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.
In Amsterdam we speak many languages, as in any city across the world. Somewhat specific however is the high prevalence of English, next to Dutch, the national language of the country, and the wide range of languages represented. Moreover, the city has a long history of multilingualism. Its nickname is Mokum – a reminder of the Yiddish custom to call cities after their initial and the times when Amsterdam was Mokum Aleph. This testifies of the importance of Yiddish in its cultural heritage and the local slang. In the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam was both a global trade centre and a cultural centre. It was a free place where authors from the rest of Europe convened to get their work printed in many languages, including Hebrew, and more in general a safe haven for people fleeing religious persecution elsewhere: Portuguese Jews and German Jews, as Sephardim and Ashkenazim are known in Amsterdam, Huguenots, etc.
In a recent CUS blog, Erik Swyngedouw laments Amsterdam’s current lack of insurgent citizens. Unlike other cities “where the multitude takes to the streets and squares and stages performatively new egalitarian modes of being-in-common”, Amsterdam and its inhabitants appear to have succumbed to the neoliberal fantasy.
In their quest to understand the city, urban researchers can choose to emerge into sociological theories or mingle into the everyday struggle of the street and learn from what they see. Let me tell you a ‘small story that rethinks a large issue’: The battle of the orphan-bike.
There are many Amsterdams. The city has a different meaning for each inhabitant and every visitor. The city’s slogan I Amsterdam seems to acknowledge this individualized experience (it is not ‘We Amsterdam’). In his blog, Erik Swyngedouw invites us to share his particular view on Amsterdam, when he asks: “I wonder where my Amsterdam is?”, followed by a deeply nostalgic view on his Amsterdam that has disappeared: “Thirty odd years later, and after many returns to my beloved Amsterdam, I feel increasingly alienated by the city, a whiff of nostalgia to a lost dream and a melancholic dread permeates my body and mind when drifting along Amsterdam’s streets and canals. Sure, it still is a great city, a global cosmopolitan urbanity that feels like a village. The quirky sites and unexpected corners are still there, but the city’s soul, its mojo seems to have decamped.”
Thirty years ago Amsterdam installed its first city districts. At the highpoint of this era, in 2002, there were 14 city districts (stadsdelen). Each had its own council (stadsdeelraad). And each thus provided a place where Amsterdam politics, with all its ups and downs, became truly local. It might seem strange to an outsider or, for that matter, to an insider to have so many small ‘parliaments’ in a city with less than 800,000 inhabitants. But this won’t be an issue next year.
Amsterdam takes a very special and privileged position in my intellectual trajectory. As a young and radical planning student in Belgium in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the stale, dogmatic, antiquated and plainly stifling intellectual and cultural environment that characterized much of academic and urban life in my native Belgium at the time contrasted sharply with the exuberantly liberating, exhilarating and radical thought and associated urban practices that came in as a whirlwind from the Netherlands and, in particular, from Amsterdam.
It was in the mid 1990s. On our way to a family holiday in the Alps we made a stopover in Salzburg. Salzburg, the city of Mozart, of the fortress and, of course, The Sound of Music. Parking signs guided us to a parking house, which happened to be built in a massive rock, right near the city centre. We entered with the car on one side and left as pedestrians on the other. At once the whole environment had changed. It was like a jump in time. The old Burgerstadt of Salzburg was stripped of all modern artifacts. In its place caleches, young men with wigs and in livery, violin music. In fact the city was readied for touristic consumption to the max, and the flocks of visitors clearly liked it. It made me exclaim: Salzburg is Europe’s answer to Disneyland.
The façade of the houses along the Amsterdam canals seems to have changed little in four centuries. Behind the doors, however, things are quite different. It is not just that the interiors are very different, but, even more important, significant shifts in the economic activities have taken place.
Amsterdam has significantly increased in popularity during the last decade: most of the inner city neighbourhoods are experiencing gentrification and the population has grown steadily – in 2012 the milestone of 800,000 inhabitants was passed. This success relates to the city’s function as an ‘escalator’: many young people move to the city to study or find work. At a later point in time, they might move out. Partly because housing construction has not kept up with population growth and growing housing market pressures this function is threatened.