Gambrels of the Sky

Whose Home

This is where we’re staying for the time being, and here is the friendly cat who greets us in the foyer. (More on him in a future post.)

As you can see from the sign, this building used to be a school—from the looks of it a Catholic school. I’ve tried to research this specific site, but haven’t found much online. I can’t tell if there’s a dearth of information about Amsterdam’s former schools or if my lack of Dutch just impedes my sleuthing abilities. But we do have a little information from the couple whose apartment we’re staying in. When they gave him the keys (before I arrived), they told Dave that this building was at one time occupied by squatters.

Fast forward to a few days ago. I was walking down Spuistraat, one of the main drags in the old town center, and noticed this area.

It stuck out because, generally, the buildings in Amsterdam are in really good shape, and I wanted to remember to investigate what had happened here. I’m not positive, but I think this is the site of some recent demonstrations and arrests of squatters at one of the better known squatter holdouts in the city.

I make no claims at expertise, but the backstory is pretty interesting. Evidently, in the sixties and seventies, there was a serious housing shortage in Amsterdam. At the same time, there were lots of vacant buildings in the city. From what I can gather, it was (and I assume still is) difficult to obtain permits to demolish property in Amsterdam, which makes some sense due to the historical nature of the city. Much of the vacant property was being held as investments by owners who were hoping that, with enough time, their buildings would become decrepit enough to be approved for demolition, thus enabling them to access the valuable land underneath and rebuild. In the meantime, squatters entered some these buildings and set up camp. A series of laws were passed to give squatters more rights to reside in “domestic peace.” The idea was that, if a building wasn’t being maintained and hadn’t been used for more than an year, people should have the right to access it for housing.

For a time, there was a lot of support for squatters’ rights, and apparently, at least in the early days, squatting was mostly peaceful—even regulated. One argument I’ve read in favor is that squatters often kept up the properties better than absentee owners, and that several now-beloved historical neighborhoods likely escaped demolition because they had people living in the buildings.

But, obviously, many people objected. Over time, some squatting situations became problematic, especially as non-Amsterdammers began to move to the city to take advantage of the laws. In 1980, there was an effort to move squatters out of many properties, which caused demonstrations and riots. After a while, some of the squatters made deals—either with the city or with the original owners, I’m not sure—to pay a low rent for the continued use of the property. Apparently, this is what happened to the St. Vincentius School. In 2010, a law was passed banning squatting in the Netherlands, but the tradition does live on and is tolerated here and there.

So this is what I learned today. And because everyone loves to look at other people’s houses, here are a few shots of the interior of the apartment, which is quite nice.