Saturday, October 14, 2006

Maximumrocknroll #280 September 2006

The Ziekenhuis was a huge abandoned hospital building on a canal. Someone had been watching it for quite a while and it had been determined that it was ripe for squatting. A building that size would require the mobilization of a lot of bodies to occupy it. A fair amount of reconnaissance was done and plans were hatched.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that squatting is something best done under the cover of darkness. On the contrary, in Holland at least, it's usually done on a Sunday morning.
The morning of the occupation there must have been a hundred people trooping alongside the canals and over the humped bridges. I took my favorite job, driving the bakfiets (a sort of combination bicycle and wheelbarrow) stacked with the necessary props to make a squat legal in its early stages - a mattress, a chair, and a table.
Once we arrived at the Ziekenhuis the locks were quickly changed and everyone poured into the building and started exploring. The working group who had discovered and researched the empty hospital and planned the operation started scouting out which rooms they wanted to live in, and which rooms would be good for some of the other communal uses planned. Within the hour the police had come around and confirmed that we'd done everything according to the law, and we set about turning the shell of a building into a home.
For the initial days of a squat, there's usually some extra people staying over, to help keep watch, defend the place in case of a sneak attack by either the cops or henchmen of the building's owner, and to help get the place up and running - building walls, getting the water running, turning on the electricity, etc. I don't remember the Ziekenhuis needing much work, although we had to barricade off a few rooms that were badly contaminated by asbestos, and we couldn't get the heating to work at all so it was freezing. It wasn't long before we had opened a café/bar, serving food during the day and hosting parties all night. We had an open house where we invited the neighbors in to look around the behemoth of a building that had been sitting empty for such a long time. People told us how they were born in that hospital, while other people remembered having children or saying goodbye to loved ones for the last time there.
There was so much free space. Plans were being made for a radical bookshop/lending library, daycare center, gig venue, and more. It seemed like there was room for anything you could imagine. The excitement created by the potential of the place was infectious, and for a while the Amsterdam squat scene, which had been experiencing a long spell of evictions and setbacks, seemed energized.
Of course, you can guess where this is going. It couldn't last. I don't remember the specifics of the arguments and court battles, but after a few months the courts ruled against the squatters, and there was an eviction.
I had gone traveling and missed the actual eviction, but I'd heard about it. When I got back I once again crashed with friends and went back to work at my construction job (renovating old run-down apartments into luxury flats - the irony wasn't lost on me. Although I did occasionally manage to appropriate 'leftover' building materials to use in various squat projects). A new guy had started in my absence, the son of a friend of the boss, hired as a favor. I think his dad must have made him take the job in order to build character or something but he certainly didn't seem to be familiar with the concept of labor. In a misguided attempt to gain some street cred or something he told me he lived in a 'squatter-house' (no-one at work knew that I was a squatter - I told them I sublet an apartment from a friend) and out of curiosity I encouraged him to reveal more about it. As he went on to describe his amazing living situation it dawned on me that he and some of his friends were living in the Ziekenhuis! They were anti-squatters, tenants (usually students or long-term tourists) placed in vacant buildings at artificially low rents in order to keep squatters out (Properties had to be vacant for at least two years before they became squat-able). I was livid, and discussed the possibility of taking action against the anti-squatters with some of our group, just out of frustration and some desire for revenge. More experienced squatters who had seen the same thing happen many times before talked me out of it. Indeed, I went on to experience the same thing again too.
All of this happened about thirteen years ago, and I'm recounting it from memory, so some of the details might be a bit hazy. I bring it up now because it's come to my attention lately that squatting in Holland is under attack. I don't know much about it because it's hard to find the information I need in English, but it seems like there's an attempt by Parliament to make squatting illegal as part of a general 'liberalization' of the housing laws in favor of landlords and developers. To many people, especially in the USA, the squat scene probably means little more than a convenient way for American bands to tour Europe, but that's actually (to me at least) squatting's least important (and probably most dubious) achievement. Apart from the most basic aspect, i.e., providing housing for those who otherwise could not afford it, the contributions to Dutch culture – art, politics, music, literature, etc – that were born out of squat culture are innumerable. Sure, probably quite a few of my fellow squatters were simply taking advantage of the free housing to live a 'punk' lifestyle that also included being on the dole and staying up all night drinking, but most people I knew were actively engaged in creating a life for themselves outside of the system. Squatting performed the valuable function of pointing out to society at large that all this property was being kept intentionally empty for purposes of speculation, while there were people with nowhere to live. It took those empty spaces and gave them a purpose: homes, community centers, theaters, recording studios, dance studios, cafes, you name it.
Of course, squatting is not for everyone. It's actually very hard work. In the year and a half that I lived in Amsterdam, I spent more time looking for a place to live than I actually spent living in any one place, although I did have a couple of cushy house-sitting situations that took the edge off. Eventually I moved to sunny California and joined the bourgeois world of the renter, with all the luxuries that entailed. No heat though, not in San Francisco. I did, however, balk at the extortionate (though quaint these days) $300 a month my wife-to-be and I paid between us for our shared room. Less thrilling was the experience of having a junkie for a roommate and having her steal our rent money, but that's a story for another day.
There's a campaign to fight the criminalization of squatting in The Netherlands and you can find more information at, or at (in Dutch, go to to translate).

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