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Ideas for an alternative world - for an alternative Amsterdam? The history of Het Fort Van Sjakoo

By Pandam

Published Sun Sep 20 2020

“Some people put a mark on us as an anarchist bookstore, but I think we are much more than that.” Anarchism, in its simplest definition, means a rejection of hierarchies, of structures of dominance, and a focus on the collective. A bookstore, emphasis on store, is a place to buy and sell books, usually for a profit. Isn’t per definition an anarchist bookstore therefore an oxymoron? Shouldn’t it be an anarchist library, rather?

Near Waterlooplein in Amsterdam, Het Fort Van Sjakoo has existed for the last 43 years, since 1977. A former squat, this place is not only political in what it sells, but even more so in its entire existence. Entirely volunteer-run, the not-for-profit bookstore is not here to make money, but to spread ideas. It is not only a bookstore though; presenting zines, selling patches, pamphlets, and posters; supporting local initiatives through spatial and financial means - depending on the volunteer you’re talking to, the description of this place might vary. However, the commonality that all share is the desire to present ideas for an alternative world, one that is non-hierarchical and where knowledge, welfare, and property is shared by everybody. Amsterdam has always had a reputation as ‘alternative’, but how much of that still rings true today, in a city characterized by its Instagram-able city landscape, restaurants, and pop-up shops? Het Fort Van Sjakoo seems like memorabilia of different times, a left-over vision for a radically communal and social city. It seems ironic that one of Amsterdam’s most visible and longest squats is located right next to one of its biggest tourist attractions, the Waterlooplein market. Ironic, or rather indicative of how the touristification of the city interconnects with its volatile urban development?

In the 1960s, there was a big push to modernize the city, including the Nieuwmarkt area, where Het Fort Van Sjakoo still stands today. It was to be demolished, replaced by a continuation of the four-lane highway coming from Wibautstraat, with its large office blocks on either side of the road. The goal of urban development in 1968 was to build large office buildings and an extensive subway system, a transformation indicating a reduction of living units and a shift in land use away from housing. Meanwhile, Amsterdam was suffering from housing shortage, despite the many empty buildings lining up through the city center due to speculation. The plans to demolish the Nieuwmarktbuurt, in the process evicting hundreds of people, was, unsurprisingly, not met with a lot of enthusiasm. The residents of the threatened Nieuwmarkt neighborhood organized themselves in neighborhood groups. At the same time, the emerging practice of squatting, of claiming an empty building as your living space, transformed from an individual response to the social problem of housing into a social and political movement, an act of public protest. It was in the late 1960s that squatting became to be known as ‘kraken’ in Dutch, as ‘cracking’ open a door, a wall, but also, making visible cracks in the system and their plans of urban development. A practice of living an autonomous life, of envisioning a more livable city. In Nieuwmarktbuurt, the neighborhood groups and different squatting collectives worked closely together, protesting against the idea of making the inner city only a place for work. Het Fort Van Sjakoo was one of the late squats when it was established in 1975, by a group of local activists. Although, by then, it had already been decided that the construction of the highway would not take place, in 1974 plans for the metro line were being finalized. And that was enough to mobilize people. For the metro 51, parts of the neighborhood would be demolished, and people evicted, most to the outskirts of the city. Battles erupted in the streets against evictions, the ‘Nieuwmarkt riots’ of 1975. Simultaneously, due to the remnants of evictions, the empty houses, numerous squats formed, among them Het Fort Van Sjakoo.

Asking one of the current volunteers working there, Jeroen, about why exactly the squatters decided to turn the place into a bookshop, he replied: ”The people who started it, it was mainly people who were active in the Nieuwmarkt and Waterlooplein area against the whole ‘office-zation’ (...) Some of the people who started the bookstore were really involved in the ‘Actiegroup Nieuwmarkt’. They had contacts with groups in other countries, like in Germany, or in Denmark, France or England. They exchanged a lot of information mutually, but then they thought: We are getting a lot of information from esewhere which sticks with us, but it would be good if we could spread this information and make it available for other people.” And so, two years after the original squatting of the building, in 1977, Het Fort Van Sjakoo turned into a space where people could spread information without a profit motive. The realization of this idea was further supported by a former distributor of anarchist books who came into contact with the people from the squat: Wanting to quit his distribution work, he donated numerous books to them. And so, a political squat in Nieuwmarktbuurt, envisioning an alternative Amsterdam, turned into something real, a physical manifestation of resistance to gentrification of the city: Het Fort Van Sjakoo.

Over the years, the bookstore, supported by a community of social organizers, squatters, and regular people, grew. But Amsterdam also developed and changed, as gentrification, touristification, and urban modernization dominated the city’s plans. In the 1970s and 1980s, squats popped up all over the city, an attempt to struggle against this transformation of Amsterdam. In 1982, the existence of more than 5000 squats in Amsterdam prevented the construction of numerous posh housing projects and rescued a lot of social housing from demolition. The remnants of these turbulent and radical times are splattered all over, from OT301 to Vrankrijk to Het Fort Van Sjakoo. But these are extraordinary cases, the few cultural and communal spaces who managed to get legalized. As Jeroen bluntly states, “most of the squats did not get legalized, but evicted.”

