Squatting Amsterdam: Reclaimed Spaces and Activist Communities

By Karolina Ksiazek

In the midst of my grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon in Amsterdam, I wandered into a bookstore looking to find used novels in English. What I found instead was books about anarchy, inequality, and activism, and an advertisement for Zsa Zsa Zine, pointing down the stairs to the basement. I descended into the rabbit hole.

I stood at the foot of the stairs for almost a minute. My eyes scanned from the shelves of small booklets (organized into categories like feminist zines, local zines, zines by people of color), to the old couch on my left, to the bearded man at a table sketching a comic strip. In the distance there was a kitchenette and a chalkboard sign advertised cake for just one euro. Right in front of me, the thing I noticed last, was the large painting of a vagina on a tarp suspended in the air. “What is this?” I asked out loud.

This was Zsa Zsa Zine, I learned. Open only on Saturday afternoons, it’s an archive of zines and comics. But more importantly, it’s a space available for people to come and create whatever art they wish.

Over the course of the next three hours, people came and went. One girl brought a rambunctious puppy she was dog-sitting, and another popped in to work on some posters and didn’t say that many words.

“It’s awesome that you found this,” the cartoonist told me. “It took me years to discover this part of Amsterdam. And most people never find it.”

“What is this?” I kept asking. This wasn’t just a Saturday afternoon art club. This was my first interaction with Amsterdam’s activists and squatters. It felt like some secret underground club that I, as a study abroad student craving cool experiences, desperately wanted to be a part of.

I kept asking questions. They told me I should go to the film-screening at Cavia that night, and to Queer Night at the Vrankrijk on Wednesday. They explained about the dinners at a squat called Joe’s Garage, and told me I could find all these events on a site called Radar Squat. I fantasized that these people would become my new Amsterdam friends, but they never actually did. But I paid attention to their advice. I went to Cavia, to the Vrankrijk. I checked out the Free Sale at Joe’s Garage. I did a free capoeira workshop at De Valreep, and a stencil workshop at Plan B. I started paying attention to the buildings, to the posters and the politics of the city. I learned about what squatting is, and what squatting isn’t, and why Amsterdam’s squats were in threat. I had a shit ton of fun doing it, and it was almost all free.

Before coming to Amsterdam, I’d perused Aaron Cole’s The Cool Guide to Amsterdam. In a brief “Note About Squatting,” Cole rails against the “conservative pigs” who force people out of squats. I didn’t get it. If you didn’t own the building, why should you feel that you have a right to live there?

The door to Plan B (version 2)

The door to Plan B. (Ksiazek/TYG)

It wasn’t until I went to Amsterdam that I realized that squatting was about more than avoiding the rent. In fact, the money is exactly what squatting wasn’t about. For Kees, a young guy who lives in a squat called Plan B, squatting was about freedom. After graduating from college, he knew he couldn’t afford an apartment in Amsterdam without a fulltime job, and that a fulltime job was not what he wanted. He attended an information session with volunteers that were experts in housing policy and squatting techniques. He found a group and they scoped out a building that looked abandoned enough. They did renovations to make it more homey, and now they run the household collectively, sharing food and responsibilities.

But even for those who don’t live in squats, the squatting culture is a place to connect with other people. A website called Radar Squat lists several events every day at Amsterdam’s squats. It’s Monday night and I’m writing a draft of this article way past the deadline. I’m checking the website. Tomorrow, Tuesday, I could go to Office Hours at Joe’s Garage to learn about how I can squat a building. I could go to one of two “Weggeefwinkels” or Free Shops (like a thrift shop, but everything is free). I could eat a three-course meal for five euro made by volunteers at MKZ—or I could go to a different Voku (People’s Kitchen) at Zeeburgerpad 22. Or I could go to a seven-euro punk show. Or a three-euro movie.

In November, I went with my friend Meghan to a free capoeira workshop at a squat called De Valreep. When we finally found the building, it was quiet. I left my bike with Meghan and stepped in to check out the situation. After passing through several rooms furnished with posters and old couches and colorful walls, I found the capoeira instructor and one other participant in a room lit only by a few dim green lights.

The instructor’s name was Eline, and she taught the workshop patiently for the full hour, even though there were only three of us there. It was cold in the room—I kept alternating between taking off my sweatshirt and putting it back on. And there was a sticky spot on the floor that we had to avoid during the moves where we touched the ground with our hands. But she remained cheerful despite all that.

