This is a sad day for the city of Amsterdam. Last Sunday, De Slang – The Snake House, one of the landmarks of recent local history, has closed its doors. For good.
If you have been in Amsterdam, even just for a weekend, it’s impossible that you’ve missed this five-storey yellow building on Spuistraat 199, dominated by a colorful mural of a snake. It’s in every photo album of the city and it’s been a vibrant center for art and alternative culture for the past 32 years.
There, you may have visited one of the countless art exhibitions organized by the collective in the basement, or you may have been there on a regular Wednesday for the Blue Rascal Cinema, a weekly night with free screenings of indies. Or you may have been there just to party or even lived there for a while.
If so, you’ve been lucky enough, because now that piece of the city, right in the center of Amsterdam, which have been for years the symbol of the revolution, will change forever. The 9 residents who lived there, squatting a building left to rotting by the official owners and who have created instead a space for art sharing, have decided to leave voluntarily, defeated by the long legal battle with the new real estate investor, De Key.
Whether you’re in favor or against the squatting movement, there’s no deny that Spuistraat will soon lose its edgy appeal, following the similar sort of Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin. And that’s a real pity.
Days ago, before knowing that this day would have come so soon, I’ve met with one of the residents, actual spoke-person Mark Bakker, a dutch musician and filmaker, who told a little bit of history of DeSlang.
How did it all start?
It was 1983, Amsterdam was living an economic crisis and there were a lot of people in need of a house. There was a shortage of accomodations, but many unused buildings left to rot. People couldn’t take it anymore and the spirit of the revolution from the ’60ies and ’70ies, which in Amsterdam had its main location here on Spui, was still very well alive. So the first people started to occupy this building, which was previously rented to a press agency, but it had been empty for a decade and needed renovation. Jacques Van Heuven, who still lives here now after 32 years and he’s a painter, was one of the first squatters.
How was this area at that time?
The newspapers industry used to be here: the whole block was an offices location. There were the Algemeen Handelsblad in Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, which expanded its offices in this building, but then moved to Rotterdam in the 70ies to become the NRC Handelsblad. The whole area was empty and soon everything was squatted during the ’80ies. I wasn’t here at the time, but they say there were clubs, concerts, music every night. It was a gathering of all kinds, also junkies and scums and so on, but many activists and artists found a place here.
Over the years most of the buildings got legalized: the Handelsblad‘s building was bought by social housing company IJmere and they renovated it. And also the Vrankrijk, the blue building in front of us, was bough by the residents 15 years ago and now they self-regulate their rent basing on their income.
What about the snake in the front? What does it mean?
That was made in 1987: it was about making a statement to the city, like in the oriental beliefs it was a defense against bad spirits. A girl who was living here at the time, Patries Van Elsen, made the design: she’s now living in South America doing spiritual workshops that have something to do with Ayahuasca. Many other artists and street writers have come here to paint and, as you can see, the whole block is a continuing workshop. There’s even a piece on the roof of the building, here outside my space, which has been made by this local art collective, Multisyndicate Amsterdam. They have done a lot of murals around here.
And what is your story here?
I started living here in 2001: I’ve been living throughout Holland and I came to Amsterdam to study. Through a few friends at the Melkweg – I was working there as a bouncer – I began to hang out here for a few days a week and then a room became available. So I actually applied to live here, as we do have an official committee for the newcomers. I’m a romantic and I felt totally attracted to a place like this. I like the way we share the activities here. At the beginning there wasn’t even a toilet in the building, you had to go to the neighbors, but with a bit of self-work we made some renovation and bring also electricity in the place.
And now, what is the actual situation with De Slang?
Back in the days it was allowed to squat in the Netherlands, so when the building was empty for at least a year you could take it, put a bed in it and just go to the police to communicate the news: they will come for an inspection, as normal procedure, but we were allowed to stay. It was almost an ordinary thing and Amsterdam was full of squatters, the krakers. Only when the owner had an actual plan of renting or renovating, they could kick you out of the house.
They only think about bricks, not about people.
De Slang has had many owners in the past years and they all tried to kick us out, but we always won the legal issues because nobody had a real proof of an actual plan. It was all speculation, empty corporations just trying to get rid of us. Now things have changed: in 2010 these laws have been revoked and squatting became illegal in the Netherlands, no matter what. Everybody who’s here can be arrested anytime.
Now the owner is a social housing company, De Key: they bought the whole block around Spuistraat and Wijdesteeg and we were actually celebrating at the beginning, thinking that finally we could have a nice partner for a mutual solution. We tried many times to have a dialogue with them and we were open to find some kind of renting agreement or legalize it like the other buildings nearby did – it’s been always our wish to find a legal solution – but they always denied any meeting and request.
Do you have any political support?
Sort of. We did a lot of lobbying with the City Council, which has been really supportive: they think we’re really valuable, saying we’re almost a cultural heritage to the city. A lot of street artists have made their art around here and we have tours coming in our building too. This could be all gone if we leave the place.
So far, all our efforts have been deluded: De Key wants to make luxury apartments, shops and private parkings, which is not a fair business for a social housing company. The city center is already very gentrified and it’s risking to become too much domesticated. The City Council has tried to find a compromise with them to give us an alternative location and they even got us a funding of almost 1 million to buy us the building and still De Key didn’t want to go for it. We found a buyer for it and the City Council commissioned an estimate: the building got valued 1.2 millions in current state, but De Key asked 2.5 million and that was the last contact with them, last summer. They had many financial scandals in the meantime and they only think about bricks, not about people.
Amsterdam is such a liberal and tolerant city that is strange that this kind of subculture doesn’t get protected.
It’s really strange because we were able to find an agreement with them for the basement, which wasn’t squatted at the beginning. We actually have an anti-squat agreement for the use of that, so it’s legal. But we couldn’t find any agreement on the rest, because back in 2008 our squatting was permitted and we had many protections from the law.
Signing an anti-squat agreement is not convenient for us, ’cause you don’t have any rights. It’s legal, there are some companies that are specialized with those contracts, but you can be kicked out at any moment. They usually just put students in the building, to prevent it from being squatted, but it’s not a permanent solution and they can evict you whenever they want.
And this is not what we want: we want a permanent legal solution. Amsterdam is such a liberal and tolerant city that is strange that this kind of subculture doesn’t get protected. So far it’s been amazing to find in such a short distance in the center, the peaceful coexistence of rich families, red light activities and squatting culture, all living very well together and with respect.
Now we know that De Key will never find an agreement with us, because as far as we know, they don’t have any money left and they just want to sell. It’s a lot easier to sell the entire block if you don’t have squatters inside, but researches show that we are a value: last year a survey on the merchants in Spui revealed that they want us to stay.
So now, what are you planning to do?
Somehow, we feel that the end is near: we tried every possible solution but of course we will not give up. We’ll try to raise awareness and organize a form of protest in the street. We believe in the bottom-up culture that we’ve contributed creating and we hope that others will pick up from that. That’s what keeps us alive.