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The mosaic art of the Growing Monument, in an area of southeast Amsterdam known as the Bijlmer, sits among fruit orchards and long green vistas to tidy apartments. I hired a bicycle to navigate the miles of trails around it, but that seems unnecessary in hindsight. Around every bend I’ve hopped off at an outdoor market, pottery gallery, photogenic mural or boutique showcasing chic dresses in African fabrics. The canalside route to the monument is a hike, but an eminently strollable one.
If you’d been here 30 years ago… well, you’d have started planning your escape the minute you arrived. Back then, tenements crowded this patch of land. Rubbish mounted, tossed out windows by low-income or no-income tenants. Not from the upper floors, though – those flats stayed mostly vacant, except when heroin addicts squatted them.
Things only got worse. In 1992 an El Al cargo flight, doubling back to Schiphol Airport after engine-failure, ploughed into two identical towers, killing all 43 residents in its way.
The disaster was one of Grenfell proportions for Amsterdam. An urban housing project designed in the late 1960s around the same idealistic principles as Erno Goldfinger’s Brutalist utopias in West London, the Bijlmer (official name: Bijlmermeer) ultimately fell short in almost every respect. Its zigzag apartment blocks, laid out in honeycomb formation, isolated residents in a confusing labyrinth devoid of public transport and amenities. Elevated roadways turned life at ground level into a dangerous desert. Construction sucked up public money at the expense of landscaping. The Bijlmer became a depository for new arrivals from Suriname and the Congo.
And now it was a literal disaster area.
So few public-housing projects from the 1960s have anything to celebrate. And yet this month, after years of reconstruction, the Bijlmer is celebrating 50 years as Amsterdam’s most hopeful, feared and now promising neighbourhood. There’s a programme of talks and exhibitions, reaching a crescendo on the weekend of 24-25 November, with world-film screenings, Afrodance performances and the launch of “50 Years of Bijlmer”, a photo-memoir by gallerist, broadcaster and Bijlmer pioneer Henno Eggenkamp.
Since the 1990s, the city has pushed through campaigns to raze the Bijlmer’s most heinous buildings and rebuild at a more human scale. It recruited young artists to populate a new “creative community” of vibrantly painted studios, subsidised theatres and museums. New cafes like snug Oma Ietje – a de facto workplace for young freelancers – have brought the area to the verge of gentrification without being consumed by it.