Daily Diary: Monday, August 9, 2010

Dr. Leon Deben, what a distinguished gentleman!

Today, our activities and discussion focused on Bijlmermeer, a former ghetto in the south-east of Amsterdam.  We began our morning meeting at 8:30, as per usual, but as it had been a few days since our last scheduled early morning activity, I and many of my comrades seemed a bit out-of-sorts.  Nonetheless, we listened attentively to our expert of the day, Leon Deben, a self-described “Urban Sociologist” and “Urban Geographer.”

Leon began his lecture with a short history of his life, describing how he grew up in a small village in the south of the Netherlands where he spoke a German dialect, rather than Dutch.  Later in life, he studied at the University of Utrecht and then finally moved to Amsterdam in 1970, where he started working as a planning advisor in a private organization before he got a job as a professor in the Sociology & Anthropology Department at the University of Amsterdam specializing in urban sociology, which includes housing, building, city planning, and the way people live their lives in an urban environment.  Some of his research has involved living on house boats, living as a squatter, living as an urban nomad, and, most importantly to him, living as a homeless person, whom he saw as indicators of success or failure of social systems.  This research focused on counting the numbers of homeless living in the city of Amsterdam, those “sleeping rough” in his words.  He is now retired, but still teaches at the international school.

Next, he gave us some background on the Bijlmer itself.  Construction began on this unique urban planning experiment in December of 1966, which was planned after WWII as an almost luxurious housing district meant to house 100,000 people.  According to the most modern theory in urban planning at the time, the area would be segregated into commercial, recreational, and residential sections.  By 1969, the newly constructed apartment blocks had their first residents, but it soon becamse clear that the 18,000 units were not filling up as planned despite the shortage of housing at the time.  Due to unplanned-for maintenance costs and the unanticipated side effects of building streets above ground level, which created large out-of-sight areas perfect for the proliferation of criminal activity, the area quickly became run-down and unsafe, and by 1985 25-33% of the units were unoccupied.  The area soon began to attract people who couldn’t find or afford anywhere else to live.  Of course, this demographic included many of the Surinamers who emmigrated to the Netherlands after Surinam gained its independence around 1975, as well as many immigrants from the Dutch Antilles, and even today, the Bijlmer is home to the largest communities of Surinamese, Antillean, and Ghanan immigrants in the Netherlands.  A group of inhabitants, called the “Bijlmer Believers” took arms agains the problems of the area, focusing on the advantages of Bijlmer, including the large greens between the honeycomb-shaped apartment blocks, it’s spacious lay out, etc.  They campaigned for facilities like a children’s zoo, a local broadcast station, and bars run by local volunteers.  Despite this effort, many of the area’s issues continued into the early 90’s.

The kids love their new-fangled culture!

In 1992, the “reconstruction” of the area started, including spatial, social, and management renewal.  6,500 of the original 12,500 flats were demolished, storage spaces notorious for inhabitation by squatters were repurposed, and the elevated roads were lowered down to ground level to remove the unsafe places beneath them.  The demolished buildings were replaced with 7,2oo new units, 30% of which are free market rentals, 40% were owner occupied, and 30% were social housing.  Childcare facilities, facilities for ethnic minorities’ organizations, health centers, sports facilities, a new cultural building, and new primary schools were constructed, and art and culture were stimulated in the area.

Goats

Everyone loves a petting zoo.

Of course, now that we’d heard all of this, it was time to visit Bijlmer in person.  So we all hopped on the bus to the metro station and took our first (or at least my first) Amsterdam metro ride out to this strange and mysterious land that we had just heard oh-so-much about.  Arriving in Bijlmer, I could immediately tell that this place used to be a ghetto, and that it was probably not somewhere where I would want to be wandering aimessly around at night, but at the same time, compared to the description we had been given of the area in the 70’s and 80’s, it seemed downright tame, with children playing in the numerous playgrounds on the greens, nice art adorning the sides of the apartments, and even a petting zoo!  It seems as though the so-called “reconstruction” of the Bijlmer neighborhood was largely a success, turning the area into, if nothing else, a much prettier place to be.

Pretty, Pretty Art.

And so, we wandered through the neighborhood, stopping occasionally to listen to explanations by Leon, and noting as we went the difference between the older housing that hadn’t been torn down during the restoration and the snazzy new apartment buildings and town-houses, as well as the various childcare centers, parks, and otherwise reconstructed spaces that seemed to strive for a higher standard of safety than in their earlier days.  However, as we walked, I noticed something else: we were somehow very out of place.  How?  We were a large group of light-skinned, primarily European students wandering around a neighborhood where, I now realized, I had seen one, maybe two white people the entire time we had been there.  The description of this neighborhood as “the largest communities of Surinamese, Antillean, and Ghanan immigrants in the Netherlands” is something of an understatement.  The ethnic fabric of the Bijlmer is completely different than that of the rest of Amsterdam, and especially of the Netherlands as a whole, which is quite visibly predominantly ethnically Dutch.

Delicious Surinamese food served here.

This interesting realization set the stage for our entrance into the market and the Surinamese restaurant where we ate lunch.  I had never eaten Surinamese food before today and I was pleasantly surprised.  The first dish we ate was essentially just a little piece of toasted baguette with some meat and cucumber slices, which really just tasted like a French dip.  Nothing special, but not bad.  The second dish, however, was really different.  We were given a pile of pita-like, spongy bread “pockets” along with potatoes in a brown sauce, small seasoned green beans, and chicken, also in a red-brown sauce.   This was, despite sounding like something you would be served in a Mexican restaurant back in the U.S., a very unique and delicious dish.  “And what is this,” I thought to myself, “a mango chutney, or something?”  I was told that this sauce that had accompanied all of this great food was very hot, but I was caught a little bit off guard when, after dipping the end of my fork in the sauce, wiping it off, and then lightly touching the fork to my tongue, my mouth felt like it was on fire.  Of course, being me, I proceeded to put this diabolical condiment in my “Surinamese taco” so that I could experience, from time to time, the light kiss of what I now believe to be distilled essence of Habanero.  A word of advice, if you ever come across this stuff, do not, and I repeat, do not dip your pinky in it and lick it off as you leave the restaurant.   I could still feel the burn half-an-hour later as we entered the city center via the metro that left from the lovely Bijlmer train station.

This picture doesn't even begin to show just how cool this train station is... just trust me on this one.

Upon our return to the dorms, we had a short break in preparation for presentation of our progress on our research projects.  Without going into a whole lot of detail on this affair, it was nice to present our topics and research methods to local Amsterdam residents (as well as scholars), and they were incredibly helpful in providing constructive feedback.  They didn’t mince words and I felt that this really allowed them to get to the root of some of the nitty-gritty problems with our research thus far.  Personally, I think the most useful advice that they gave our group was that we needed to be very careful about how we framed the information and conclusions that we presented so as not to seem as though we were making baseless claims.

Wrap this evening up with a trip to Burgermeester and some Dr. Pepper floats in the courtyard and this turned into quite the eventful day.  I just hope the rest of our time here proves to be as eventful and stimulating.  That’s all for now.  I leave you with wisdom from Leon and his take on the work of the “Bijlmer Believers”:

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