Until early 2008, my housing career probably could be seen as a hybrid product of ‘how Amsterdam social housing works’ and the usual ‘early gentrifier’ frame as we know it from urban geography and urban sociology research. Born and raised in Alkmaar, about 40 km north of Amsterdam, I moved to a tiny student flat in Diemen shortly after the start of my study. Not really Amsterdam yet, but at least very close to it, and this was simply the first place where I managed to get off the waiting list for student housing. OK, I could have chosen squatting or anti-squatting or the semi-legal or illegal subletting route as well, like several of my fellow students did; in that sense maybe I did not start out as a typical early gentrifier. Moving up the accommodation ladder, I went from this tiny one-room flat to a slightly less tiny 2-room flat on the edge of the city centre , and then on to a 3-room apartment in Bos en Lommer.
Bos en Lommer? Not the most obvious choice back in 1999 maybe, to move away from the centre instead of staying there; but again, it was one of the first options to get off the long social housing waiting list. In retrospect, being a PhD researcher back then, I may have belonged (unintentionally) to the pioneers of an area about to gentrify. When I moved there, it was known as one of the most deprived parts of Amsterdam. The ‘Kolenkitbuurt’, part of Bos en Lommer, even frequently featured in media coverage as ‘the worst neighbourhood of the Netherlands’. I happened to live elsewhere in Bos en Lommer, in the ‘Landlust’ area, but also this area was in a quite bad condition. My apartment only had an old-fashioned gas heater in the living room, no heating whatsoever in the other rooms, it lacked proper insulation, and it was obvious that hardly any maintenance had taken place since the early 1980s.
Urban renewal still had to reach my street: my housing association already announced a thorough renovation when I entered the area in 1999, but this did not start until 2007, shortly before I left. In other parts of the district, urban renewal projects had started already a bit earlier, but this was more often demolition and new construction than renovation. This rather seemed to create ‘islands of wealth’ in the new complexes than the start of a more widespread process of gentrification. Still, many potential ‘pioneers’ were already spread across Bos en Lommer, including many of the people I knew from my study and my PhD years: students, recent graduates, artists. It would only be a matter of time before gentrification would conquer Bos en Lommer. Where it would start was quite predictable: along the Admiraal de Ruijterweg, a road directly connected to the earlier 19th-century gentrifying areas, around the neighbourhood park Erasmuspark, and along the canals.
Nowadays, next steps towards fully-fledged gentrification seem to be underway, maybe not in the whole neighbourhood but definitely in significant parts of it. Indicators of this are growing media attention for Bos en Lommer, this time not as a deprived area but as a ‘rediscovered’ area, and the introduction of an acronym: BoLo. If a neighbourhood gets ‘acronymised’, gentrification can never be far away! Neighbourhood fans have also started a neighbourhood blog: BoLoBoost, featuring the motto ‘everyone loves Bos en Lommer’. Other gentrification-like developments include the frequent pub crawl ‘BoLO Booze’, art festivals and galleries, street markets, specialized and/or upmarket restaurants. Bos en Lommer now even features its very own ‘BoLo beer’, as well as a Bagels & Beans coffee bar, which at some Dutch planning blogs is seen as the prime indicator of gentrification. A gentrifying Bos en Lommer would also fit quite well in the urban development strategy of the Amsterdam city planners, ‘rolling out the city centre’.
Now that even Bos en Lommer has started to gentrify, where will gentrification in Amsterdam end? Will the gentrifiers even be so ‘brave’ to cross that notorious physical and psychological barrier of ‘The Ring’, the A10 ring road, of which many inner-city Amsterdammers still seem to think that the city stops there?
For those that wonder why I moved out and where I am living now: while waiting for renovation decisions finally to be taken in my street (resident groups were quite effective in blocking change in my neighbourhood for quite a while), a nice opportunity for a newly-built apartment in my city of origin Alkmaar became a more attractive alternative. Here I could afford to buy a quite luxury and spacious 3-room apartment, for a price for which in Amsterdam I would hardly be able to buy anything. Still in an urban setting, but definitely not an area where I would expect anything close to gentrification ever to happen. Unless all of Amsterdam becomes too expensive or ‘bourgeois’ and gentrification pioneers would even dare to look beyond Amsterdam’s municipal borders…
Marco Bontje is assistant professor in urban geography at the Department of Geography, Planning and International Development Studies of the University of Amsterdam. Research topics that he covered so far include the effectiveness of Dutch national urbanisation policy (PhD thesis); sustainable development of city-edge and (post-)suburban business locations; spatial, social and economic conditions for internationally competitive creative knowledge cities; and the impact of demographic and economic decline on cities and regions.