Eline is the workshops coordinator for De Valreep, so talking to her gave me some insight on how events like those on Radar Squat actually come into being. Basically, she explained, you could hold a workshop on anything you’d like.

The problem, though, is getting people to show up. “We really want to have more people from the neighborhood,” Eline told me. “We want to make a place of it that’s more accessible. Now it’s without electricity and water. We did something for children, but it was not really visited by a lot of peo- ple. But we really want to legalize the place so we can make it look better and cleaner.”

When Eline moved to Amsterdam from another city in the Netherlands, she came to De Valreep because of the people. “They want to make a nice world,” she explained. “That’s not everyone in Amsterdam, like in the places where you have to prove that you’re cool or something.”

It was nice to see Eline’s face light up as she talked about De Valreep. She told me about a Christmas dinner that they had for those who didn’t have family with whom to spend the holiday, and about the gardening program where community members get a patch of land and gather on Sunday evenings to make soup from the vegetables they grow there. “De Valreep is a special place,” she said. “The squat scene has a bad reputation for some people. You always see images on TV when they get kicked out of such a building. But we try to show the other side—there’s empty buildings that need to be used and can be nice places for a lot of people. Now it’s the task to make other people enthusiastic about it.”

But when it comes to the legal battle of keeping a squat around, it takes a lot more than just enthusiasm. Honestly, sometimes it seems to come down to luck.

Take the Vrankrijk—the building that hosts WTF Queer Night, the event suggested to me by the folks I met at Zsa Zsa Zine. The Vrankrijk is just a block from tourist-laden Dam Square, and its façade is painted in blue with an awesome Lichtenstein-style explosion. (I’d instagrammed it before I even knew what it was.)

Vrankrijk 2

The facade of the Vrankrijk. (Ksiazek/TYG)

There was originally a printing press in that building, and after it was abandoned the space was slated for conversion into luxury apartments. In 1982, activists squatted the building to keep that from happening. In 1992, those squatters managed to purchase the building to prevent their eviction. The Vrankrijk’s history since then has not been without its ups and downs, but at least the community that operates there doesn’t have to worry about being evicted.

But across the street, a squat just as historic hasn’t had that kind of luck with securing its own agency. Het Slangenpad (The Snake-house) is another building I’d instagrammed before I got to know it. Its façade is a gradient from bright orange to sunny yellow, with a colorful snake dropping down from the roof to greet you just above eye level with an open-mouthed grin that remains cheerful despite its fangs. If you passed by The Snakehouse in December, you would have seen a banner across the middle of the building reading, “Sign the petition now! Save the Snakehouse!”

Het SlangenpadPunctuating the Snakehouse’s bright façade, a banner reads “Red Het Slangenpad!” or “Save the Snakhouse!”. (Ksiazek/TYG)

Like the Vrankrijk, the Snakehouse was squatted in the early ‘80s in the site of an abandoned press. The new residents set up electricity and plumbing, built kitchens and put up new walls. The top four floors became the living and working space for various artists, actors, and musicians over the years. Like in the Vrankrijk, the residents of the Snakehouse tried to purchase the building they were squatting. But things didn’t work out so well for them. According to Het Slangenpad’s website, attempts to legalize the property in 1987 and 1989 came close but were unsuccessful partially due to an uncooperative owner. The artists tried to purchase the property from the owner’s heirs after he died in 1997, but they didn’t receive any response then either. The ownership of the property most recently changed hands in 2008 when the housing corporation De Key bought it as part of a larger row of houses..

Het Slangenpad is still a home for artists, but the garage section, De Slang, hosts events for the public. Occasionally, there’s a street art pop-up store, selling large-scale canvas prints and t-shirts of artwork by Amsterdam’s renowned graffiti artists. I approached the woman working the mini-bar at the pop-up store to ask about the petition, and the sign that said, “Fuck DeKey!” DeKey is the housing company that owned my student apartment.

“The housing company was supposed to let people continue to live here and preserve the exhibition space,” she told me. “But the contract was written so poorly that they don’t actually have to do it.”

