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12/5/2020 / Issue #030 / Text: Rosie Fawbert Mills

Community and Individualism after Corona

The global crisis of COVID-19 forces everyone to rethink their standing and status. From small to large scale businesses, intrepid entrepreneurs, office workers, civil servants, arts, crafts and creative visionaries, to those with zero-hour contracts and the rapidly increasing number of unemployed... and the list goes on. Absolutely everyone is being given the time to press ‘pause’ on their fast paced lives, yet while for some this transition will be a time of happy changes, for many it will be one of intense struggling. So even more than ever, we need to be there for each other as a community.

As the face of society changes, economic security, employment evaporate and even exercise becomes difficult, what will happen to our urban environment?

Can and will Amsterdam’s government continue their ‘clean ups’? Previously these have been used as a way to forcefully reposses ‘abandoned’ areas of the city, which had been deserted by industry but revived through squatting the establishment of communities, such as ADM. Regular readers of AA will know that on January 17th 2020 this sustainable and eco-friendly group were forced out of their homes (and as of the 27th February you can no longer access their website - the online search engine seems to have also taken up arms against these  innocent civilians). It is an attempt to eradicate them from society and ignore the contribution they made to establishing eco-systems and social systems for like minded people. Even the information which the website so readily covered (including a fascinating historical catalogue) is now gone. Inaccessible. But not only that, it is labeled as a threat to society.

And what about NDSM? From a humble expat’s perspective, corporate competition is being enabled and is consequently flushing out the grass root projects run by people who have a strong sense of belonging or interpersonal connection. Each of my visits to the area is a shocking reminder of how quickly Amsterdam is developing; the rate of expansion and development at NDSM is, to me, horribly breathtaking. One of the appeals of Noord, as a resident, was the smaller community feel. Seeing huge corporations moving into the area is not something that sits well with what I thought NDSM was about. The scheduled 2022 closure of Pllek which is being petitioned against by staff at the restaurant, for instance, will leave a dead space on the water line where there was once a thriving hub of activity.

The use of the space at NDSM for festivals throughout the year, which attracted huge swathes of tourists, apparently has not satisfied the corporations’ thirst for developing the Noord banks of Amsterdam. As an example, ADE - ‘a space of music discovery’ - brought 400,000 people to Amsterdam in 2019, placing it on the map as a must-see; it has been hailed as the ‘world’s largest electronic music event’ for dance music producers, artists and fans alike. Yet, in 2020, we have started the year with large events and gatherings being banned. Social distancing is the new norm. The idea of community is having to move more and more online, but what does this mean for the foreseeable future?

A possible answer comes from Matthias Bouw, landscape architects and creators of a residential area on the IJ as part of the Hackable City Project explored “how digital technology can facilitate city-making” as this “more organic mode of development has proven to be much more resilient.” Neighborhoods were found to be more diverse, the “quality of the architecture tends to be much higher” and “the energetic performance of the buildings are better”. Ultimately, because it is a bottom up economy, people are able to make their own choices and thus “the communities have organized themselves around the ‘circular economy’ with the reuse of local resources.” In the summer of 2016 a new, collective community was being built in Almere Oosterwold. At the time, Tjeerd Herrema, head of housing at Almere council, “explained it is letting a new area develop by allowing people and collectives to build their own neighbourhoods and infrastructure (with a few ground rules).” The bitter irony (or tragedy) here: this sounds a lot like ADM however, disappointingly, this alternative community did not have the corporate funding to back them up.

Is this de-urbanisation? Sinus Lynge (co-founder of EFFEKT architects) believes, “it makes a lot of sense to look at being self-sufficient in a village, in intensive modules, or in an area that is being deserted.” As Amsterdam was booming and the 2000s crash seemed like something of a distant nightmare, sustainable innovation was under threat. Independent development was being prioritized over personalized, community based projects, despite the knowledge and understanding of the benefits it can bring: to the eco-system, in the pursuit for a more sustainable future, and to contribute to an immediate and more intimate shared sense of society. Would it be foolhardy to hope that the new ‘COVID crash’ might clear the way for more bottom up communities? Can and will the Amsterdam Government pursue the same rate of gentrification?

Now is the time to stop this. Across the world, we need to ask why it has being allowed to happen. Why the (financially) dominant societal groups are permitted to priorities improving or sustaining tourism, developing accommodation in ‘prime locations’, on profit, at the expense of complementing the artistic, cultural heart of the area.

