BY GEMMA VAN DER KAMP
The multicultural neighborhood, the Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam Southeast is well known in the Netherlands for its 100 plus nationalities and good food. But it has also made headlines for its gun battles, hustle culture, and high unemployment rate. Now officials and residents hope a recent major overhaul will bring stability and prosperity to the area.
Getting off the metro in Amsterdam Southeast, you walk straight into Bijlmermeer's gathering spot, a shopping plaza called Ganzenhoef. The stores in this showpiece of modern Bijlmer, as it is popularly called, are stuffed with a range of products originating from every continent. The same mixture is found among the crowd.
Over 85,000 people live in the Bijlmer, many of them of African descent coming from places such as Ghana, the Dutch Caribbean and Suriname. The latter make up about 30 percent of residents, many coming to area in the 1970s following the country's independence from the Netherlands.
"The atmosphere in Ganzenhoef is cheerful. As the shops are designed to meet the needs of all nationalities that live in the Bijlmer, you can get every African product you need. Many Africans from outside the Bijlmer therefore flock to the area. We nowadays not necessarily come to buy things, but to chat around with fellow Africans. It feels like being in your home country," says Cameroonian gospel artist John Jetlive.
When the first residents arrived in Bijlmer they found a model development. Designed in the 1960s around Swiss architect Le Corbusier's ideas about strict separation of work, living and recreation, the Bijlmer's high-rise blocks - the so-called honeycomb flats - were built with open spaces underneath for cyclists and pedestrians and housed predominately middle class Dutch families.
However, just a decade or so later, the neighborhood had fallen victim to urban blight. Nicknamed ‘"Small Paramaribo," after the Surinamese capital, it was plagued with high unemployment rates and the open pedestrian spaces - including Ganzenhoef - had turned into ghost towns in the evening and a breeding ground for crime.
"Ganzenhoef was run by criminals, hustling youth and the open spaces under the flats were home to drugs dealers and homeless people", says Randjan Bissesar who moved in 1973 from Suriname to Amsterdam. "The social divide between the people who lived in the badly repaired high rise flats and the middle class housing was enormous."
In the early 90s, in an attempt to revitalise the Bijlmer the government gave incentives to around 17,000 people to move out. Meanwhile, most of the high rise flats were demolished to make space for lower apartment blocks and the lofted roads and buildings were brought to surface level.
Authorities also mapped the area's homeless population and started aid programs to keep them off the streets. In addition, the Bijlmer was filled with art projects, like ‘The street of sculptures', initiated by a dozen artists that love the neighbourhood's ethnic mix and a vivid hip-hop scene bloomed.
Gradually, Ghanaian, Surinamese and other Caribbean middle class residents returned to the area. These days, living in the Bijlmer has become a trend among young Dutch people who are attracted by the green surroundings and exotic melting pot of people.
However, the successful physical metamorphosis does not imply that all the Bijlmer's problems have vanished. "The number of criminal incidents has decreased the last couple of years. However today, violence has hardened, as more often guns are involved," says Narish Parsan, chairman of the local PvdA, the Dutch Labor Party that occupies 12 out of 29 seats in Amsterdam Southeast's district council. "Thereby, criminality has swung from the centre to boundaries of Amsterdam Southeast."
The PvdA works with the groups most vulnerable to crime focusing on providing education, work and social services.
"To reach these groups we make use of the media," says Parsan, "We recently have started a weekly Q&A show on several radio stations to involve the residents of the Bijlmer in the area's problems. Locals can air grievances, ask questions or put forward suggestions. By this, we aim to stimulate the participation of the residents in tackling the area's problems."
Youth is the focus for Robert Coblijn, creator of Bijlmerstyle, an online platform for hip-hop and politics. He campaigns for a neighborhood where young people are not dependent on crime. "Youngsters often lack motivation. If you don't stimulate them, they slip further down," says Coblijn who ran for but did not win a seat in the local elections in March 2010. Voter turnout was barely 39 percent in the Bijlmer.
The raps of Mo & Brakko, a duo who was born and raised in the Bijlmer and recently won a prestigious Dutch music award, are also focused on keeping young people on track. Extracts of the artists' work voice a clear message: "Southeast is not noiseless; We are competitive; If you don't feel like working, you should motivate yourself; I have to earn my money, no time to play around." Mo & Brakko are not the country's only Bijlmer-based rappers; an impressive number of musicians including the well-known Green Gang are from the area.
For John Jetlive, a member of Jubmusic Int'l, a gospel group based in The Netherlands and Cameroon, music provides a way to unite the Bijlmer's black residents. "There are more than 100 Christian churches in de Bijlmer, and most of them use gospel music," he says.
The music and a sense of cultural unity are helping bring the Bijlmer back, Jetlive believes.
"As an African in the Bijlmer, I feel as sense of home among fellow Black Africans or Suriname brothers in the Bijlmer. There is a spirit of oneness among its residents, a determination to make it in life," he says.
GEMMA VAN DER KAMP is an intern from City University's (UK) International Journalism MA program.