Heerlen is the town where I was born. Originally a small town in a rural landscape not far from the German border, undutch because of the leisurely rounded landscape, it became an industrial centre thanks to the coalmines that started to appear in the nineteen thirties. The coalmines with their big smoking chimneys dominated the skyline until the mid nineteen seventees. Then the chimneys stopped smoking and the mines were closed for ever one by one.
During the years of economical significance, many people from other parts of the country and from abroad came to Heerlen with its four mines. Also my father came down to the very south of the Netherlands. Those were masculine times.
After the closing of the mines all changed. It changed so radically that one could ask if the responsible councillor Hub Savelsbergh suffered from a traumatic experience due to coalmines, -miners or the coalminers wives. In fourteen years time he erased every artefact from the town’s centre. His successors Jos Zuidgeest and Wil Houben finished the job for him. Now Heerlen is in the hands of the shopkeepers. No soul lives in the centre. After seven o’clock in the evening the streets are empty. Iron curtains shut the shop windows, make it all more unwelcoming, to say the least.
Heerlen is a town of architectural errors. Students of urban development and architecture should be obliged to study the little town’s hardships. I could do the introductory walk and explain how the best view was offered to office buildings, how a typical village was killed by a motorway (another motorway connecting the same south with the same north runs two kilometres more westward), how sweet provincial town houses (some of them monuments) were replaced by shopping centre’s and parking flats, how complete neighbourhoods were replaced by apartment blocks, how all these developments made that a younger more daring generation never could have lived their formative years in an old but characteristic ex-miner’s colony, also because the town’s councillors never attracted high schools or universities.
‘Coming home for Christmas’ was the reason I returned to my hometown. A series of exhibitions, now running in its third year, it shows the works of people who were either born in Heerlen, or once lived there. It is an initiative that is well received by the cultural department of town. The opening evening of the group exhibition saw the lord mayor do the introductory talk. Kunstencentrum Signe organised and hosted the exhibition which also included talks by writers and journalists and an evening with sounds.
The art space is in the Willemstraat, a rather anonymous street a bit out of centre. Inside it is white and cubical. Apparently galleries have to be that way. I never understood that gallery owners won’t decorate their place with easy chairs, plants and carpets. After all to the person working there, it is a kind of home for some significant hours a day. I have difficulties to relate to this kind of spaces. Luckily my host, Mike Kramer, is a really nice guy, whose enthusiasm and hospitality made it all worthwhile coming.
My walk with the architecture and urban planning students could include the Willemstraat. Opposite the art centre stands a villa, dressed in white as if expecting roses, a perfect example of the treasures that were torn down elsewhere in town. Around the corner an intimate square could have been found; the whole neighbourhood could have been adorned with trees. Some fifteen minutes walk further down one of the coalmines once stood. A town government with a vision would have converted some of those buildings in community centres, apartments, studio’s, small shops. Now you will find a neighbourhood that looks like any other neighbourhood in the Netherlands that was built around the nineteen eighties.
Also invited for this evening, coming from a long time ago but not so far away was To3k. When young and punk, he had chosen the name toek. Half my life I thought it was the onomatopoeical translation of a hit on something hard, until I found out that it is something Tolkien-eesh. Toek has spent zillions of airbrushes to write his name in public places. When I met him in Italy last century I heard how he had resisted for a long time being the last punk of Heerlen. He used to sit on the church square, drink beer and talk with school kids who were almost half his age. One carnival a bunch of clowns ran out of a bar and beat him up. Then he moved to Eijgelshoven, a very small town that leans against the German border. In cold war years, when Western Europe suffered from geographical claustrophobia, Eijgelshoven was like a hole in the earth where you might have found access to another world. In fact some of the exiles did so in an overdose of heroin.
Meeting a person every ten years is rather awkward, turns him into a kind of mirage. Stories are stronger then real life. Somehow meeting him in Italy disturbed me, as it disturbed me again last Christmas; It has nothing to do with To3k himself, who is a very sweet person, as innocent in behaviour as a baby in a mother’s womb. Maybe I just don’t like to be confronted with a hometown that only exists in my memories. Too many people I knew died of heroin; too many buildings I knew died of councillors.
To3k did three sets, ambient, industrial and noise, offering in this way an anthology of sounds and styles that happened in the past. They had also constructed his sonic existence in the illegal radio world of Amsterdam during the last decades of the last century. It was funny to see that To3k’s computer was the same black as the industrial clothes you had to wear in those days.
When he started the noise set, Peter and I were saturated of hanging around in an art space. He wanted to walk around town. He had lived here until 1969. And so we walked through the four streets. His incredible memory doesn’t surprise me anymore. Not even his remark at the end of the panorama trip didn’t surprise me. He hadn’t seen one shop where he would have liked buying something.
The next day my train was half an hour earlier then his. I don’t know how Peter has spend his time waiting. In Amsterdam there is a neighbourhood called ‘Jerusalem.’ It will disappear in the next years, only because it arrived in this century from the wrong side of time. To3k is building paradise in second life. When he visited Italy a woman in Turin had just been arrested for selling property in heaven. You could buy a house with a view. She actually had clients.