Monday, October 27, 2008

SWOMP - Amsterdam

SWOMP (in Dutch) stands for Slimme Woonwagenbewoners Op Mooie Plekjes, which roughly translates to Smart Wagon-people on Beautiful Places. It's a unique and creative expression of the strong squatting movement in Amsterdam, using small trailer homes on vacant lots instead of occupying a flat or whole building.

In at least some european countries squatting is legal under certain circumstances, and if its done properly (and with some luck) it can be very hard for the authorities to displace squatters. Squatter cafes, (often former flats) dot the city and act as social hubs for the network and bases for organizing. The Mollie (anarchist slang for mollitov cocktail) hosts nightly activities such as community dinners, peak-oil preparedness discussions, film screenings, and game nights. Every Monday is the planning meeting for the weekly squatting action.

The SWOMP site we visited is the 4th of its kind (the first three having already been shut down.) The vacant lot was actually not vacant when a squatting action was first planned. It was an abandoned school. The city had been deliberating for over a year what to do with the building. When the city got wind that a group was planning on squatting it, they decided to demolish it. The squatting action was planned for Sunday. The wrecking crew came on Friday. By Sunday all that was left was a lot of sand and some remnants of brick foundation. Little did the city know they were creating the perfect venue for a SWOMP action.

The SWOMPers brought in 4 trailers and erected a 'fortress' around them. They tapped into left over water and sewage piping, set up 3 solar panels, and planted gardens. There is also a complex lock-down system hidden in the most inaccessible part of the fortress, in case the police show up (the entire structure would have to be dismantled to remove the people inside.) One of our favorite aspects is an urban gardening innovation using a pallet stood on end, lined with cloth, and stuffed with dirt. Poke holes in the cloth, plant seeds, and you've got a vertical garden. I have fantasies of covering the whole outside wall of a building with these things. You could cover your house in food!

This site has been occupied now for 4 months. The city recently polled the neighbhors about the lot. They suggested various alternative plans (like a playground or park) and asked what the neighbors wanted. Most said that they actually liked the squatters there. The city will probably shut it down eventually. Fortunately, it could take the bureaucracy well over a year to do so. I wonder how long something like this would last in Washington DC. 24 hrs maybe? Generally, squatting in Europe happens on a level far beyond anywhere in the U.S. Why this level of tolerance, and even acceptance, in Europe?

Squatting still has something of a heroic and romantic quality to it, even for many mainstream Europeans. People seem to feel a sense of sympathy and appreciation for what squatting represents. Fundamentally, squatting is (in part) a protest against homelessness and the exploitation of people through the privitization of a basic human right. I've been reading Earth Democracy by Vandana Shiva. She talks a lot about the concept of the 'commons' and the history of how the commons in Europe and in India were privatized. In the US, holding common land is not a part of our historic consciousness. But it is still part of the European consciousness, and examples of it do still exist in places. I imagine that sympathy for squatting comes in part from a low-level subconscious resentment lingering in collective consciousness over the loss of the commons and the wide-spread institution of wage-slavery over the last few hundred years.

Sympathy for squatters isn't as good as a mass movement to reclaim the commons, but hopefully it's a step in that direction.

For more info:
Their homepage is It's in Dutch, but if you do a google search for it there will be an option to translate it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

civilized countries

"There are civilized countries in the world, we just don't live in one," said Pax. "Why don't we move here?" I asked. "Because it's always raining or cold or both at the same time," replied Hawina.

This conversation was precipitated by my amazement at discovering the waste bin for the municipal compost pick-up outside Irene's door (Hawina's neice, who we're staying with right now). "Yeah?" said Hawina. "Of course. It's the Netherlands." The compost pick-up had been the last straw.

Immediately upon arrival in Heerlen I was blown away (again) by the layout of the city streets. Car lanes are probably 25% thinner than in the U.S., there is rarely more than one lane in each direction, and the average size of motor vehicles reflects the size of the lanes. Sidewalks are huge, and there are bike lanes everywhere - often specially designed lanes that separate them from both cars and pedestrians.

Last June, Kassia and I attended the keynote speech at the Towards Car-Free Cities Conference in Portland, OR. The speaker was the former commissioner for parks and recreation as well as transportation of Bogata Columbia. Portland had just been awarded Platinum status as a bicycle friendly city by the League of American Bicyclists. He was congratulatory, but also told the audience not to spend too much time patting themselves on the back.

Portland is good, he said, not great. And sometimes, he said, it's much harder to go from good to great than from bad to great. He showed pictures of how they'd transformed Bogota's nightmare of transportation infrastructure into a veritable paradise. They'd designed the bike and pedestrian path network so that it is possible to traverse the city without ever crossing a car lane, while intertwining them with the public parks. Simulataneously, they reneovated all the parks to include pavillions, stages, and other public gathering places, and began organizing concerts, festivals, and other social activities.

He showed pictures of bicycle friendly cities around the world. Recently in the C'ville weekly, the author of an article about bicycling in Charlottesville had the audacity to repeat the line that Portland is the Amsterdam of the U.S. Hardly. Even Heerlen, a medium sized city in the far south of the country (which folks in Amsterdam consider very backwards) blows Portland out of the water as a bicycle, pedestrian, and public transit friendly city.

The day after we arrived we visited Oma (Hawina's mom) in what could be considered the Heerlen suburbs. She lives in a fairly new andtasteless 12 story apartment building. Not much to speak of there. But when Willow and I went outside to find the nearby playground, I was again blown away. We walked around a neighborhood with clustered housing units, clustered (for the most part) parking areas, narrow two-lane thoroughfares, and even narrower one-lane bricked driveways connecting the parking areas to the roads. Pedestrian walk-ways link the housing clusters, lined with trees, bushes, and other facets of simple landscaping, and in the middle of the neighborhood was a large public green with a playground.

Minus the usual facet of a common building, I could easily have been walking through any number of co-housing communities in the U.S. When Willow and I got back to Oma's apartment I asked her who owns all that space? Who owns the houses? The answer was that the park, the landscaping, and the paths and roads are all city land, maintained by city employees who are often part of a special hiring program for disadvantaged and handicapped individuals. The housing units are generally owned by the people who live in them. It's like the whole city is a co-housing community.

It's amazing being in this place where all these aspects of radical environmentalism and social engineering are assumed, even taken for granted. When Hawina said, "yeah, of course," about the municipal compost pick-up I thought, what would it take to get something like that started in C'ville? You'd probably have to start it as a private business first to prove it was financially viable and then maybe the city would buy it or start their own.

Several days ago, I was reading a news piece on the failure of the first bailout package to make it through congress. There was some quote from some conservative having something to do with the slippery slope towards socialism. This is a common argument against significant increases of taxpayer dollars towards public lands and public services. Somehow people in the U.S. still seem to believe that this kind of government activity will hamper prosperity and liberty. What will it take to prove to them that this is untrue?