Amsterdam's north feels urban regeneration effect

By Anna Holligan
BBC News, Amsterdam

image captionAmsterdam North is drawing new artists to its long neglected spaces

Amsterdam is one of Europe's most popular tourist attractions. Most of the two million people estimated to visit annually arrive at Central Station and stroll south towards the city. Turn in the other direction and you face what has long been a no-go area.

Amsterdam North was a backwater, notorious for high crime, high unemployment and a non-existent arts scene. But now affordable house prices and major arts investments are creating a transformation.

A quick Wikipedia search is deflating ("there's not much to see around here") but squeeze on board the free ferry across the IJ waterway and it is clear Amsterdam North is changing - so rapidly in fact that even the world wide web has not caught up.

Creative types buzz around an eclectic assortment of freshly painted galleries. Street cafes serve posh cappuccinos and speculoos spice biscuits. But it has not always been this way.

Dumping ground

No-one is more surprised by the speed or scale of the transformation than Jan Donkers. Jan grew up in Amsterdam North, or as he puts it, "on the wrong side of the tracks".

"You know," - Jan leans in conspiratorially - "in the 70s there was a big hit - Bob Dylan's It's a Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. We changed the lyrics to 'I'm so bored, I'm so bored, I'm so bored, I'm so bored in Amsterdam North' and that cemented the image.

"There was nothing, just nothing here. We were totally isolated."

This feeling of detachment was fuelled by decades of mistreatment by its haughty neighbour.

"When people were hanged, the dead bodies were transported over here," Jan explains.

"It was like a rubbish dump. Everything that they didn't want in the city they sent it across the water."

Cheap and handy

But the latest arrivals are very much alive. Dressed in their oversized geek glasses and lumberjack shirts, they have brought a touch of art school chic to the north.

image captionAmbitious young professionals are helping to give the area a face-lift

Kosha Lan and Donica Bousman are ensconced on a bench beneath a tree glittering with origami birds. Laptop out, they are poring over details of a new artistic endeavour.

"I live just round the corner," Kosha says, gesturing behind us.

"I actually bought a place here I could never have afforded to buy in the centre of Amsterdam or even on the outskirts. You can get more here for less and the thing is it's right near the centre."

Amsterdam-based town planner Jos Gadet understands the attraction: "The difference is gigantic.

"The rent in the north is about half as much but it's in the direct vicinity of the urban core of where things happen. That's the main reason why people are going to the north."

The movement is not just about saving a few euros. While the centre of Amsterdam is crammed with well-established museums and galleries, the North offers rare breathing space.

"Amsterdam is like a museum," Kosha Lan explains. "It's done and it's beautiful but it won't change. Here it feels like you have the potential to be really creative and actually change your environment."

image captionThe Netherlands Film Institute is an Amsterdam North landmark

Once a quiet conurbation of rural villages and social housing, the landscape is now decorated with high-rise luxury apartment blocks thanks to unprecedented demand.

Integration challenge

The Netherlands Film Institute relocated its operation to a glistening, modernist structure on the northern banks of the IJ waterfront. Its existence is iconic of the northern regeneration.

Developers are clamouring for a stake in this desirable northern territory, seeking to cash in on the zeitgeist and its canvas bag-carrying colonists.

The old headquarters of the Dutch oil giant Shell have been transformed into a "cultural playground".

The artistic director of the Tolhuistuin (Toll House Garden), Chris Keulemans, says it is essential they try to ensure these two diverse communities can co-exist: "'My concern is with the original inhabitants of this part of town.

"There is high unemployment, high crime rates, low education, low income - so a lot of people here have low horizons. We have to try to integrate both the original people and the new ones.

"We have a woman who cooks the best Surinamese dishes, she makes them and sells them here at the Tolhuistuin. It is important that we don't alienate the people who were here first."

Upstairs the smell of wet paint lingers. Chris Keulemans hopes that when it opens, this place will attract big-name musicians while providing a stage for local talent too: "Some of the most exciting new music is coming from here.

"There's one really promising band - a group of high-school kids called Don't Touch my Croque-Monsieur. They will be something we're going to hear a lot about."

Northern inspiration

Heading back to the ferry - distracted by a curiously aerosol-adorned building - I take a detour.

It is a youth club, painted by local kids. Some of them are burning something on a bench outside. A makeshift barbecue sends scraps of burning paper skywards, creating a shimmering display of flame-encrusted birds - a moment of unwitting artistic creation.

Spend long enough in Amsterdam North and you begin to see things differently.

The creative migrants are redefining Amsterdam North. Visitors brave enough to take a different direction from Central Station will not find any Old Masters this side of the water.

But across the northern frontier lies the potential to see new work in progress, before the rest of the world even knows it exists.

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