When I first arrived in Amsterdam, I was intrigued by the local perception of Amsterdam Noord. It seemed to me that, although Noord was only a short ferry ride away from the centre, Amsterdammers are inclined to perceive it as remote. The mental distance between Amsterdam Central and Amsterdam Noord seemed to be much bigger than the physical one.
One evening an interesting conversation led me to the song “I am bored, I am bored in Amsterdam Noord”, which was made in the late 1970s by singer/songwriter Harry Slinger. So I asked to meet him and Harry agreed to share some stories about his musical path and his experience in Noord at a time when “a song of action was needed”. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
M: Can you start by introducing yourself, and explain how you ended up bored in Amsterdam Noord?
H: I was born in 1949 at the Bloemgracht in the Jordaan. Eventually I started a part-time education in social studies, which led me to take a job as a youth counsellor in Amsterdam Noord. At the time everyone around me thought I was crazy for wanting to work with the ‘scum’ in Noord, but it felt like the right thing to do. After all, I was a street brat myself! And this is how I started in the youth centre of de Banne Buiksloot.
Problems soon arose with the lack of facilities, bad schools and unemployment. From 1975-1980 the shipyards closed down and the Ford factory went broke. The big problem was that there were all these separate little villages – Blauwe Zand, Floradorp, Tuindorp Oostzaan, tutti-frutti neighborhood – with youth focusing all their aggression on each other rather than the government. Often poor people don't blame the rich, they blame each other.
Then some sociology students came to Noord, and they started a project, J.A.N., (Jongeren Amsterdam Noord) meant to unite youth counsellors. But a song of action was needed. I wrote the lyrics for the song, and they were the first lyrics I ever wrote. The radio stations were crazy about it, and all of a sudden it became a hit. Then we took a flatbed boat, loaded it with local youth and the band, and went to the city hall at the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, and played the song for the city counsellor, pleading for something to be done about the situation in Noord.
It was still a very left-wing time back then, very socialist-oriented. The city counselor at that time Jan Schaefer, who was famous for the phrase “in gelul kun je niet wonen” ("you can’t live in bullshit"), made it possible for change to happen. It all went a lot better, investments were made into Noord, but then Lubbers came into office, and the CDA and VVD became the ruling parties, and then a lot of the changes were turned back.
M: Does the song still apply to the situation today?
H: Yes. Well, for centuries Noord has been the drain of Amsterdam. You know Floradorp? It’s at the Sneeuwbalweg, near the Floraparkbad. That area used to have a wall around it, like the wall Israel built at Palestine. They did this because the people in there didn’t fit in socially, they were outcasts of society.
M: If you were to rewrite the song now, Do you think you’d add more complaints?
H: I would first talk to the youth and ask them what their complaints are now, maybe they’d rather use Twitter. But I don’t think it will be very different. I think the worst thing possible is when as a kid you feel like you have no opportunities, that you are at a disadvantage, that life has nothing to offer you. But this is not only true for Amsterdam Noord, I think this would be the same in Cairo, in South Africa, South America, you name it. If young people have this feeling that they don’t have a future, then we have failed as adults.
M: How do you see the future of Amsterdam Noord?
H: Well, I think if the media are settling there, and the people who work at these media companies, these are people who are more focused outwardly. They pick up things that they see, and I think this is a good development. It’s different compared to a bus driver who lives there. My son is working there now at a media company, he’s an editor. Now he also wants to live in Noord, and that might be a good thing. A certain crowd is settling there voluntarily, and this is of course a very different development. Just the fact that you are interviewing me and making a travel guide that is focused on Amsterdam Noord, this is great! I think if the inhabitants of Amsterdam Noord knew this… well, they wouldn’t build a statue immediately, but well...*chuckles*
M: So if a young band from Amsterdam Noord wanted to make a new version of the song, would you be interested ?
H: Yeah, are you going to sing it in English then?
M: No, in Dutch, maybe in Arabic, yeah!
H: You'd sing it in Arabic? *smiling*
M: I think there is an Arabic scene in Amsterdam Noord. And I think if we managed to do this in a short time-
H: - It’s not a problem that I have Jewish forefathers? *laughter*
M: No it’s not a problem! Have you been to the Middle East or Israel?
M: Are you religious?
H: Me? No no, I don't believe in anything! Life is beautiful, but meaningless.
M: And this is the beauty of it.
H: Yes! *laughing* I’m happy.