Heart for People's Cafes

Liesbet Depauw


Sint-Amandstraat 72 – 9000 - Gent


Ghent, Belgium
European Union
Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award 2011 - Education, training and awareness-raising

Heart for People''s Cafes


LECA is a centre of expertise on the culture of everyday life funded by the Flemish secretary of Culture. Our general aim is to contribute to the disclosure and safeguarding of the cultural heritage of social practices, rituals and festive events in Flanders. As a small organisation we depend on the input of the general public and on the cooperation of a vast number of motivated tradition bearers. Consequently, the design of each LECA-project is based on a bottom-up philosophy. With the help of hundreds of volunteers we are able to raise awareness of and to expose the richness, diversity and viability of cultural phenomena such the culture of processional giants and dragons, annual festive events, people's favourite traditions and many more.

One of our projects focused on the precarious situation of people's cafes. In 2007 the media regularly reported on the disappearance of local people's cafes and it soon became clear that these press reports were only the tip of the iceberg. After doing some research, we noted that everywhere in Flanders and Brussels people's cafes were closing their doors at a vast pace. As a cultural heritage organisation we strongly regretted the disappearance of these iconic public spaces. The people's cafes are not only important places for social encounters but also unique elements of our cultural heritage since they combine architectural, tangible and intangible elements in a typical way. In order to point out that their disappearance would mean a great cultural loss, we launched the project ls"Heart for people's cafes'.
The project targeted different objectives at the same time:
  • to make people aware of the existence and the current (precarious) situation of the remaining people's cafes in Brussels and Flanders
  • to make clear that people's cafes are a unique part of the national heritage
  • to bring the cultural value of people's cafes as heritage places to the attention
  • to point out the importance of people's cafes as centres of community life
  • to present a number of best practices of safeguarding people's cafes in Flanders and Brussels by photographing them in a contemporary way
  • to investigate the viability of the remaining heritage pubs in Flanders and Brussels
  • to determine opportunities and chances to keep the existing pub heritage alive
Early on, we were faced with the fact that combining this new project with our other activities was impossible without extending the existing workforce of the organization. Therefore we applied for a project grant by the Flemish government and were lucky enough to be awarded 50 000 euro. The grant was almost entirely used to pay the salary of a temporary employee for a period of one year, starting on August 11 2008. Since the remaining financial resources were very limited, we had to be creative and turn our weakness into our strength. Our crowdsourcing initiatives enabled us to collect information on a large number of cafes. More importantly though, it also enabled us to make hundreds of people participate in and to collaborate on the safeguarding of the remaining cafes and to increase public support and attention for the matter.

The project was innovative in the way it combined scientific research, policy recommendations, crowdsourcing and a nation-wide communication campaign to achieve its goals. ls"Heart for people's cafes' was kicked-off with the launch of the website www.volkscafes.be and a widespread call to register remaining cafes. The response was enormous. The call was picked up by several national newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and individual websites and blogs. In less than 24 hours after the launch, volunteers had entered over 200 people's cafes in the online database. Other heritage organisations promoted the project on their websites, newsletters and periodicals. In addition to the website, we executed a print campaign to give people a historical and socio-economic background of the people's cafes. Amongst other things, this campaign included the free distribution of a thematic issue of our periodical publication De Gazet via all the public libraries in Flanders and Brussels. We also published a cycling route ls"Visiting people's cafes by bike' and a photo book called ls"Volkscafeacute;s' with pictures of the young award winning photographer Jimmy Kets. The book showed a contemporary image of the people's cafes and stressed their social function in our modern society. The book evoked a second wave of media attention which led to an additional increase of the public awareness. It also triggered other cultural heritage organisations and (virtual) groups of friends to come up with their own safeguarding initiatives. In terms of research, we both used qualitative as quantitative methods to come up with an extensive viability report and a list of policy recommendations on how to safeguard the remaining people's cafes in Flanders and Brussels. In September 2009 the project officially ended by submitting the report and recommendations to the secretaries of the Flemish government in charge.

The biggest obstacle we had to face was the budgetary constraint. There were no funds for a paid media campaign. Also, travelling expenses and printing costs had to be kept at a bare minimum. And in October 2009 we could no longer afford to pay the temporary force. From that moment on we try to keep the project running without a person in charge. The online inventory needs constant updating and although people still use the website to register and comment on their favourite pub, public interest has waned. Without someone to instigate new initiatives and publications, catching media attention proves a lot more difficult.

In that regard, it was extremely helpful that the project received an Europa Nostra Award in 2011. The European prize and the press conference that followed caught the attention of several new partners and we're looking forward to working with them in the future. To conclude, we would like to offer this piece of advise. In our opinion, awareness raising is the key in safeguarding a phenomenon as widespread as people's cafes, and cooperation is the way to achieve it. Without the support of the Flemish government, the participation of hundreds of volunteers, the trust of a publishing house, the enthusiasm of other cultural organisations and the attention of the press, this would have been a much more difficult endeavour than it was.


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