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The post-industrials: a history

Longread: Subcultures after the pit closures

Punkers en new wavers bij Bunkerpop in Landgraaf 1988


2024 marks half a century since the last of the coal mines in Limburg closed its doors. In the decades that followed 1974, concrete and steel started to dominate Heerlen and the surrounding landscape. But despite this huge construction boom, the city was something of a lost cause: disillusioned workers stayed at home. A shared identity had suddenly gone up in smoke. Even so, there was something new springing up in the cracks of the concrete: the region was going from jet black to fluorescent green. Around the globe, young people in post-industrial cities started doing things their own way. The countless subcultures they formed breathed new colour into their lives and their surroundings — and Parkstad was no different.

From black to green

In the post-war reconstruction years, South-East Limburg rode the wave of prosperity, as did the rest of the Netherlands. In the heyday of the mining industry, no fewer than 60,000 workers helped deliver record volumes of more than 12,000,000 tonnes of coal every year. But on 17 December 1965, Joop van Uyl, the Minister of Economic Affairs, took to the stage at Heerlen's theatre to deliver some news no one wanted to hear: the government had decided to close all the mines.


Staatsmijn Maurits in Geleen would be the first to shut its doors. Within a period of nine years, the remaining eleven mines all followed suit, the final one in 1974. The regional economy plummeted into freefall. Under the motto 'from black to green', the plan was to give the former mining region a facelift to attract new business. Industrial heritage — a concept that was as good as unheard of at the time — made way for functional new construction projects.

Emancipation and experiment

The pit closures happened alongside the desegregation of society at large. Up until this point, the course of an entire human life was dictated by church and mine: the brass band or choir you would join, the school you went to, and the football team you would support were all decided for you. But all of a sudden, it was up to young people themselves which path they would choose in life.


By the mid-1970s, the post-war baby boomers had grown into young adults who were keen to rebel against the older generation, as is always the way. Countless emancipation movements started springing up. Young people, women, workers: they were all striving for equal treatment in society. Experimentation was also rife on all fronts: intellectually, spiritually, in love, in art, on the stage, in communal forms of living, and with mind-altering substances.

Flowerpower

In the mining region too, this flower power generation made its impact felt. Provos protested against consumerism, idealists organized campaigns for peace. But aside from addressing the serious questions, there was plenty of time to party too. Youth clubs, such as De Nor in Heerlen, served as places where young people with alternative lifestyles could meet and enjoy culture. Previously buttoned-up nightlife venues were transformed into utopias, as reflected in their names: Paradiso (Amsterdam), Utopia (Elsloo), Shangri-La (Heerlen), Provadia (Geleen), and Ahimsa (Kerkrade). These venues were all places where young people could simply be themselves. They were a fertile breeding ground for discussion and campaign groups, cinema, photography, theatre, and bands.


That said, there was a naivety to the hippie era, something that was keenly felt in Heerlen too. No one had any idea yet about the long-term effects of a new, popular drug: hundreds of young people became trapped in the downward spiral of heroin addiction.

Martin Jansen

Read Martin Jansen's story

Flower power: commune on coal dust

Martin Jansen

The protests got rowdier, the music got louder, and the fashion got more aggressive.

Punk

By the end of the 1970s, the consequences of the pit closures became ever more visible. Former mining families suddenly found themselves in dire financial straits. Mental health issues soon followed, with a rising divorce rate, addiction, and in some cases suicide in their wake. That said, Heerlen and the surrounding area were by no means an isolated case. Similar scenarios were playing out in post-industrial cities further afield, such as the Ruhr Valley in Germany or the English mining towns.


The flower power scene started to lose its innocence. The protests got rowdier, the music got louder, and the fashion got more aggressive. In other words: punk was born. Amid the social and economic malaise of South-East Limburg, the punk scene soon attracted a large number of adherents. By the start of the 1980s, punks and new wavers were a familiar sight on the Heerlen streetscape.

Goth

Initially, punk and new wave were generally mentioned in the same breath. Even so, new wave music and the associated fashion followed a markedly different path: instead of making as much noise as possible and kicking against social norms, new wavers started to withdraw into their own world. Brimming with dark romanticism, the new wave universe offered an escape from increasingly rational and concrete surroundings. It wasn't long before new wave spawned one of the most diverse subcultures around: goth. The fashion and music styles of this movement often appeared to be entirely at odds with one another: from fragile neoclassical music to thumping electro.

Metal

In the 1980s, subcultures started branching out even further. Across the eastern part of the mining region, this translated into a plethora of gig venues, youth clubs, squats, alternative pubs, and nightclubs. Each of these had its own signature style: Inpoet, Kajuit, Sheltur/Unitas, Oefenbunker, De Nor, Gejem, Bluff, De Klinker, Luxor, Le Barock, Chez Nous, Femina, and many more.


The associated live music circuit, with bands numbering into the hundreds, was equally impressive. The rock and metal scene turned up the dial when it came to volume. Globally famous metal bands such as Sepultura, Venom, and Sodom all passed through Sheltur in Brunssum. More local talent could take to the stake at Oefenbunker in Landgraaf, among other places.

