Squatters or Saviors

Conflict Resolution
On a section of the square behind the Stadhuis (town hall), there is a small photo exhibition set up that explores the idea of conflict resolution in day-to-day life. Whether children or adults, there are ways to try to resolve problems without resorting to violence. Sometimes, though, this is easier said than done. Martin Luther King Jr. even said, “A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.”
Conflict Resolution

I mention rioting, because despite the multi-color flags in the picture above that say Utrecht Viert Vrede/Utrecht Celebrates Peace” you should also pay attention to the unusually decorated building in the background. Known as the Ubica-panden, it is actually two buildings with a long and storied history. The one on the left (in black) dates to the 1300s, while the one on the right dates from 1865, but was built upon the foundations of another building from the 1300s.

During the last century, the buildings were taken over by a company called Ubica. However, the buildings suffered through numerous fires. The last was in 1989 and no one made any attempt to restore the building. Instead, it sat empty and fire-damaged until 1992 when a group of krakers (squatters) moved in and began to make the buildings inhabitable again. They claim — perhaps rightly so — that without their intervention, the historic buildings would have been left to crumble and decay past saving. The owner of the building Wim Vloet, has been described as a slumlord, and he seems to have refused to work with both the municipality and the residents of the building over the past 20+ years.

However, last year a developer showed an interest in the building, hoping to turn it into a hotel and café. The squatters themselves had used the building in various formats, including as a concert venue, vegan restaurant, free internet workshop, and art exhibition space. Despite their long involvement with the building, they were served with an eviction notice last week by a court in Arnhem. The squatters were not happy with the ruling, obviously, and they remain concerned that Vloet has not/will not actually follow through on turning the building over to the potential developer.

All of this led to conflict last Friday night. A small riot of sorts broke out as the squatters tried to defend their building and make a strong statement about their impending eviction. A small grouping of tires were set out in front of the building (not far from the photo exhibit) and set on fire. Some of the squatters moved up to the roof of the building and began setting off fireworks and throwing paint balloons. Other squatters remained inside and chained themselves to the building.

From everything I’ve read, there were no injuries on either side, just a lot of paint. Some of the police who attempted to go inside came out covered completely in paint. You can read a pro-squatters account (in English) here. There’s another good article with photos, as well, here. You may want to look through the photos in the second article, since they show the before, while I’m going to post some of the after photos I took the following morning.

Having seen some of the photos of the paint-splattered square and town hall, I was curious to see it all for myself. However, by the time I got there, they had already cleaned up much of the paint and were in the process of cleaning more, as well as cleaning up any char remains of the small tire fire.

After Ubica

After Ubica

Even the Stadhuis wall and window that had been covered in blue paint was cleaned up and the only damage left to be seen was a crack in the window.
After Ubica

However, some of the squatters still remained inside. I think the scene I saw through a window was an attempt by the police to break through the chains one of the squatters was using. In the end, the last of the squatters weren’t removed until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, almost 24 hours after events began.

The squatters knew they were going to be evicted and rather than go quietly, they chose to leave on their own schedule, making their own statement. Interestingly, there’s another quote about riots from Martin Luther King, Jr. that is fitting.

The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.

The squatters knew they wouldn’t be able to remain, but by making a statement, they gained a brief chance to be heard and to express their concerns. Whether it will all be futile remains to be seen.

(For a great series of photos of that night and the following day, check out this site by a local photographer.)
After Ubica

Time Travel: From Stables to Squatters

The blue and white facade of the ACU building on Voorstraat belies a storied and interesting history. The buildings, originally 71 and 73, began as municipal horse stables. Then, in the 1920s and the meaning of horsepower changed, an auto garage took over the property. By 1935, the Maas family took over the property and changed the name to Auto Centrale Utrecht (ACU). The following are photos of the building from 1943 and 1950, respectively.

(Circa 1943, photo courtesy of Utrechts Archief)

(Circa 1950, photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)

Somewhere along the way, the right half of the building was demolished, but I’m not sure when that happened. I do know that by the early 1960s, the garage closed its doors as a business and the property was left empty and abandoned.

