- Laura Van der Wal
Gentrification or Regeneration? Continued Colonisation Through the Changing City of Willemstad
You can see graffiti letters which read GENTRIFICATION IS THE NEW COLONIALISM all throughout Brooklyn. Massih Hutak – a musician, teacher and activist from Amsterdam-Noord and a key person in the movement Verdedig Noord (Defend North) – reflects on this and the ever-changing nature of the cities we live in his latest book, which explores gentrification processes. In his book Jij hebt ons niet ontdekt, wij waren hier altijd al (You did
not discover us, we have always been here), Massih Hutak discusses how he experiences the process of gentrification in Amsterdam-Noord, having grown up there and having watched the neighbourhood change from a place where nobody wanted to live, into a hotspot for the middle-class. The inspiring way in which Hutak manages to describe his own experience and feelings while looking for answers to the very real issue of gentrification, made me contemplate the realities around me.
While I am from Amsterdam myself and very aware of how the city has changed over the
past 25 years, I have been living and studying on Curaçao, one of the Caribbean islands which remains part of the Dutch Kingdom today, since September. While working on my thesis, I have been staying in Pietermaai, an area within Willemstad with an interesting but disturbing history. Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, counts four historic districts (Punda, Otrobanda, Scharloo and Pietermaai). Pietermaai was initially designed as a suburb because the original town of Willemstad could not contain the intense population growth due to the fact that the capital was one of the main centres in the Atlantic slave trade. From 1675 when the neighbourhood was founded, Pietermaai was growing and housed both working class population and wealthy Dutch slave traders. The colonial history of the neighbourhood and Willemstad in general is noticeable everywhere and the streets carry this coloniality. Street names and monuments all over honour and celebrate Dutch imperialists and slave traders. Pietermaai is even named after Pieter de Meij, a Dutch captain from the 17th century. After the Second World War, the socioeconomic conditions on the island declined which had its effects in Pietermaai as well. This, together with the suburbanization of housing which was occurring around the 1960s and 1970s, created a completely different street view of the neighbourhood. Drugs and criminality took over the public space and Pietermaai became popular as a strict no-go area, which remained the case until roughly 20 years ago. Now, this is completely different and the neighbourhood has become a hotspot for Dutch tourists, expats, interns and students. Reports such as ‘The Rise of the Pietermaai-District’ highlight how private investments have changed the neighbourhood’s image, similarly to how housing corporations’ investments have changed the image of Amsterdam-Noord over the years. These, often Dutch, project developers have lived on the island for years and saw an opportunity for investment when the neighbourhood was empty and abandoned.
Even without having learned about this history, it was clear to me when I first arrived that
Pietermaai had undergone massive recent developments. Pietermaai has a completely different feel than Punda, Otrobanda and Scharloo. Multiple sources highlight the far stage of gentrification Pietermaai has already reached in comparison to the other three neighbourhoods. This realization made me ask myself questions which Hutak asked himself throughout his book and his journey looking for gentrification processes in different cities. Thus, I started researching the history of Pietermaai and tried to walk through the
neighbourhood with a different lens.
Walking through Pietermaai, you can see the results of gentrification very clearly. The neighbourhood is full of boutique hotels and restaurants clearly meant for Dutch people. Everywhere, houses are being restored and new bars and cafes are being opened. The houses all have different colours which gives a healthy, happy and somewhat Caribbean atmosphere at first sight. Punda, which is just around the corner, shows a completely different picture. Buildings often look abandoned and do not have colourful paint. On the other hand, Punda provides a more accessible atmosphere for the local population. Everybody is on the streets, and everybody is greeting each other. Why can’t restored and colourful housing not go together with accessibility for the local population?
The journey that Hutak makes throughout the book shows the process of gentrification in different cities around the world. And although every city shows a different picture, the process is always similar. Dilapidated houses and properties are being bought up by large and rich project developers to be renovated and sold again. A place where nobody wants to live changes into a hotspot for the middle class. Exactly what has happened in Pietermaai: a place known for drugs and criminality has become a going-out neighbourhood and hotspot for the Dutch middle class. This all happens under the name of “development” and “upgrading the neighbourhood”. Here, Hutak asks himself, is this regeneration or gentrification? Regeneration can be defined as various policies which aim to revitalize a neighbourhood, which in itself of course does not sound like a bad thing at all. However, regeneration is only part of gentrification. Gentrification requires a moving of people and a changing of the population.
It makes you wonder: where are the people that lived here before? And who are the people
that benefit? One large difference between the process of gentrification in Amsterdam-Noord and in Pietermaai seems to be, that the properties in Amsterdam which are being renovated and resold are social housing. Whereas in Pietermaai it seems that many houses were empty before Dutch investors decided the neighbourhood was worth the upgrade. This provides an important nuance. People have not been directly displaced from their houses in the same way as it is being done in some other cities around the world. Still, Pietermaai is currently a hub for mainly Dutch tourists, expats and interns and it raises the question why improving a neighbourhood seems to mean to invite only rich Dutch project developers and tourists?
Possibly, the answer to the question of whether these changes can be seen as gentrification or regeneration lies in the outcome, as in who actually benefits from the surge in investments and new buildings? Today, Dutch migrants and tourists are clearly dominating Pietermaai. This suggests that we should rethink the logic by which we transform neighbourhoods. Tourism should be viewed as a tool for Curaçaoans, not as a goal in itself. So, it is important to think about how we want to shape these processes. It is a shame to see how the focus seems to be merely on attracting overwhelmingly Dutch tourists, expats and interns rather than re-attracting the local Curaçaoan population and rebuilding the neighbourhood for their benefit. Even though people might not have been directly displaced by the projects of private investors and the consequent changing neighbourhood, it is clear that Pietermaai is not designed for the local population. The increasing presence of Dutch migrants and tourists promotes indirect displacement and blocks any type of integration and real, as in local, economic prosperity. Because of this, we should we think of our own role and responsibility in within this? How can we, as individuals, protest or reshape the process of gentrification and encourage integration?
The graffiti in Brooklyn was making a big statement. But different contexts lend different shapes to processes, such as gentrification. In Pietermaai, gentrification is not the new colonialism. Here, the colonialism does not feel new. The history of the Dutch Caribbean and Curaçao in particular cannot be separated from the gentrification and indirect displacement which is happening on the island today. Gentrification in Willemstad feels as what can only be called continued colonialism.