Sunday, 23 March 2014

There is a yellow gas station, there is a pink gas station.

You know those petrol stations that used to sit empty on the side of the road until the hand car wash guys moved in? Well there are two here in north Amsterdam, either side of a road that has vanished somewhere down below. One is pink and one is yellow. As in totally pink and totally yellow. The pink one is closed today, Sunday. It’s a home now to some kind of musicians collective. The yellow one belongs to Hot Mama Hot, a creative collective that has been going since 2000. Originally visual artists they branched into areas of specialism; one a cook, one an interior designer and so on. They started making installations for festivals, and providing food as well. They became well known within that scene and make a fair amount of money out of it. When they’re not doing it they’re doing this. Running all sorts of projects in their yellow petrol station, or gas station as Maikke, the woman who has taken us here, calls it. It sounds better. 

Yorick (not sure if this is how you spell it alas) is here on his own now (until his partner and two month old daughter arrive) and is telling us of some of the things they get up to. Most of it involves the local kids. Like holding a monthly meal which is cooked by children with the help of a guest chef.

This gas station (there, I’ve said it) is on the border of a group of old Dutch houses from the twenties which are lived in by a pretty prosperous crowd, and a neighbourhood that is not. One of the things that he enjoys most about the work is the way that, through the children bringing their parents along, different social classes interact.

The project was funded by the housing schemes that operate around here, by the government, and by Shell. Now the local government have decided that Hot Mama Hot should pay rent. For these disused buildings that weren’t demolished by this same government when the highway was lowered because to keep them was cheaper. The disused buildings which are now used every day by the local children. And staffed by people who are paid, not by the local government but by Hot Mama Hot. Yorick doesn’t seem to mind. They make money from their festival work so they can afford it. But still.

We go back with Maikke to the North Park where the dancers and musicians are packing up and the volunteers who have been cooking food are cleaning up the pavilion. The park sits, like the yellow gas station and the pink gas station, at the centre of a number of ‘disadvantaged’ communities. The pavilion has been here for five years. Every Sunday there is a workshop or a performance. There are coloured umbrellas hanging from lines strung between the trees. (And today there are young children handling power tools, making clothes hooks from umbrella handles). 

Maikke was a city planner and now works in the neighbourhood as part of a team running projects. The pavilion is home to around five projects a year, each based on a theme. At the moment they are running Burenbal – a Neighbours Ball. Dance ambassadors are going out to the community to invite the many different dancing groups that are out there, young and old, from the line dancers to the hip hoppers, to come together to create a new dance which will be held in the park on the 27th April. The dance will evolve from the groups that take part. It will be designed so that the audience join in, ‘so there is no audience any more’.

They also have a project called Broedstraten (Incubator Streets), where artists are given reduced rent to come and work in and with the community. There is a Music Street where workshops are given and concerts held; Market Street where designers and makers share their products with things that local people make; Theatre Street where twenty three theatre makers share a building; Fashion Street; and Colour Street, originally the greyest street in the area but now being painted up. Each one of these Streets has its own project manager. 

Maikke then introduces us to Christine from Rhizomatic, another arts collective who are embedded within their community. They run an experimental arts space and work with many different artists on collaborative projects, but ‘they must have a strong social interest’. Then we meet a couple who will be cooking a meal in the Living Room Restaurant on Monday; yet another project. And there’s the Pop Up Restaurant space as well; an empty building that was turned into a space for would be restaurateurs to run for six weeks at a time to build up a clientele and learn the ropes. 

I’m getting exhausted by it all. And I think it’s the fact that I am so tired that makes me suddenly, whilst watching a woman get up on stage to join in with the dancers and seeing a real mix of people in this park dancing away to the music, feel as though I am going to burst into tears. And I think this. It's not a big thought, just a little one, but I feel it very strongly at that moment. That it doesn’t take much to bring people together; and yet such a huge amount of effort is made to do the exact opposite.

And I wish that more things like this happened in the U.K. But they don’t. And I think it’s about space. About the idea of a shared environment on a very local level. So much of the work is funded to some degree from the housing associations who play such a large part in the way that accommodation is provided; some private, some social (which I am told is generally really good here in Amsterdam). There is an understanding that living in a street means being in that street, not just in the house on that street, hidden away inside your four walls. In the U.K so many of us live inside buildings that we buy, and which we spend our lives paying for and adding to. We may have play parks where children can ride on the swings and parents talk to each other; or some people may decide to set up some kind of informal collective activity. But it’s not part of the culture. It’s not expected of housing associations, or architects, or city planners. At least I don’t think it is. And, of course, it should be. 

On the way back to Rotterdam, as we pass Schipol Airport yet again, there are army jeeps on the side of the road and soldiers with machine guns on the bridges overhead, security for the Nuclear Industry summit that is happening here. A cavalcade goes past. A huge number of cars and motorcycles for what looks like one car with a flag on it. We pass a petrol station that is closed. This time for security. (In this context I notice that the word ‘gas’ does not come into my mind). The way in and the way out are blocked off with huge grey concrete slabs. It is being patrolled. Maybe one day someone will come and paint this gas station bright pink or bright yellow. Perhaps some of the children who are growing up in Koopvaardersplantsoen. Or Colour Street, as it is called, at least for the time being.


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