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4/11/2023 / Issue #051 / Text: Kiek Korevaar

Beyond the red bridge: 40 Years of rafelrand Zeeburgereiland escapes recognition

A home in the city
Not many people randomly pass the long, red bridge across the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal that connects Amsterdam Oost to Zeeburgereiland. Apart from the windy, rainy days that make the bike ride feel like a never ending story, I quickly grew extremely attached to this bridge. The far-stretching view over the water almost always fills me with a sense of calmness, joy, or melancholy, while I, a bit too enthusiastically, pedal across the bridge, leaving behind the busy city. The red bridge is the symbolic gateway to the place I call home, in the student community at Zuiderzeeweg (ZZW) – part of Zeeburgereiland’s last frayed edges.

Spread over seven buildings surrounded by greenery, you find the ZZW community of 235 people, in a former asylum seeker center since 2005. As an accidental community, ZZW’s collective infrastructure feels like an organism of its own. One that was never intentional or directed towards something specific, but rather emerged, formed, and reformed again, by small and big initiatives of those who recognized its beauty, dared to experiment, and unpacked the myriad possibilities of creative expression and collectivity that the space invites. We have shared gardens, chickens, free-roaming nature, a give-away, and organize skill shares, festivals, and community events for the neighborhood. In its experimentation and creativity, ZZW runs on a structure of care for each other and its shared spaces. It is a nesting ground to many, a welcoming space where friends can find a second home, a shelter for those in need, and a place where past roommates keep coming back to.


Rafelrand Zeeburgereiland
ZZW is part of the neighborhood around it. Rafelrand Zeeburgereiland is formed by those who claimed the space decades ago and instigated what today has become an assemblage of colorful creativity, self-build infrastructures, and shared, green spaces. 
The artificial yet relatively young Zeeburgereiland was built in 1900 from dredging sludge, to prevent Amsterdam’s rivers and harbor from riveting, and served as a military terrain in its first 60 years. The island only became accessible in 1957, when two bridges were built that connected Zeeburgereiland to the city’s mainland. Communities and initiatives that were elsewhere not welcome or looking to live life differently, created the first building blocks that became the islands’ colorful rafelrand - a home to artists,  “vrijbuiters”, and city nomads. The rafelrand is the last remnant of that time. The artistic community Fort Knox right at the waterfront, car workshops in hangars, living community One Peaceful World in their trailers surrounded by trees and bushes, a place where circus wagons rest, the Cruise Inn Rockabilly club (its 80s furniture untouched), two horses of which one is the rafelrand’s oldest resident, to name but a few things. Together, we make up a mandala that can be filled in by whoever feels inspired to make something out of it. Most things that happen in its cracks are experiments, and many of them temporary, but the environment is made by us and is for everyone. The possibility of co-creating space like this, especially in Amsterdam, has become a scarcity. But the rafelrand, as one of Amsterdam’s few remaining, is still a space where making shape is possible.

Demolition of free spaces
Next year, however, the rafelrand is scheduled for demolition, despite a lack of a concrete plan for the area’s future, in terms of for whom and what. Its communities are forced to become memories, absorbed into Amsterdam’s counterculture archives, appropriated for consumption and neoliberal policy. This loss adds to the already drastic reduction of Amsterdam’s free spaces, from 78 in 1980 to only 15 in 2018. In response to the erasure, ZZW students started to mobilize themselves under the name “Nightingales & Chickens: Unite”, for the future of the rafelrand.
The demolition of the ZZW community starts in June 2024, followed by the rafelrand’s complete erasure in December 2024. The push for demolition in absence of a concrete destination plan, is one of the reasons that the 2018 “Vrije Ruimte Akkoord” (Freespace Agreement) has been initiated: to protect free spaces from demolition for vacancy. The goal of the initiators of The Freespace Agreement 2018 was to legitimize existing free spaces while stimulating new ones. After mentioning the importance of the protection of rafelranden in their coalition agreement in 2018, the city council promised to protect existing and endangered free spaces, and to make new free spaces available. In their coalition agreement, the city council highlights the value of counterculture and states that the rafelranden ought to be protected.


The Appropriation of “Free Space”
The rafelrand’s tentative destination plan is “a creative neighborhood” with businesses and activities, and should be comparable to the “mixed” city neighborhood de Sluisbuurt though with lower buildings and more green space. According to the spatial framework, the incorporation of “creativity” into the new neighborhood (to paraphrase the 2023 spatial framework) allows the history of the island – a rafelrand of the city with space for experimentation – to be incorporated in a new way, as plans of the future. So I wonder, how does the municipality understand to be protecting free spaces, when its policy in practice antagonizes its declaration on paper? And how does it reckon its appropriation of the rafelrand’s creativity into the new neighborhood justifiable, when pushing for a demolition that denies them a place to stay and a thing to say?
The foundation of the rafelrand is slowly sinking due to the island’s artificial construction that is located on top of million-years-old sedimentary layers. Therefore, investments into a new neighborhood require extensive soil preparations, as well as continuous maintenance, before a new neighborhood can be built. After the demolition of the rafelrand, the soil will be left bare for at least 3,5 years – a necessary step in preparing the soil for new construction, according to the project developers.
The question remains, however, whether investors are keen to commit to such a demanding project. For example, the sewage system of the planned Sluisbuurt across tramline 26, will have to be fully replaced in just a few decades because of the continuous settling in of the soil. Through the grapevine, I heard that therefore, the Sluisbuurt had to become an Amsterdam skyline (with towers of 143 meter high), to earn back the investments made into stabilizing the soil for construction. With unstable market prices of resources and the push for a demolition without an investor present yet, there is a chance that the soil will end up vacant; perhaps to be filled up with temporary contracts yet again.
The question of how the municipality is going to protect free spaces and whether that is possible in the first place has been widely discussed. I think municipal regulation over the in essence unregulated structure of free spaces seems quite evidently antithetical in its logic. Although I understand that for some spaces it might be a solution for survival, I am cynical, or rather, worried, about the appropriation and unification of two very distinct structures into one and the same word: “free space”. 

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