My father visited Amsterdam in the early 1970s. He took a grey rucksack and a dark red sleeping bag (which I remember still being in the house when I was a child, kept like sacred relics). He slept in the Vondelpark, and his boots were stolen.
My visit was altogether more comfortable – flying from Gatwick early on a Thursday to be in time for a symposium titled ‘Space For Connection’ at Buurt Flirt in Rotterdam in the afternoon, followed by local food and pale beer and an evening in good company. Watching the city’s late-night cyclists, girls sitting side-saddle on the backs of their boyfriends’ bikes, will be my enduring memory of Rotterdam.
Friday was spent exploring Amsterdam with Maurice Specht, visiting the north of the city and Tolhuistuin, heading south to the Bijlmermeer estates, exploring the ‘Plan West’ estates planned by Berlage and finally talking with community leaders at an event hosted by Groen Gras. A late night flight back to Gatwick finished the short visit.
Rotterdam is one of the most perfectly person-sized cities I’ve ever visited, despite housing over a million residents. It’s a beautiful mix of small, intricate buildings and pocket-sized public spaces and it makes the perfect playground for pedestrians, public transport and pushbikes. It’s a city that is neat and tidy and cared for, even in its scruffiest corners.
Binnenweg is the city’s longest shopping street, laid out in the 15th century but largely surviving in its pre-war shape. At the heart of the city it’s fairly vibrant, with cafes where beautiful girls with beautiful tattoos serve coffee and cool boutiques like Hub Shop sell the products of cottage-industry designer-makers. But as the long ribbon unwinds towards the suburbs, there are more empty shops.
Buurt Flirt are occupying one of these, using it as a community arts centre and sharing it with a screenprint workshop. It’s a funky little space, with big tables and plenty of chairs meaning there’s always a space for people. There’s a constant supply of more of that strong, fresh black coffee and biscuits served from a counter made of bashed-together old timber. Every space in the small shop is used, with one photographer even exhibiting on the ceiling. I felt at home; it was strangely like walking into one of the Workshop projects I’ve run in the UK.
The thing that really make Buurt Flirt work though is not the furniture or the art; it’s the people. If Janneke, Aletta, Nachet and Marieke are representative of the people of Rotterdam, it’s a warm and smiling city where people are looked after. The event they hosted – ‘Space For Connection’ – was all about conversation and creative people finding ways to support each other, whether through empty shops, the backyard of the Chez Moi tea shop or using social media.
And as long as people like Buurt Flirt continue to care and connect, Rotterdam will stay creative and full of life.
Ich liebe Rotterdam.