I had heard rumours about Op de Valreep: a live concert that friends had enjoyed, a workshop on gardening some colleagues had attended… I also knew it was a squat, but didn’t really know what that entailed. In order to satisfy my curiosity I decided to investigate a bit more and surfed the Internet for information. Almost everything was in Dutch and not wanting to rely completely on Google Translate I decided to contact the organization and ask them directly. They quickly offered for me to come over and chat, and so I did.
Tuesday evening I met with some of the people who have been present in the project since the very beginning, and got to hear a bit more about the history and organization of the Op de Valreep. I arrived by a dirt road; the building is set on an unconstructed plain, which ends by a canal. A tall fence surrounds the grounds, the sort of fence that is pieced together with whatever-is-found-lying-around, covered in graffiti. Inside the wall sits the old brick building, now patched up with wooden planks, and a few rusty caravans. You can tell that things happen there: the place is warm and lively. We sat on some benches outside, near the water, in the afternoon sun, while the chickens scurried around the garden. And I was told Op de Valreep’s story.
The occupied building was previously an animal shelter, it had been abandoned for years and was in a deplorable state: literally full of excrements, trash and used needles. Owned by the City Council but promised to the project developer OCP, it was left unused while future construction plans were arranged. In July 2011, a group of squatters decided to take over the structure and restore it, so as to make it available to the community. The occupation, claim the squatters, was a political act. One of their objectives was to cause reflection on the government’s use of tax money and the management of constructions and land: the animal shelter, and many other buildings, had been left vacant while there was an obvious housing shortage problem in the city. Another point that they wanted to make was the value of bottom-up processing (in which the community has the initiative) versus top-down processing (in which the government has the initiative), making Op de Valreep an example of what the community can achieve when managing a public space.
Although the situation at Op de Valreep is unstable, squatting is illegal in the Netherlands and they could be evicted at anytime, the project until now has been quite a success: they have even managed to get along with the City Council because of their constructive involvement with the neighbourhood. In the building, now restored and cosily furnished, a diverse range of workshops are offered: LETS (Local Exchange Trading System), an initiative that focuses on social networks as a means for neighbours to contribute to the community and even earn an extra income, indoor gardening with hydroponics, boogie woogie dance classes, yoga etc. On Saturdays, Op de Valreep opens its garden to those who want to help make it a greener place. Every Friday one can find diverse concerts of live music ranging from jazz to hardcore punk, friendly varying crowds, and drinks. Op de Valreep caters to different interests and people.
One of the questions that kept coming to my mind, though, was how do they manage to offer this ample number of activities? Who is behind it all? Surprisingly, there are no specifically assigned people in charge of looking for possible workshops or classes etcetera, instead the agenda is left open to outside suggestions that are later discussed by a vaguely defined group of insiders. The process is very much dependent on the community’s initiative, and although this may make it seem unstable, it might just be the key to its success. Because it relies on the community, Op de Valreep adapts to its needs, thus functioning in concordance with it and not imposing itself on it as would normally occur in a top-down form of organization less open to citizen initiative. Its greatest achievement, I believe, is showing that this form of organization is possible and that when given a chance people are willing to bring forward ideas and make them happen, taking an active role in the improvement of the community, and of our society at large.
Op de Valreep is an ambitious and promising project, and hopefully it will be allowed to develop to its full potential.