The metal scene was all about camaraderie, and the beer flowed freely at the many gigs and festivals. That said, the record sleeves and song lyrics serve as testament that these youngsters were more than aware of the world they were growing up in too — a world of large-scale corruption and the nuclear threat of the Cold War.

a subculture offers the safety of belonging to a group — of a world within a world, if you like.

Antisocial behaviour

Even by the start of the 1990s, the authorities were still attempting to turn the tide for Heerlen. Their modus operandi remained more or less unchanged: demolition and new construction. Youth clubs in particular often came off worst during this period. One thing that was lacking was a fundamental approach to tackling antisocial behaviour: 800 drug users were wandering the streets every day, 200 people didn't have a roof over their heads, and 25 people suffered drug-related deaths across the decade as a whole. The epicentre of this hardship was the railway station, with its underpass serving as a 'living room' for users and dealers.


In an environment like this, a subculture can offer a layer of protection. Literally so, in some cases: think leather jackets covered in spikes and combat boots with steel toes. But more than that, a subculture offers the safety of belonging to a group — of a world within a world, if you like.

Hardcore

One notable new movement that started amassing huge numbers of followers in the former mining region during this period was hardcore. This extremely hard and fast genre of punk arrived fresh out of New York and soon took root in the streets of Heerlen and the surrounding area.


The local hardcore scene had one other major source of inspiration to fall back on: the mining history of its parents and grandparents. To hardcore punks, the working class mentality and dangerous working conditions of the miners served as a symbol of mutual brotherhood. As a scene, it never shied away from confronting the establishment, but it took an equally confrontation stance toward the fringes of society too. The hardcore punks in South-East Limburg decided to call themselves the Mijnstreek Oost Crew, or MOC for short, and koempel or miner symbolism is omnipresent on their record sleeves, merchandise, and in their lyrics.

Hiphop

The streets played a major role in various subcultures in many ways, serving as a place for young people to meet, away from the watching eyes of the authorities. In a way, the streets literally formed a canvas for cultural expression. Where punks used graffiti as an expression of anarchy, the hip hop scene turned the streets into an artform into themselves with their crews and codes. At the dawn of the 1990s, youngsters in baggy trousers took over the streets with their breakdance moves, skateboards, and BMX bikes.

Gabber

Towards the end of the last millennium, the Netherlands emerged as the birthplace of an immensely popular and uncompromising electronic music style: gabber. Hard and fast beats — ideally nothing less than 180 bpm — sportswear, bomber jackets, and shaved heads were the hallmarks of this movement. And the place where it all went down in South Limburg was Discotheek de Peppermill. 


The gabber hype had passed its peak by the end of the twentieth century, but it can certainly take pride of place among its fellow alternative subcultures. The gabber parties and rave parties now mostly take place at secret locations, which are announced only a few hours in advance.

Green shoots in Heerlen

Around the turn of the millennium, a coordinated approach finally materialized towards anti-social behaviour and other issues in Heerlen. Authorities from across the board put their heads together to tackle the problem. With this spring clean out of the way, cultural green shoots soon started to emerge. In 2004, the Schunk cultural centre opened its doors in the former warehouse of the same name. What was once De Nor youth club transformed into a live music venue, Nieuwe Nor. The city's theatre was renovated and started staging cutting-edge productions.


Empty office blocks and industrial sites were transformed into incubators and workshops, such as Carbon6. This transformation reached its pinnacle in Maankwartier, a new and contemporary urban quarter rising around Heerlen's railway station, formerly the epicentre of the drug problem.

Van ondergrond naar bovengronds: waarin immaterieel erfgoed van fanfare-uniform verandert in hanenkam.

From underground to mainstream

The impact made by creative spirits, those who refused to give up on the city, and the rebellious youth who added a splash of colour to their concrete surroundings — sometimes literally, but mainly figuratively — served as the foundation for the reinvention of the city. Musicians who first took to the stage in squats around town are now touring the world. What started as illegal graffiti spawned gigantic murals on the facades of residential housing blocks — something the city's marketing team now uses as an attraction.


That said, the history of Heerlen and the surrounding area is by no means an isolated case. Post-industrial cities that have experienced a similar course of events can be found around the globe. As such, Heerlen fits within a narrative that reaches far beyond our local history or heritage: a narrative that addresses the impact of technology and industry on society, and in which culture and faith come and go. A society in which intangible heritage has evolved from brass band uniforms to mohawk hairstyles.

This is a story of ordinary people who helped write the history of their region, country, and the wider world, without being aware they were doing so. A story that shows how a society will always reinvent itself from the inside out. And once the underground reaches the mainstream, a city is reborn.

Publication details

This culture history introduction is an abbreviated version of the original, written by Michel Lemaire, city historian of Heerlen from 2017 to 2023. This introduction is included in The Post-Industrials: Subculturen van Heerlen en omstreken [The Post-Industrials: Subcultures of Heerlen and the surrounding region], a publication by Uitgeverij Leon van Dorp and Historisch Goud, compiled by Michel Lemaire and Jens Rademakers. The book can be purchased at Libris.

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