minded and engaged citizens.

Culture as a driving issue: Lille’s main streets are crisscrossed with advertising for current exhibitions

Empty factories and high rise apartment blocks of yore: viewing the suburbs of Lille from a distance look, one can literally feel its past as a hotspot for heavy industries and what happened when these sectors lost their meaning. That’s why, being almost equidistant from London, Paris and Brussels, Lille was for a long time mainly known as only a stopover on the way to Europe’s big metropoles.

However, taking a closer look by entering the capital of the Hauts-de-France region, a different picture is revealed. Modern shopping malls, a lot of construction work and a sea of flags, announcing several exhibitions and festivals, are showing: this city is more than living.

Throughout the last decade, Lille has developed into an important cultural hotspot, constantly redefining itself. Starting point was the nomination of Lille as European Capital of Culture 2004. “This has undoubtedly boosted the cultural sector. Places of culture were set up in Lille and its surroundings and associations received funding for organizing regularly festive events,” says Tiphaine Zetlaoui, lecturer and researcher in Information and Communication Sciences at Lille Catholic University.

The main initiator from back then is the same organization that is still well known by the citizens of Lille for its creative and varied cultural activities. “lille3000 was launched in 2004 to organize all the events accompanied by being European Capital of Culture. There were exhibitions, parades, festivities and transformations all around the city. It was a big success and brought nine million visitors to Lille, which is half more than it’s used to receive. So politics and private sponsors decided to keep going. And that’s also how we define lille3000: The journey continues. That means, that we never stop travelling. So all our exhibitions are mainly international and represent other countries and cultures. That is our way to bring open-mindedness to Lille,” says Louise Longle, Press Relations Assistant at lille3000.

This year, lille3000 focusses on Cuba. The exhibition Ola Cuba includes the works of more than 35 Cuban artists, born between the 1970s and 1990s and therefore representing the era of the economic crisis, depending on the support of the USSR, as well as recent developments. From April until September 2018, it can be visited at the Gare Saint Sauveur.

Being a former freight depo, the Gare Saint Sauveur was rehabilitated in 2009 by the City of Lille to offer it to cultural associations for hosting their events. The location was empty for a long time, only reminding of Lille’s glorious past as an industrial city. Nowadays, the massive brick building close to the city centre is a place for young and old, friends and family. You see children having fun at the playground, students working on the terrace or businessmen meeting up for a cup of coffee. Besides a frequently opened café, there are yearly exhibitions, concerts, workshops, movie-nights and an urban farm, where people grow their own seeds and children learn about gardening. The entry to these activities is free.


The former freight depo Gare Saint Sauveur is an important cultural centre in Lille since 2009

In addition, to avoid that cultural activities are only concentrated in the city center, the so called Maisons Folie were created. “Lille has four Maisons Folie, all in neighbourhoods that are traditionally not that confronted with culture. That’s where the City of Lille wants to bring music, exhibitions, festivals, dance and theater directly on the doorstep of people”, says Longle.

Like at the Gare Saint Sauveur, the municipality stuck to the history of the neighbourhoods by renovating empty factory buildings to make them available to activities from different organizations. The overall goal is to give every citizen the opportunity to participate. There are science labs for children as well as Do-It-Yourself workshops for adults. A music festival is mostly not just a series of concerts, you may get the opportunity to perform with your own band, learn how to play bongos or try yourself as a DJ. It’s all about participating and bringing people together.

Associations organizing these kind of activities and events are becoming increasingly important for cultural life in Lille. One of them is ATTACAFA, a non-profit association, its aim being to introduce artists and aesthetical forms from all over the world to the residents of Lille. “Cultural associations such as ATTACAFA that existed well before, gained a huge momentum in the years following 2004 and it encouraged many new cultural associations to come up,” says Shruti Iyer, in charge of the communication at ATTACAFA.

Every year, ATTACAFA organizes the La Louche d’Or festival (engl.: The Golden Ladle) at the 1st May around the Maison Folie at the Wazemmes district. The festival is a symbolic and festive competition created around the unifying theme of soup. “We chose the soup because it is the only dish that is present on all the five continents, and so the festival is literally a melting pot of cultures. Wazemmes is a neighbourhood that’s famous for its diversity and its popular nature. La Louche d’Or has the capacity to bring together people from all walks of life and as it is completely free of cost, there are no barriers for people from different social classes. Anyone and everyone can make a soup, and it’s just a pleasure to see hundreds of participants who come with huge pots of soup to share them with the people who come to the festival,” says Iyer.

