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There can be little question that Amsterdam has, since the sixteenth century, been at the geographical core of Dutch society, whether it concerns economics, politics or culture (Nijiman 1999) and thus enjoys a particular place in modern urban imaginaries. A recurring theme is that of Amsterdam’s alleged ‘peculiarity’, ‘difference’ or ‘otherness’. Both Soja (1996) and Savini et al (2016) address these concepts through a critical urban analysis of the restructuring of Amsterdam, yet vary in objectives and timeframes. This essay aims to illustrate such themes, using the readings as core references but also drawing from wider literature to further the debate. Soja (1996) uses his ‘vantage point’ (285) on Spuistraat and micro-geographies to focus on the unique developments within the city’s Centrum. The main focus is on the distinct imprint of the 1970’s squatter movement and its pivotal role in its renewal, combined with the city’s distinct commitment to libertarian socialist values which are apparent throughout the urban built environment (Soja 1996) and both fuel this argument of a city of ‘difference’. The unique attempts of Amsterdam preserving its Golden ages without clear efforts to express its achievements are also explored as it provokes ideas of ‘urban peculiarities’ (Soja 1996). Similarly, Savini et al (2016) provides a multi-dimensional overview on the most recent social, economic, political and spatial changes in the city (2016:103) but with particular reference to housing policies and Amsterdam’s increasingly social and ethnic diversity within a more informed discourse.
The continuity of Amsterdam’s mid-90’s policies is illustrated, whilst recognizing certain ‘peculiar’ and ‘unexpected’ discontinuities that were a result of experimental approaches. Furthermore, future city policies are discussed with a move towards ‘organic planning’, neoliberalism, and Savini et al (2016) engage with the contemporary issue of the financial crash and its effect on Amsterdam’s housing market. This ensures a precise and an up-to-date understanding of the city and questions whether Soja’s reading, published in 1996, has become dated in comparison as he was clearly unable to address such current factors. Nonetheless, Soja (1996) still provides a valid and insightful representation of Amsterdam in modern urban imaginaries.
Amsterdam was at the center of the squatting world in 1980, boasting the largest and most militant squatter movement in Europe (Van der Steen and Andresen 2016). This historical connection with the squatter movement is pivotal in exemplifying the city’s ‘peculiarity’ as it has etched itself more deeply into the urban built environment of Amsterdam than in any other inner city in the world (Soja 1996). In Amsterdam, it emerged in the 1960’s through a group called The Provos as a direct consequence of the large amounts of inhabited buildings. The group managed to gain political power which stimulated further advances within the radical social movement and consequently played an important role in the field of housing and the urban fabric more generally (Uitermark, 2004:227). The Kabouters most successful campaign was for the right to affordable housing and prohibiting the destruction of cheap housing in the city center (Soja 1996). Nepstad (1997:47) argues the movement can be seen as an alternative housing strategy and enabled ‘cogitative liberalization’.
Therefore, it is these urban developments, fuelled by radical social movements that make Amsterdam’s place in modern urban imaginaries ‘peculiar’. Furthermore, it highlights a powerful youthful generation that dominates Amsterdam’s inner city population as they reclaim the rights to the city as ‘in no other major world city today are young householders in such command of the city center’ (Soja 1996). The dominant imprint of squatter movements on Amsterdam’s urban core draws out underlying political values of the city which illustrates a further argument of ‘difference’. For example, the city’s deep and enduring commitment to libertarian socialist values (Soja 1996:285) which are arguably expressed more openly in Amsterdam than in other European cities. This is evident through Civic authorities actually issuing pamphlets on ‘How to be a squatter’ (Soja 1996), voicing this open tolerance. Nijiman (1999) argues it is this status of an anti-establishment city that makes Amsterdam ‘special’ (154).
However, it is also argued that such radical movements are becoming less prevalent as the city’s social climate is threatened by the dismantling of the Dutch welfare state (Nijiman 1999:155), reinforced by the fact that squatting became illegal in Amsterdam in 2010. Thus, perhaps the city’s distinctive power within the social movements are wavering; posing a valid suggestion of why the topic was avoided in Savini’s et al (2016) more contemporary interpretation of the city. However, both Savini et al (2016) and Soja (1996) recognize Amsterdam’s increase in ethnic diversity, through the shared reference of the city becoming a ‘minority-majority city’ with over half of its population of non-Dutch descent (Aalbers and Duerloo 2003). Despite globalization encouraging international migration through improvements in transportation, Amsterdam has seen a far greater influx from an ever more diverse group of countries which is evident through the fact that it has the ‘greatest number of different nationalities in the world’ (O&S 2014). Soja (1996) approaches the increased ethnic diversity as a reflection of Amsterdam’s reputation of a tolerant and liberal city, as it was seen as a ‘safe haven’ for refugees and Jews in the past. This historical link supports the current idea that there is no ‘official’ way to tell the difference between Dutch citizens (Soja 1996:299) as different ethnicities have absorbed and contributed to what is now defined as Dutch culture. This puts Amsterdam in contrast to a city such as LA which is ‘built on the bedrock of racism and radical segregation’ (Soja 1996), creating a further difference between the two cities and demonstrating Amsterdam’s greater success in integrating its immigrant populations into the urban fabric.
