Sebastiaan faber , The Nation, 2-10-2018
Cycling into Amsterdam’s red-light district from Dam Square on a summer evening requires advanced maneuvering skills. Throngs of tourists clog the sidewalks. They spill into the road without warning, blocking traffic while they check their phones or take a picture, though it’s not clear what they hope to capture. In just one block I counted four pizzerias, four souvenir shops, five take-out chains, and five Argentine steakhouses.
Walkable, picturesque, and famous for its ample supply of sex and drugs while still feeling relatively safe, Amsterdam is more popular than ever. In 2018, the city expects to host almost 9 million overnight visitors, double the number 10 years ago. And that’s only counting hotel guests; an additional 1.6 million stay on cruise ships or rent through Airbnb or similar services. Together, they bring in billions of dollars, but also put a huge strain on the city’s infrastructure, services, and environment. Meanwhile, the downtown is turning into a northern version of Venice: a congested, soulless theme park that the locals do their best to avoid.
Though much smaller than Paris, London, or New York, Amsterdam has long been a cosmopolitan city. Some 53 percent of its 845,000 inhabitants are first- or second-generation immigrants. After reaching a low point in the 1980s, its population is now growing at its fastest rate ever. But while the city attracts thousands of newcomers, it drives almost as many away. Soaring housing prices, pushed even higher by housing shortages, real-estate speculators, and Airbnb, are expelling middle-income and working-class families from the city proper.
All of this has pushed Amsterdam to a tipping point. The massive global money streams flowing into the Dutch capital threaten to destroy the fabric of what has long been one of Europe’s most livable cities while, at the same time, a sharp rise in inequality at all levels—income, employment, health, and education—is segregating neighborhoods along ethnic and socioeconomic lines. A new generation of organized criminals has taken to liquidating each other in broad daylight with little concern for bystanders. And schools, hospitals, the police, and the fire department are all understaffed because their employees can no longer afford to live near their work. In July, the city announced that 7,000 kids might not have a teacher for this fall.
A few months earlier, in March, the citizens of Amsterdam expressed their alarm by electing their most progressive city council in decades. Since May, the city has been governed by a left coalition of four parties that has promised to rebuild Amsterdam into a diverse community that is “equitable, connected, free, democratic, and sustainable.” To achieve these lofty goals, the coalition plans to curb mass tourism, make the downtown all but car- and emissions-free, and cool the overheated housing market through massive building projects with set minimum quotas for low- and middle-income renters. They also plan to fight poverty and provide support for families struggling with long-term debt. Most interesting, the new city government has promised to democratize the way the city is run by shifting decision-making power—and a larger part of the budget—to citizens organized at the neighborhood level.
In pursuing these plans, Amsterdam’s new leaders have opted to look for guidance outside their country’s own borders. Shortly after they assumed power, Amsterdam joined theFearless Cities network. Founded two years ago in Barcelona, the network aims to unite cities worldwide into a progressive front to check neoliberalism, stem the rise of radical right-wing movements, feminize politics, and defend human rights.
On the face of it, it’s a fitting club for Amsterdam. Along with its centuries-long dedication to commerce and finance, the city has a proud progressive tradition. Since the 17th century, it’s been home to dissident thinkers; since the 19th, to worker-owned housing cooperatives. In the 1960s, the Provo movement embodied a homegrown anarchism that championed electric cars, free bike sharing, and public nudity. And in the 1970s, Amsterdam spawned a squatter movement that was arguably the most militant and effective of its kind in Europe.
But can a city with so much turnover—and so flush with corporate cash—become a laboratory for a new urban politics? And can a local government, hemmed in and hamstrung by a conservative national leadership, set its own radical course?
As far as the new administration is concerned, there is no other choice. “What we’re after is a recalibration of human dignity. We want to shift the focus from the economy to the creation of community, from City Hall to the commons,” alderman Rutger Groot Wassink told me when I met with him this summer.
Nor is he fazed by the right-wing chokehold on power at the national and European level. “Cities are engines of progress,” he said. “And as the power of the nation-state in the European Union has shrunk, it’s up to us to redefine European cooperation and solidarity.”
Groot Wassink heads up the Amsterdam branch of the Green Left, which was founded in 1990 when a handful of smaller parties, including the Pacifists and the Communists, joined forces. At the last city elections, in March, the Green Left logged the highest percentage of the vote (a bit over 20 percent, good for 10 seats), its largest chunk of the electoral pie yet. Its coalition partners are the left-populist Socialist Party (three seats), the more centrist and free-market liberal D66 (eight seats), and the social-democratic Labor Party (PvdA), long the city’s largest party but now reduced to five seats. Together they hold 26 of the council’s 45 seats.