De veerkracht van een getto / The resilience of a ghetto

We know now that this is nothing short of child indoctrination. Some thirty years ago Schmidt expressed much of negative imagery that this biotope has had to put up with ever since: raw, concrete, large-scale, monotonous. In such neighbourhoods people were ‘shut away’.

It was this wilderness aspect that appealed to the media tycoon Joop van den Ende when he decided to be guided by his experiences in Las Vegas in planning a huge musical theatre in the Bijlmer. In Las Vegas he had seen how even a wilderness could be a successful location for amusement, so long as it was accessible. And accessibility is certainly not a problem in Amsterdam Zuidoost’s city centre. Accordingly, Van den Ende invested NLG 300 million in the area.

Well, almost, because just as we were going to press, the bombshell fell. In preparing this special Bijlmer issue of Archis it was assumed that this unique area was about to receive an enormous socio- economic boost, a boost in which the amusement centre would play a not inconsiderable role. Now we are left wondering just how much of those (commercial) plans will remain.

What makes this particularly bitter is that Van den Ende justifies his action by referring to the Bijlmer’s lack of ‘urbanity’. The very quality that first struck him as ideal is now seen as a drawback. At the same time, the City of Amsterdam, the Zuidoost sub-council and the Nieuw Amsterdam Housing Corporation are doing everything in their power to enhance that urban character. Witness all the plans elsewhere in this issue.

Anyhow, this will not be the first time that some real – or invented – claim about the Bijlmer has also been used against it. In the wilderness variant it is the laughing stock of international urban planning. A prime example of the failure of the Functional City. But should the Bijlmer become truly urbane, it will then be accused of falling short of the new significance accorded to peripheral areas. And once again the Bijlmer will have lived up to its reputation as a problem area.

But not really. Because there is something about the Bijlmer that makes this satellite of a metropolis, itself now a metropolis, absolutely unique. This city exhibits a resilience that actually thrives on all the negativity. This ‘regimented’ Bijlmer possesses a poetry that is capable of converting unforeseen circumstances (a sudden flood of Surinamese immigrants, the impact of a Boeing), negative clichés (about repressive, honeycomb repositories for people) and dangerous long-term trends (aging population, decaying inner cities) into strength.

As for the architecture, that accursed architecture whose rigidity is supposedly to blame for everything and that public opinion makers still regard as a model of contempt for ‘the people’ – it possesses an unparalleled capacity to absorb historical permutations. The Bijlmer assimilates history as few cities can: sudden demographic fluctuations, social divisions, transport disasters, administrative incompetence, financial mismanagement, rising criminality, they have all surfaced in the Bijlmer in intensified form.

Yet in that very same Bijlmer these problems have one way or another always remained manageable. The Bijlmer is no ghetto, however keen the apocalyptically tinted commentaries have been to label it as such.

Only very recently the huge gulf between reality and projection became clear once again when VPRO television seized on a visit to the Netherlands by the American prophet of doom, Robert D. Kaplan, to demonstrate that the Netherlands, too, is in the middle of the Third World. The programme makers, known as the right-thinking section of the nation, took the author of Journey to the Ends of the Earth on a metro ride to Gaasperplas.

Almost proud that the Netherlands should possess such an ‘end of the earth’, they showed Kaplan the wretchedness. But he could only keep on asking: where is it? This was no Bronx, Brixton or South African township was it? People were surviving just fine here in the concrete weren’t they? No sufferers of high-rise blues queuing up to jump out of windows? You really couldn’t say that architecture had disrupted social cohesion here. On the contrary, given the difficult conditions of life here, or the speed with which large-scale investments are made (and then withdrawn), this city is bearing up exceptionally well.

Such a city has earned the injection of billions of guilders, now and in the coming years, thrice over. The greatest achievement of the Bijlmer and its residents is that they have weathered all the myths. That they have persevered for so long that they have opened the way for an offensive strategy. That they will carry on for years to come. In fact, the Bijlmer’s merits go still further: it has proven that it has a right to exist.

De nieuwe Bijlmermeer / The new Bijlmermeer