A contemporary example of Amsterdam’s distinct openness to the ‘other’ (Soja 1996) is evident through the governments ‘Diversity policy’ that aims to protect ethnic minorities culture and creates opportunities within communities, for example, through the use of subsidies of leisure centres in selected communal areas to encourage integration (Uitermark 2005). Savini et al (2016) also link Amsterdam’s increase of ethnic diversity to housing policies and area regenerations as they both respond and reinforce these trends (Savini et al 2016). For example, the local governments control over land change allows them to directly depict which areas to invest in, thus determining the socio-spatial mix of an area (Fainstein 2010).
The large-scale urban renewal of the Bijlmermeer neighborhood in Amsterdam’s suburbs is a good example of this ethnic segregation and attempted integration. In the 1970’s it was an entry point for immigrants from all over the world, with 130 different ethnicities, yet became a place to avoid through the association with the immigrant ‘other’ (Badaar 1999). The diverse ethnic population was marginalized and isolated from Dutch society, showing spatial issues of inequality and segregation through the created spaces of ‘difference’ (Badaar 1999). Thus, the city shows signs of the same uneven development that has afflicted other metropolises of Western Europe and the USA (Fainstein 2010), suggesting it has followed similar processes of urbanization to other cities. For example, a trend of low wage immigrants who cluster amongst the social housing of the suburbs due to their inability to afford the high rent of the inner city.
To address such issues a ‘mixed-use’ urban regeneration scheme was introduced in the 1980’s creating ‘entertainment and shopping amenities’ (Savini et al 2016) to encourage social diversity. There are now ambitions of the neighborhood becoming a ‘multicultural theme park’ (Badaar 1999), perhaps rejecting the fact that multiculturalism has been declared ‘dead’ in many countries (Uitermark 1997), highlighting another difference of Amsterdam. Furthermore, the story of the Bijlmermeer embodies a particularly Dutch approach to urban development: if a problem exists, a rational solution must be found (Fainstein 2010), however, it the overall success of the urban renewal is still in question by some locals. Despite housing being a crucial point explored by both Soja (1996) and Savini et al (2016), it is not the only factor contributing to Amsterdam’s ‘peculiarity’ or ‘difference’. For example, impacts of tourism have become increasingly prevalent in its urban core. In 2015, the city was visited by approximately 17 million tourists (Boterman and Pinkster 2017).
Most visitors are attracted to the easy accessibility of sex and drugs which they are unable to experience in their own country. This independently echoes a city of ‘difference’ through the city’s permissiveness and liberal attitudes surrounding such themes. Tourism is also having a large implication on Amsterdam’s housing structure as tourists leave their footprint in the historic center, which also houses 86.000 residents (Boterman and Pinkster 2015) and encourages tourism led gentrification, much to the discontent of locals. However, neither Soja (1996) nor Savini et al (2016) gave critical attention to this important influence on Amsterdam’s imaginaries. Whereas, Boterman and Pinkster (2017) explore how tourism is changing the canal district into an ‘object of cultural consumption’ (458) and thus creating socio-spatial impacts on its heritage. The increase in hotels and tourist infrastructure encourages the idea of a ‘theme park’ metaphor and implies Amsterdam will become another Venice- ‘a city of hotels’.
Therefore, Amsterdam can be seen as becoming more similar to other European cities through this expansion of tourism. Interestingly, Soja (1996) states Amsterdam has ‘not yet become a Disneyfied theme park for tourists’ which reinforces the idea that his interpretation of the city is dated, clearly written before the impacts of global tourism became so pivotal. Instead, Soja (1996) describes development within Amsterdam’s Centrum as a ‘peculiar urban genius’ (286) and believes its history and geography is being kept alive. For example, the restructuring of 17th-century alms-houses and having more than 6000 ‘monuments’ to the Golden Age within the Centrum (Soja 1996). It highlights a sense of ‘preservative modernization’ (Soja 1996:283) however, the city’s peculiarity is revealed through the lack of public displays of wealth (Soja 1996). Nijman (1999), believes it is Amsterdam’s historic architecture and lack of grand buildings, in comparison to other major cities such as Rome or Venice that enforces the idea of Amsterdam’s ‘difference’. For example, the ‘Gouden Bocht’ (Golden Crescent) is described as ‘durable’ over elegant. As a result, a modest imagination of the city is induced which Simon Schama explains as an ‘embarrassment of riches’ – a trait that pervades Dutch culture that is directly derived from Calvinism.16 (Nijiman 1999:151) and a key concept in Soja’s reading. In conclusion, Amsterdam is a complex city that has undergone unique urban transformations that are responsible for its particular place in urban imaginaries. This essay explored key themes of ‘peculiarity’, ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ through the comparison of Soja (1996) and Savini’s et al (2016) analysis of the city’s economic, political and social profile.
Despite Soja’s (1996) perhaps more dated publication, it is the embeddedness of the squatter movement and commitment to libertarian socialist values that are arguably the most symbolic sign of the city’s ‘difference’ as impacts are still evident on the urban core today. The qualities explored also contribute to the idea of Amsterdam as a ‘just’ city’ (Fainstein 2010) as in the words of Gilderbloom (2009) it is a city that ‘embodies equality, diversity, and democracy’, more so than most major European cities. Thus, reinforcing its particular place in urban imaginaries. This essay has also highlighted the importance of wider influences that contribute to Amsterdam’s ‘difference’, for example, tourism and its growing impact on the inner city structure and the overall cultural representation of the city. Nonetheless, the role of housing in Amsterdam remains crucial to its difference; re-iterated through both Soja (1996) and Savini et al (2016).
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