Artists revive community centers in Amsterdam West
At a time when budget cuts in Welfare and closing facilities are common stories in the Netherlands, artists and residents celebrate the reopening of their community room in a modest Amsterdam neighborhood. The Bookstore, a collective of artists with a social aim set in Bos en Lommer, opened four community centers and workshops in the past three years.
By the formerly closed center, now called “little workshop”, children learn to build karts and kites themselves through free activity afternoons. Can artists bring new life into the neighborhood ?
Neighborhood children learning and playing together with artists
Beatrice is a 27 year old visual artist who is particularly active at the project’s main location in the neighborhood, Homeland. “One of our friends, Tessa, had a workshop here with children every week. It worked well, many children from the neighborhood came and they built wooden objects together”, she explains. Since May 2013, Beatrice’s colleague Tessa Hendriks has been teaching children from the surrounding apartment blocks to build kites, chairs, kites, and even a totem for their square, together with fellow artists. Tessa organized a small local market where the children’s work could be displayed. As more participants joined every week, the building workshop quickly ran out of space. The artists decided to look for another place for their wednesday afternoon activities, and turned to the former ‘buurtentree’ neighborhood room a few blocks away, that had not been in use for the past years.
Having repainted the building, community-focused artists staged a festive reopening on the last week of february this year: “We had a lot of children, on that day”, Beatrice tells me. “It was a success, and it was nice to see so much activity on the square”. They now use the room one afternoon a week as a workshop for their children activities. There, girls and boys together learn how to build the objects of their choice from wood, with the help of the artists.
Bringing neighbors and artists together
The Bookstore is a work/live project mostly funded by housing corporations Stadgenoot and Ymere. “We are offered a house with a relatively low rent by the housing corporation, as well as a few common rooms. In return, we have to work a few shifts for the neighborhood, to increase its liveability”, tells Beatrice. “But most of us do it not as an obligation, but because this is what we are interested in, we want to work together with the community”, she assures. Beatrice defines her works as “socially engaged”, and has worked with families in debt in the context of other projects. At The Homeland, the main community room ran by the artists, she and her colleagues strive to provide opportunities for neighbors to come together and feel better in their neighborhood: “The Homeland is a place where everybody feels welcome, and should feel free to share ideas for a theme evening, an activity, or to organize something”.
The Homeland hosts weekly events : a healthy lunch time, open house and library afternoons, and the “Bookstore Café”, an evening during which artists welcome their neighbors for a hot drink and donation-based dinner. Several times a month, the Bookstore Cafe evening features literary talks, poetry, or music. On a cold Thursday night, the Homeland is preparing for a special event : poets and musicians are scheduled to perform experimental compositions of theirs. Despite the unusual programming of the evening, about ten neighbors come to share a meal and a chat, in addition to the artists. Before the set begins, a group of adventurous and playful girls comes in and confidently occupy the space, obviously used to regular visits to The Homeland. Hamid [named changed] is one of the first visitors. A Turkish man in his forties who moved from Istanbul to Amsterdam more than a decade ago, Hamid is one of the regulars of the place. “It’s really nice to have a good drink and a tasty meal together here”, he explains. “I don’t like to stay at home. Here, we can have a chat, and it’s very cosy”. The conversation is not equally easy with all participants of the evening, but in this warm and small living room, everybody sits close to each other and the house is quickly full. This is Hamid’s regret : ‘”the only problem is that this place is a bit small. There aren’t any bigger community centers here anymore. But I like coming.”
No miracle solution
Making a neighborhood more “liveable” does not happen overnight, especially when the change is meant to be brought in by outsiders. Beatrice insists that she is very aware of the difficulties that come with the artists’s status : “We are sometimes branded as pioneers”, she tells me. She is not too comfortable with the tag : “We definitely do not want to have a ‘colonial’ attitude, and impose our views”. In Bos en Lommer, the artists seem to have entered a genuine interaction with neighbors, as with this old Bos en Lommer resident and musician who sometimes also comes to play for artists and fellow neighbors. Importantly, they have won the trust and cooperation of children. At times, excentric programming could however lead one to question the extent of this mutual understanding : what proportion of neighbors is actually able to relate to avant garde cinema and experimental silent movies ? Another open question concerns the future of the project. “As with any project, this one is limited in time”, tells Antoine. He is a young painter and a well-appreciated French cook on open evenings. “But we don’t know what will be left of it after we are all gone. All the work we have done, the new children’s workshop [Buurtwerkplaatsje].. this should gradually be handed over to neighbors”. Creating durable bonds for the good of the community takes time, but with the progress already made, such goal is no longer out of reach -if it is pursued.
For more information about the Bookstore’s activities in Bos en Lommer : http://www.bookstoreproject.nl/projecten-locaties/homeland/
Pictures: The Bookstore, with their kind authorization ; the author.