But even such a legalization is not the ultimate win against forces of urban modernization, as the bookstore’s history shows. When Het Fort Van Sjakoo was legalized in 1988, the volunteers rented the place at a very low level. While it is hard to imagine cheap spaces so near the city center now, back then the neighborhood was in shambles. At the end of the 1990s though, most housing corporations in Amsterdam were privatized, including the housing corporation of the municipality. What is a private housing corporation supposed to do with a communal and cultural and activist space in the ‘prime location’ of Waterlooplein?

Expectedly, the housing corporation that owned Het Fort Van Sjakoo in those days wanted to raise the rent, from around 500 to 3500 €. “And we said, forget it, we are not going to do that. It’s completely insane, they hadn’t done anything for the maintenance of the building in the meantime. All the renovations had been done by us (...) We tried to get in touch with them, but they didn’t want to talk to us. It was ‘you accept it, or you leave’. So we started to mobilize; there was a lot of action and support. An occupation of their offices took place: people took away papers from there and informed hundreds and hundreds of other renters that they were also on the list to have a dramatic rent raise. We really became a pain in the ass for them”, Jeroen tells the story with an ironic smile as he talks about the fight the small bookstore put up. A court case followed, resulting in a judge’s ruling no side was really happy with. The rent increase could not be as high, 'only' four times higher, but what guarantees were there that in five years, another rent raise wouldn’t follow?

“For us, it wasn’t a victory yet. (...) How can we get out of this Catch-22 situation?” The volunteers began to envision the at first crazy, and then slowly more and more feasible idea of owning the bookstore, the cultural space, the knowledge hub. When they approached the housing corporation, they were genuinely surprised at their willingness to sell the property to them: “They wanted to get rid of us, they were really fed up with us (…) So they decided, to our surprise, that they wanted to sell, and not even at the market price. So they offered it to us for sale, and we knew what we had to do.” And so, Het Fort Van Sjakoo mobilized its community contacts, and building on the publicity it had gained fighting against the rent increase, fundraised the money needed to buy. Within a few months, they managed to raise the entire amount and bought the place in 2004. Since then, the character of the bookstore has not changed much. According to the volunteers, “we are still supporting the same struggle, we are still spreading the same kind of information, we are still supporting people who are in the same situation as we were.”

Most of the books you find at Het Fort Van Sjakoo, be it from their environmental, black studies, or women’s section, are still not books you’ll find anywhere else. The books and publications sold are picked out by the volunteers themselves and discussed in fortnightly meetings, and the discussions are not about what sells and what doesn’t. The discussions are about: What ideas, what books are we already presenting, and is there a different perspective we should give a platform to? But not only books serve as information transmitters; in addition to selling publications in at least five different languages, Het Fort Van Sjakoo is also a place for autonomous creativity. People make their own stuff themselves, stuff meaning zines, books, patches, buttons, posters, and they come into the space to find a place for what they have created. Those expressions of creativity and ideas are definitely not something present in other bookstores, because they take up space.

Valuable space that could be used for commercial books, for profit generating literature. When asking Jeroen how gentrification has affected the bookstore (even though it is much more than that), gentrification meaning the tourists and the offices and rising house prices and expensive hipster cafes and the privatization of social housing in Amsterdam, he characterizes Het Fort Van Sjakoo as a kind of counter force to ongoing development. On the first glance around the store, this becomes obvious: there is a whole bookshelf dedicated to gentrification. On the second glance, gentrification is deeply interlinked with the space: its entire existence has been and is deeply ingrained in a movement, a dynamic flow against gentrification. Het Fort Van Sjakoo is an alternative vision for Amsterdam, much more than an anarchist bookstore. It is simultaneously a politicized and political space. Political in the sense of ideas, not ideology. This is an independent, non-hierarchical bookstore, not a communist one, as Jeroen points out. How does society work, the economy, sex and race relations? So where does the name come from?

Fort Van Sjakoo is a local expression, indicating a chaotic and unorganized situation. Going somewhere and it looks like an amassed mess. But the squatters founding this bookstore not only chose the name in reference to the first few days of the space's existence when there were not even bookshelves, and the physical cluster of ideas spread all over it, but also because of its close ties to the Robin Hood like myth of Jakob Müller (Sjakoo in Dutch). This double significance, of referring to a social bandit from Amsterdam as well as being an expression for an unorganized place, seems to perfectly match the store, in all its aspects and history. And its aspects leave much to be explored and thought about. How do alternative visions for Amsterdam manifest themselves in the city?

A big thank you to Het Fort van Sjakoo for an intriguing interview. Photocredits to PanDam.

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