It took artists Jaap Verheul and Kamiel Verschuren two years to get the wording of the contacts right, but now they manage a project in Rotterdam called the NAC Foundation. The foundation now looks after 200 previously empty or squatted houses and lets artists occupy them as studios for a small service charge. It has taken 10 years overall to develop the project to where it is now… and it started by approaching a Rotterdam housing association with an idea to start improving an area. In the Netherlands housing associations are vitally important, having built and managed whole neighbourhoods after the war. Some of these neighborhoods have since been pulled down and replaced. But they cannot pull down without a plan and funding in place to re-build immediately.
So in one particular area of Rotterdam the buildings had been neglected and become a problem with squatting, some with artists… but also with prostitution and drugs. So the proposition that Kamiel and Jaap gave to the housing association was to transform the area into a place where artists could live and work. And the housing association agreed, on condition that they had one organization to deal with…and so began the drafting of the first user contract that took 2 years to get right.
It also involved asking a lot of people to vacate the houses they were squatting in. Jaap describes it as a ‘tsunami’ of bad feeling that was directed towards them during this period, but ultimately what they have achieved is completely stunning. They have transformed the area into an oasis of beauty and calm. Taking each house in turn they were renovated and made safe, sometimes in a whole street at a time. The area was best described as a ghetto previously – low education and 44% unemployment.
They have reserved a number of houses as common spaces, which anyone in the local community can use for free. These have become venues that 'generate a public life’ that was completely missing before. People use these social spaces for events and meetings, workshops and art showings.
The foundation has spread to working in other nearby areas, setting up community gardens, after school education, language lessons (the area is only 20% Dutch).
So they have cleaned up the area and created a cheap and beautiful place for artists to live and work. They have transformed a ghetto through their imagination and grueling hard work. And very importantly they have also been supported all along the way by the housing association. The trusting relationship they have developed is a model for how authorities and citizens might work together in new ways to create thriving communities. The value is evident to the housing authority: Jaap and Kamiel have transformed the area in a way they never could have. They give new meaning to the term 'social artist'.
In the post earlier in the week I questioned whether neighbourhood revitalisation of this sort, citizen initiated, rather than developer-led, still counted as 'gentrification'. As I said - I am not sure it is - because it seems to reflect a new sense of value people are putting on 'contributing neighbourhoods', places where people are intrinsically involved in shaping the area. It probably did move some of the problems onto another area, but it changed a neighbourhood from almost unbearable to sustaining in a very real and meaningful way. I also described Willem's and Nol's project in Rotterdam where a 'presence' can be used to spread a warmth and sense of welcome that makes a neighbourhood feel different. Whatever these 2 projects are doing - they are doing something very inspiring in my view.
*Thank you* to Kamiel and Jaap and Maurice for giving me so much time to show me around and describe the project!