Black Amsterdam: The Bjilmer
“Don’t go to the Bjilmer,” was the general consensus among folks I asked about this predominantly Black neighborhood in Amsterdam.
“Make sure you hold your purse” cautioned my taxi driver on our way from the airport to my hotel. While I appreciated her advice, I grew up in Kingston and lived in Brooklyn for sixteen years, so visiting Amsterdam’s proverbial ghetto wasn’t a stretch for me. I took the #54 train from Centraal Station in the heart of the historic district.
In twenty-five minutes I was in Bjilmer, home to 100,000 people of 150 different nationalities, mostly from Africa, the Dutch Caribbean and Suriname. I exited at Bjilmer Arena A and walked into the sunshine. The day was unseasonably warm and I took off my jacket and scarf. I had no plan, no direction. I just walked.
As I walked past the Heineken Arena I saw a Green Day poster and thought, “If Green Day is going to play here then how bad can this place be?” I considered all the warnings I had received and even though they were well intentioned, I was annoyed that I was getting so much warnings because I was going to a Black neighborhood.
In the 1960’s the city of Amsterdam had a housing stagnation problem. They had more people than available shelter. Bjilmer was built to abate this crisis. It was touted as the most modern place to live in all of Amsterdam with innovative housing implementations. The high rise apartment structures were a modern approach to living for the Dutch. The design was also innovative, from the air Bjilmer looks like a series of connected honeycomb structures with long hallways and galleries on the interior. It later became problematic to manage Bjilmer because management offices were located too far out of town. Livability issues like trash collection, resident deviant behavior and police patrols ran amuck. Decades later 1970’s, Dutch colonies like Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles gained their independence. People started flocking to Amsterdam and then funneled into Bjilmer’s affordable housing. The low social status coupled with low-income of many tenants, subsequently led to Bjilmer’s notoriety of high crime rates and drug trafficking. I noticed the Bjilmer development was far removed from rest of Amsterdam, out there in the Dutch wasteland.
I walked into the development past a café where locals were out enjoying the sunny weather while sipping beverages. There was a moderate police presence in the area. Underneath the three-story brick apartment locals first built shops into the spaces to suit their needs like harberdasheries and small grocery stores. Today, these are replaced by flower shops, make-up sores, H&M, bakeries and flower shops. It was obvious to me that Bjilmer was shedding its negative stigma for one of gentrification and urban development. The Bjilmer even has a Starbuck’s, the quintessential modern day symbol of gentrification.
As I walked further in the Bjilmer I bumped into a street market and was immediately transported to Flatbush, Brooklyn and downtown Kingston simultaneously. Fruit and vegetable stands were brimming with vibrant foods from immigrant’s homelands. Yellow and green plantains, coconuts, scotch bonnet peppers, avocadoes, squash, field greens like callaloo and kale made a bright spot in Bjilmer. The sounds of reggae music from Luke Dube, Peter Tosh and even bachata and salsa floated throughout the market.
Bjilmer’s does have an underbelly and it showed. I was walking alone and taking pictures and I was being followed at a distance. There was no way the man following me was that interested in perfume, flowers and make-up as much as I was. I made sure I stayed in wide open spaces in the sunlight. Bjilmer is definitely a diamond in the rough. On certain corners I noticed young boys as “look outs” and saw money exchanged hands quickly quite a few times.
Bjilmer has definitely cleaned up since the 1970’s, but there are still telltale signs of the ‘hood. A shabby Chinese food store, a beauty supply store, a weave store, a stall selling international phone cards and satellite dishes hanging off the sides of porches (Bjilmer is only zoned for cable TV) and worn out porch furniture with peeling plastic littered on many balconies throughout the complex.
I safely made it back to my hotel in central Amsterdam, happy that I ignored the warnings. Have you ignored travel advice and just gone with your gut? Tell me about it in the comments.