This is where things start to get particularly interesting. Under the cover of darkness on March 26/27, 1976, the buildings making up Voorstraat 69, 71, and 73 were squatted. Squatting and squatters (kraken), are probably thought of slightly differently in the US versus much of the rest of the world. In many countries, it’s a result of true need. For others, it’s a political or social statement. In the US, it’s almost always considered illegal and is usually associated with the homeless, gangs, drug addicts and criminals. Meanwhile, in many other countries, squatting has been legalized to one degree or another, or at least a certain truce has been reached. That was the case in the Netherlands until October of this past year when the Squatting Ban Bill was passed.

Squatting really gained momentum as a movement in the Netherlands in the 1960s, as a form of protest. There was a housing shortage (don’t forget that the Netherlands has the highest population density of any country in Europe) and property owners were intentionally leaving buildings empty to drive up market prices. Thus, squatting became, in this case, a political anti-speculation move. Eventually, in 1971, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that squatting was legal under the concept of huisvrede (domestic peace). As a rule, as long as a building had been empty for at least 12 months and the owner was not going to be doing anything with it in the next month, squatting was legal.

(ACU building in 1980, photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)

The reality is that many buildings taken over by squatters have benefited from their new inhabitors. Of course, there are always going to be bad eggs in the bunch, but many buildings have been improved and offered something for the community as well as the people living in them. Not all buildings squatted become residences only. In the case of the ACU building, the squatters also turned the building into a bar (opened in 1983) and cinema club, as well as a place for music performances, dance nights, a food co-op, and squatting consultancy. The ACU still serves these purposes and more today.

(ACU building circa early 1990s, photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)

Still, by 1993, the owner of the building had decided to sell it and the squatters were facing a decision. Ultimately, the users and inhabitants decided to try to purchase the building and make the whole thing legal. After forming the Stichting Voorstaete (Voorstaete Foundation), and after much negotiating, the buildings on Voorstraat were purchased, along with another squatted building around the corner on Boothstraat. The buildings on Voorstraat were renovated, and by 1999, the political culture center that is the ACU was complete. The building on Boothstraat is now the home of Strowis, a low-budget but attractive hostel perfectly located in the center of the city.

Strowis Hostel

Over the years, various other squatted buildings have been legalized in one form or another, sometimes helping to save and restore historic buildings that might otherwise have fallen into complete disrepair. They also often serve as places for artists in all mediums to work. The ACU building itself had one of its exterior walls become a canvas for artist D. Dijkshoorn. In the early 1990s, he painted Bebop a lu la on the side of the building. The comic-style panel reads: “It all began in 1976” followed by “Hey Boss, there are still people living here.”

(photo courtesy Utrechts Archief)

I suspect that will be the case for many buildings that are squatted, squatting ban bill be damned. As I said, it’s not all positive, but it’s not all negative either. I’ve heard stories that go both ways. It seems like a case-by-case situation, and as a result, I’m not sure that the ban was the right approach to take. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed getting to know a bit more about a building I pass regularly.

Het Utrechts Archief

Let Loose The Kraken

There I was thinking I didn’t really have much to blog about these days when suddenly there arose such a clatter that I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter. (Or, you could say that I eventually got up off the sofa to see where the music and yelling was coming from and if the students were having a party nearby.) It turns out that there was a protest march passing near our street. I’m not sure where they started from, but I suspect it was at the end of Lucasbolwerk, since there were a number of cars in the procession and Lucasbolwerk isn’t really a through-street. I saw banners and lots of dogs of the mutt persuasion and lots of young people with dreadlocks. They were, in fact, krakers (squatters).

It seems the Twede Kamer (the Dutch Parliament/Congress/political body) recently passed a ban on squatting. This obviously hasn’t gone over well with the squatters, so they’ve staged various protests, including today’s here in Utrecht. The banner in the photo above basically says: Squatting, not a problem but a solution. There are obviously mixed opinions on the matter and pros and cons to it, as well.

The bit of the march that I saw was peaceful and calm. Hopefully it stays that way.