Last weekend, a few of us decided to embark on a midnight bike trek to a squat festival an hour west of the city. The festival was put on by ADM, one of the last large squat communities in Amsterdam. They were celebrating their 18th year of existence with a weekend long birthday party that was open to all.
We biked for an hour out west past the Amsterdam suburbs, graffiti-ed train stations and putrid biodiesel industrial plants to the west harbour wharf where the party was taking place. It was late and very dark by the time we arrived, and I imagine the darkness hid many of the quirky gems that would be found at a squatting community. Not to say that there wasn’t enough eccentricity to captivate our interests. On our way to find something to eat (we worked up an appetite on the bike journey), we went past a number of giant art installations made out of various materials that lit up the pathway through the area. Past the ‘eco-friendly television’ (people in costumes performing enthusiastically to their audience behind a cardboard TV cutout), people were sitting atop a giant ship enjoying the music playing from below. We found the Guerilla Kitchen stand, an Amsterdam based group that takes food from supermarkets that would otherwise be thrown out and cooks up somethin’ good for whoever is hungry. I’m not entirely sure what we ate, but there was cilantro and pumpkin and bread involved. While snacking away, the Violent Femmes were echoing through the speakers and two older men danced to their own beat in front of us.
(When I’m out walking / I strut my stuff / And I’m so strung out.) Right beyond the men a woman was dancing with a fire hula-hoop. I think I could have watched people dance with fire the entire night. When we finished our food, we wandered farther and found a DJ playing inside a scrap-metal giant piranha sculpture. We climbed onto a ship and sat in plastic chairs while we people watched and talked about our thoughts on the whole squat community concept.
Amsterdam experienced a squatting boom in the 80s, when the economy was in a slump and the city was experiencing a huge housing shortage. A number of renewal plans threatened many aspects of the urban fabric of the city. There were plans to tear through the centre of the city to build large roads and to replace a number of old historic buildings with modern urban developments. For many, squatting became a strong political movement – people were fighting for the right to decent and affordable housing. Many historic buildings, and some say even the neighbourhood I live in right now, the Jordaan district, have been saved from demolition due to squatters occupying these once abandoned places. Squatters can bring life and creativity to forgotten areas in the city. For quite some time, squatting was legal in The Netherlands. Beginning in 1994, if a building had been vacant for at least one year, a squatter could legally establish residence, as long as they had a table, bed and chair set up.
Squatting in Amsterdam has declined rapidly since its peak in the 80s, but some communities, like ADM, still exist. Over one hundred people of all ages live in the ADM live-work community. This “cultural free-haven” focuses on alternative ways of living and find ways to shift their daily focus away from time and money. Since 1987, when the first squat community was established in the ADM area, a number of court cases to remove the squat have taken place. The act of squatting is technically banned now in The Netherlands, but there are still ways around the laws (people seem to find loopholes around authority very well in this country).
I still don’t know much about the whole squat culture here in Amsterdam (or anywhere else for that matter), but from what I’ve seen and read it appears to be a pretty important aspect to the cultural fabric of this city. In its heyday, the squatters’ movement attracted a lot of radical protesting and anarchist violence – there were over ten thousand squatters in Amsterdam in the 80s. These days, the political action seems to have simmered down and squatters’ main goal isn’t necessarily radical change – they just want to have a roof over their head while being a part of creative communities that enrich their society. Heaps of squat communities put on events in Amsterdam that are open to the public; such as the ADM festival we went to last weekend. These events are affordable and vibrant and allow exposure to groups that don’t particularly agree with mainstream capitalist lifestyles.
After more wandering and dancing at the festival, we decided to begin our journey back home. Even though the food we had that night gave us all mild food poisoning and my scarf still smells like burnt biodiesel from biking past the industrial plants, I think I’ll be checking out similar events while I’m here – these alternative communities are an essential part of the multi-layered amazing complexity of this city.