I am not saying that there is no space for individualism in community.  To strive to be the best can benefit the greater good: the best of individualism could be said to allow for “extraordinary capacity... to have the opportunity to take advantage of existing resources; it allows the expression of counter opinions... Allows the eagles to soar; it opens philanthropic opportunities; it opens new frontiers”1. Remembering Katharine Johnson, the successful NASA mathematician and one of the pioneering (female, African-American) employees who paved the way to moon exploration, who recently passed away, reinforces this. But in those who use it to justify egotism and disproportionately use the world’s or local community’s resources, or to place blame with others, there is a risk that it threatens the push for a more community focused, coordinated and ‘sharing is caring’ society.

In this strange time, when our attention on others is magnified - as we check that we all keep a 1.5-2m distance, avoiding each other in the shops and parks when we escape our homes for fresh air and exercise, paranoia about catching the dreaded, potentially deadly virus from a cough or sneeze - perhaps it is a time to think about what makes our community what it is. Conversely, because our attention is focused on others and ourselves, people are coming out in force to be more community minded: sharing meals, taking the burden of shopping trips from those who need assistance or to self-isolate, being extra-vigilant with self-hygiene. These small societal shifts can be and will be hugely successful.

Could we all benefit from a progressive Labour Party Prime Minister like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is? Amongst other things, her “wellbeing budget”, which she has come under fire for, shows her conviction that a country’s success should be measured not only by wealth, but above all by the wellbeing of its inhabitants. “Rather than focus on financial criteria alone, the state budget aims to increase wellbeing. Record sums have been allocated to mental healthcare, poverty alleviation, and the transition to sustainability.  Economic growth alone does not make a country great,” Ardern argued, “So it’s time to focus on those things that do.” Her message is clear: people depend on one another - and it’s a mantra that more and more people are moving towards, particularly in this time of mutual need.

In a Guardian article published timely in January 2020, Brigid Delaney talks about ‘self care’ and ‘community care’, urging readers to discuss the true essence of life - something capitalists masquerade as caring about while Governments are forcibly destroying. “Rather than just seeing ourselves, we need to recognise that our health and fates are inextricably linked to our fellow human beings and find collective care”. It’s almost like Delaney had a crystal ball - how truer are those words than in this current global situation?

Self care was established as a concept in the late 80s by Audre Lorde (someone worth looking up). Lorde declared it as, “caring for myself... not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. Yet this has been hijacked by modern marketing. Self care, from a populist perceptive, has been about treating yourself to a luxury holiday, an expensive retreat or a manicure. Where did it go so wrong?

Delaney sees the problems of this term in the label of ‘self’: “self-care is still an idea rooted in a neoliberal tradition of looking out for ourselves, rather than seeing ourselves, our health and our fates as inextricably linked to our fellow human beings.” She goes on to outline what collective self-care could look like: it “is saying “we need to look after each other.”

“Collective care exists outside the market and can’t be captured by capitalism, turned into a product that we buy back and, by definition of its price, excludes many from participating in it. The fact that it’s collective, means it’s for everyone. Communal care can include things like being a better neighbour, making yourself available for people who may need support, communities supporting each other emotionally and practically during crises... to larger, more macro reforms and structural changes in society, such as advocating for universal health care, the introduction of a four-day working week, more affordable and available.”

When I started writing this article, a week before the COVID-19 outbreak, it almost sounded too dreamy to consider a colossal shift in collective consciousness. Too other worldly. I had written: ‘We can’t influence policy but we can all make small changes to the way we live our lives, and small changes to the way we interact with others’. Now however I am beginning to believe that to dream, to hope that beauty can come from darkness and disease, and to wish for a future where there is a strong community focus feels like more of a reality.

Around us, in Amsterdam and the world, a societal shift in consciousness is happening: I’m hoping it is towards a more collective and community based mind set and away from the self and the Freudian ‘id’ that dominated so much of the commercial and capitalist world we lived in. And yes, I deliberately use the past tense. Let’s open this up to all and promote a shift in conversation towards socially conscious resistance. Amsterdam Alternative Academy is in the process of setting up a Summer School on the theme of Radical Social Change after Corona. Perhaps this is a place (digital or analogue) where the collective process of thinking and organizing toward an Alternative Amsterdam could be started…