Activities like the La Louche d’Or are showing the big variety of culture in Lille, which also proceeds from the diversity of Lille’s population itself. Lille has not only a diverse international student community; there are also many people from the Maghreb countries living in Lille. Wazemmes is the district that makes this diversity most clear. Being popular with immigrants as well as with students, it has a lively atmosphere. Entering the neighbourhood almost feels like coming into a new city. On a festival day like the 1st of May, you will see people performing traditional dances as well as young hipsters shopping second hand clothes from stalls on the street.


The La Louche D’Or is an inherent part of Lille’s cultural calender

The sentence “the city is alive,” which one often hears while talking to Lille’s inhabitants, becomes clear in this scenery. “The Maisons Folie have certainly created a new dynamic in the cultural scene, but I must say that it is mostly the inhabitants who are motivated to make good use of this momentum to create new cultural experiences that has really enriched the cultural life of Lille,” explains Iyer.

At this point one can start to explain why especially Lille is so successful at maintaining a diverse cultural life even nearly 15 years after being European Capital of Culture. “For Lille, a living culture is very important. People in Lille want to interact and participate in events maybe more than in other places. If there is just a show or just an exhibition, this is maybe not what people here are looking for,” says Longle. “The challenge of the mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry, to achieve economic progress for the city through culture, has been successful, especially because the city is young, there are for example many students working for cultural associations,” says Tiphaine Zetlaoui.

Iyer is one of them. “I came to Lille as a masters student. I am still discovering Lille’s dynamic cultural and associative life. I feel that it is really a human-sized city, with all the comforts of a big city such as the metro and the commerce, but at the same time with the familiarity of a small town, which is what makes it very easy and natural to work in the cultural sector here.”

The fact that you will find an interesting and enthusiastic audience in Lille is not only known to the local cultural associations. Large organizers too are becoming increasingly aware of the city near the French-Belgian border. For the last nine years held in Paris, the annual Series Mania festival, took place in Lille for the first time in 2018. The event screened episodes from over 70 TV-series, hosted an international cross-section of writers and producers and presented events with local culture, street artists and musical acts. The festival was held in different places all over Lille and its region. On their homepage, the organizers stress, that their new “location at the heart of Europe” should support “making Series Mania the leading international series festival in Europe, doing what Cannes does for film, Annecy for animation, and Avignon for theatre.” It is said that “Series Mania is therefore taking up residence in a city with a rich heritage and an exceptionally vibrant cultural life.”

By visiting the festival you’ll realize it fits. Huge crowds are queuing in front of the The Walking Dead – escape game, teenagers quarrel about who is the next one posing on the iron throne of Game of Thrones and a local collective of chefs is hosting a Dîner Mange Ta Série.


Sticking to the past: empty factory buildings are reused as cultural hotspots

Checking Lille’s cultural agenda, you will hardly find a day, where there is just one festival, exhibition or event going on. Besides annual events like the La Louche d’Or or Series Mania, Lille convinces with changing events and topics steadily. To also keep the spirit of 2004 alive, every three years, lille3000 organizes a huge festival year, on the shape of being European Capital of Culture. During the past festival years, there were on average over 950 000 people visiting the different events.

Those high numbers of visitors are showing the success of the work associations have done so far, but they are also the core of the drawbacks, especially for the cultural centres. “Located in the city centre, Gare Saint Sauveur is part of a cultural dynamic. Accessible freely for the whole public, its success is growing steadily. Nevertheless, it is a victim of its own success. some concerts are overcrowded with people,” says Zetlaoui.

However, the city, its associations as well as its population are steadily working on keeping the city alive and attractive. These efforts are perceptible to everyone, staying in this charming city, whose old town with its narrow houses with colorful facades is spreading a kind of Mediterranean feeling on a nice day and whose inhabitants can’t stop going into raptures, when they’ve once begun to talk about their city. Or, in other words, “It is quite an unassuming, unpretentious city with a great energy, and the people here are infamous in France for carrying within their hearts the sunshine that they rarely find outside, as a popular French song goes,” says Iyer.