[Hpn] Real Gone: The Squats of Amsterdam

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Fri, 01 Dec 2000 20:43:41 -0700


December 1 - 7, 2000
Real Gone: The Squats of Amsterdam
by Rico Gagliano

Photo by Rico Gagliano

Iım standing in a hailstorm on a November morning in Amsterdam, reading the
black-stenciled words on a storefront window: BEAUTY AND PAIN. An apt
description of this city, where dapper street vendors sell tiny skewered
pancakes in the shadow of Anne Frankıs last home, and where swans cut a
graceful path through serene canal waters, disrupting reflections of neon
signs advertising all-live triple-X sex shows.

Beauty and pain, it says, and I know Iıve found ASCII, a squatted Internet
café. ³Squatted² meaning the people who live and work here donıt pay rent.
This 18th-century building ‹ overlooking Heren canal and surrounded by an
upscale window-shopping district ‹ has been inexplicably abandoned or
underused by its landlords, and so squatters have claimed it for their own,
turning it into an Internet café where unlimited online access is free.

There are squatters all over the globe, but the Amsterdam scene is special.
Population density here is among the highest in Europe. Thereıs a housing
shortage. Rents are skyrocketing. So squatting has become less of a last
resort for the homeless and more of a viable lifestyle for students,
laborers, even young professionals. And for hardcore lefties who reject the
whole concept of private ownership of land, it continues to be a form of
living protest.

Relatively accommodating Dutch laws help squatters keep eviction notices at
bay, so theyıve had the time to set up a true shadow society. In Amsterdam,
there are squat nightclubs, squat restaurants, squat newspapers and squat
radio stations. A zine called The Shark lists locations of squat
establishments and their activities, which are mostly open to the public and
usually free.

The Shark has led me to ASCII. But my expectations are low. Once youıve
heard about a scene, itıs almost by definition dead, or at least dying. I
hesitate at the door until a blast of frigid wind turns my umbrella inside

Itıs drier inside, but no warmer. A lone electric radiator strains to heat
the big room and fails. Pierced and tattooed teens sit at rickety tables
lining the walls of the ancient, gutted space, hunched over hulking old PCs
running Linux. In the back, a friendly Canadian expatriate sells cheap
coffee and chunks of homemade brownie. The place smells of rotting wood and
hash smoke. A stereo blasts the shrieking protest punk of Stiff Little
Fingers and Dutch mainstays The Ex. ASCII is a beautiful anachronism, and
the most authentically cyberpunk thing Iıve ever seen. Breath frosting,
fingers numb, I sit at a computer and type ecstatic e-mails to friends in
the States: ³This is everything I hoped for. Iım home.²

For some of us, thatıs what travel is ‹ a search for a home away from home,
someplace that jibes with the way we live our lives, or want to live our

Surrogate homes arenıt easily found. When I flew to northern Italy, I
figured Iıd touch down in the Old Country and roots would burst from my
feet. But it only took a few days to realize Iım less importantly Italian
and more importantly a closet punk. Northern Italy is all gentle hills and
slow, dreamy days that tend to induce naps. It doesnıt rock. It rolls.

Amsterdamıs squats, though, they rock me to the bone. After ASCII I am
obsessed, prowling back alleys, battered copy of The Shark in hand, an urban
explorer. In the warehouse district: a squat bakery set up on what looks
like an abandoned racquetball court. Next to it: a squat art gallery
exhibiting exquisite little pieces of junk sculpture. In the museum
district: a squat restaurant where 4 bucks buys a four-course vegetarian
meal and a bottle of good Vos beer. And everywhere thereıs code. Punks with
straight-edge Xıs scrawled on the backs of their hands. ³Free Mumia²
stickers plastered on windows and sidewalks. This is the language of rebels
and radicals, and it speaks to me.

The message gets garbled only once, at FH-111, a squat residence, restaurant
and leftist broadsheet dispensary rolled into one. Iım here for a meal, but
as I walk in Iım confronted with a huge cartoon mural depicting a city scene
from hell: A skinny doper snorts piles of coke through straws jammed up each
nostril; a wide-eyed maniac holding a gun clutches a bullet-riddled ³Holly
Bible²; a skinhead rears back with an ax, ready to behead a crippled old
lady; a burning jet hurtles toward collision with a housing project; a
billboard screams BUY MORE STUFF.

Itıs cultural satire, of course, the kind of aggro graffiti that makes sense
in, say, the ghettos of L.A. But in Amsterdam? This is hardly a gun-toting
town. The billboards are few and small, so as not to spoil the view. And has
there ever been a Dutch ax murderer?

Maybe the mural is just a generic vision of capitalist dystopia. But a look
through FH-111ıs racks of pamphlets and propaganda suggests this is how
these squatters see their city. I grab a flier protesting a proposed
³Bayside Expo² project that will raze a huge section of Amsterdam, leaving
hundreds of squatters homeless. Iıve been living in a permissive city that
allows the squat scene to exist. They live in a city of greed thatıs
determined to bury them beneath upscale corporate complexes.

Beauty and pain. Iım only beginning to understand how deep both go here.
Until I do, Iım just a tourist, a poseur, and a long way from home.


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