BorgerRio is a multicultural street festival organised every year at the Turnhoutsebaan, one of the busiest traffic lanes in the ethnically diverse Borgerhout district. During the event, the motorised traffic in the street is halted for one day in order to create space for a street market, stages with musicians, sports and many other activities. The highlight of the festival is the visually spectacular parade in the afternoon when hundreds of colourful performers of diverse nationalities, like samba dancers, street bands and stilt walkers, march through the street. In recent years, the free-entrance festival attracted around 35,000 visitors in one day (Het Nieuwsblad, 2012).
The primary goal of the festival is to create a positive image of the neighbourhood. The festival is expected to enhance the economic performance of the local entrepreneurs by attracting more visitors to the shops in the street. On the other hand, the festival also aims to improve the social cohesion by bringing the diverse groups in the neighbourhood together one day a year. Rather than expressing the vision of one organisation, BorgerRio is the result of a collaboration between various actors that wanted to improve the image of their neighbourhood. BorgerRio originated from the combination of two private initiatives: the ‘Environmental Festival’ organised by the Ecological House and the ‘Holiday Street Fair’ organised by the local trade association. For ten years, the environmental service of the Antwerp municipality had been organising annually in June an ‘Environmental Festival’ with a cultural and an environmental-educational programme. The idea to organise a big multicultural street parade, however, was launched in 2006 by the local trade association Voorstad. The trade association had their annual ‘Holiday Street Fair’ in June, when local vendors put up stands on the street to sell their goods. The street fair, however, did not attract many people. The Turnhoutsebaan had a bad reputation as this street was often depicted in the media as the scene of urban riots and decay. In addition, the trade association noticed that most shopkeepers of immigrant origin did not participate in the street fair. Therefore, the trade association launched the idea to organise a multicultural parade as a way to counter the negative image of the neighbourhood and as a way to involve shopkeepers of diverse origins in the street fair. With this proposal, the local trade association won a € 2,500 subsidy in a public contest organised by the Antwerp municipality in 2006. At the time, the trade association stated:
‘We would like to create an added value to our traditional Holiday Street Fair. Something with many colours, just like the people of Borgerhout. Besides a street fair, a joyful parade will march through the streets. We are looking for Moroccan, South American, African and other groups that can bring exotic music and dance’ (Gazet van Antwerpen, 2006).
The City District of Borgerhout played an important role in bringing together these different bottom-up initiatives around a common objective. In particular, the Cultural Antenna of the Borgerhout District sought to create a unity among the divergent initiatives and to reduce the empty spots in the festival. With project subsidies, the district organised cultural events and provided stages with performing artists to fill the spatial gaps in the street festival. The Borgerhout District soon became the most important financer of the festival as it increased its support from € 3,000 to € 22,000 over a timespan of eight years. Since the festival not only had environmental aims but also deals with culture, youth, sport, diversity and development, the district decided to provide a budget to support the events related to these different departments. For 2014 edition, the total budget for the BorgerRio festival was estimated around € 65,000. Besides the € 22,000 of the district, the trade association contributes around € 17,000 of their own means. The contribution from the municipality of Antwerp, however, diminished from € 15,000 in 2013 to € 7,500 in 2014 due to budget cuts.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
BorgerRio attempts to mobilise the existing ethnocultural diversity in the neighbourhood as an asset to turn around the negative news reports that often depict the busy traffic lane with its many immigrant inhabitants as a dangerous zone marred by crime and riots. The festival promotes a positive image of ethnocultural diversity through a visually spectacular parade with performers from different ethnic traditions. The idea of diversity promoted by the festival, however, can be criticised as a form of exoticism. By showcasing stereotypical elements of separate ethnocultural traditions, ethnocultural groups are represented as fixed and discrete units. The initiative for the festival came from Flemish organisations with few migrants among their members. In 2013, the local trade association was renamed as BOHO 2140 and actively sought to include more migrant entrepreneurs in its activities. At BorgerRio, an ‘Arabic oasis’ was set up for the Moroccan community in the street. Despite the use of stereotypical representations, the festival succeeded in attracting several migrant organisations to participate in the festival. As the president of the trade associations stated:
“There are people of more than a hundred nationalities in this district. Every culture has to feel involved in this event”.
Besides bringing together people of diverse ethnocultural backgrounds, people from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds are able to join due to the fact that the festival has a free entry.
Main factors influencing success or failure
A bottom-up approach and the collaboration between different actors can be seen as the major internal success factors of the festival. BorgerRio started as a joint project of a local trade association, an environmentalist organisation and other local groups. In addition to the many volunteers from local organisations, an external success factor is that the City District of Borgerhout and the Antwerp municipality came to support the event with annual project subsidies and coordination. The public coordinator from the Borgerhout District believed that a bottom-up organisation was the major internal success factor of the event:
“The biggest success factor in my eyes comes from organising the event not ‘for’ them but ‘with’ them. An organiser should not decide what has to be programmed. […] I really believe in the demand, not in the supply. […] If half of the shopkeepers do not participate in this festival, you should not continue it. It only works if they participate. That is the success factor.”
A problem that arose was the fact that not all inhabitants of the area were in favour of the festival. In 2012, a radical Islamist group called Sharia4Belgium demonstrated against the parade, which was in their eyes immoral because of the scantily clad dancers. The further development of the initiative depends heavily on the foreseen budgets. Our interviewees fear further budget cuts because the festival is no longer ‘new’ or ‘fashionable’ enough for politicians. It also has been suggested that the organisers should look more for private investors.
BorgerRio is a visually spectacular festival that mobilises exotic images of ethnocultural diversity in order to counter the negative reputation of a deprived neighbourhood. The festival is aimed at improving the economic performance of the local shops as well as enhancing the social cohesion between the migrant and non-migrant inhabitants living around this busy traffic lane. By creating a positive image of ethnocultural diversity, the festival highlights the advantages of living in this area and attracts more customers to the shops in this street, thus contributing to the economic performance of the local entrepreneurs Nevertheless, the festival tends towards exoticism in its portrayal of other cultures. The innovative potential of the project seems to be situated in the decentralised and bottom-up approach of the festival. The public district coordinator gives the different private organisations the freedom and the responsibility to fill in their part of the festival as they want.
Website: Borger Rio
Image: © 2015 Arne Saeys
 For the ecologists who co-founded BorgerRio, the name of the festival not only referred to the colourful Rio carnival but also to the Earth Summit, which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.