Though the Snakehouse had support from City Council, there wasn’t much they could do to prevent DeKey from implementing its plan to turn the building into luxury apartments and a parking garage. “A lot of people in charge of these properties are quite dull. They want everything to look the same,” Vinny told me.

The plan of the Snakehouse’s current residents would be converting it to 15 residential workspaces for artists, and a public art space in the garage section of the building. “If we knew we were going to be here for ten years, we would make the building look a little more stable. But we’re living month to month. We don’t even know if we’ll make it to our 31st birthday in March.”

It seemed saddeningly similar to the situation at De Valreep. “If we don’t get legalized, we probably have to move out in March or April,” Eline had told me.

De Valreep is much younger than the Snakehouse. It was 2011 when the volunteers squatted the abandoned animal shelter in Amsterdam East and turned it into a social center. If legalized, De Valreep plans to create a cheap café in the building, creating just enough profit to organize cheap activities for the neighborhood in the rest of the space. But already, a private contractor has made other plans for the space. “They want to make a restaurant or something from it,” Eline said. “But we think there’s enough of them in Amsterdam.”

Everyone I talked to about squatting told me about how popular it was in the ‘80s. Amsterdam’s squat scene is just a shadow of what it was back then. “Those buildings along the river there all used to be squatted—there were parties and events all the time,”Vinny had said.

When I talked to Kees, the squatter from Plan B, he too told me: “It used to be really common for students to squat. Now there’s a bit of a stronger conformity culture, and the squatting ban scares people away. People feel more powerless now.”

Squatting was officially banned in the Netherlands in 2010. But a judge ruled that the police couldn’t evict a squat without a judge’s orders. So until the owner of the building speaks up, squatters can live in peace.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend of absentee landlords starting to care about their property soon after it was squatted. The news feed on Squat.net depicts a constant stream of buildings being squatted and squats being evicted.

Sometimes the creation of a new squat brings on cheers of “Kraken gaat door!” (Squatting will continue!) And sometimes the eviction of a squat leads to petitions and protests. But when I met Kees at a stencil workshop one of his housemates was organizing, he held up Plan B’s eviction letter quite unceremoniously. The residents of Plan B had tried to contact the owner of their building, but his only reply was getting a lawyer and going to court. The residents are already scoping out a new place to live.

Plan B isn’t a social center like De Valreep and Joe’s Garage. Though its description on Radar Squat calls it “a home for a bunch of creative and anarchists,” Kees told me that several squatters in his group aren’t that political and are “just studying biology or something.”

The door to Plan B (version 2)

The door of Plan B is decorated with bright signs, reading “Go Vegan!”, “Solidarity With the Evicted of Notre-Dame-Des-Landes,” “antifacism is magic,” and “no one is illegal!”. (Ksiazek/TYG)

I kept asking Kees about activism, but he emphasized that squatting wasn’t about politics. When I interviewed the performer I met at Zsa Zsa Zine, she stressed that while she organizes events at squats, it’s not her primary scene and she can’t speak for it. In the dozen or so interactions I had with the squatting subculture when I was in Amsterdam, I thought of the “squatting community” as a cohesive whole. But it wasn’t until I had those conversations that I realized how many layers there were to it.

“Squatting is just to get a roof over yourself. You shouldn’t have to be a left wing radical to be a squatter,” Kees told me. Then he admitted, “But squatting is so hard to do now that almost all the people involved are quite political.”

I thought of that statement when I saw a friend post on Facebook the Camus quote, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

And so it makes sense that the activists and anarchists come together in these squatted spaces. They are a refuge from the structure of the city that kept trying to convince me that if I wanted to live there, I just had to pay five euro for a small beer, 30 euro for a concert ticket, 120 euro to learn yoga. Squatting isn’t easy—the threat of eviction, the stigma, the renovation. Kees explained, “when you squat something, you do create an enemy for yourself. The owner might be a good person, but he’s got a different interest than you have.”

But it all seems worth it. Planning for the future, applying to fellowships, and thinking about jobs and classes that interest me less than other things interest me, I can’t help but think back to what I can’t stop reflecting back to what Kees said when I first went to Plan B: “You squat something to live the way you want to live. You don’t have to wait for a revolution. You can do your better living right here, right now.”

Karolina Ksiazek ’15 is an American Studies major in Jonathan Edwards College. She can be reached at karolina.ksiazek@yale.edu.