It is the allure of drugs, the Red Light District and tulips at Keukenhof gardens that draws most tourists to Amsterdam. However, Keukenhof is open to the public for just three months; from March to May. In addition, the Amsterdam City Council has in the past four years undertaken an ambitious clean-up of the city’s sleazy image under Project 1012; which has seen many windows of the Red Light district shut down and coffee shops rehabilitated in favor of restaurants, art galleries, delicatessens and fashion stores. This renaissance of the capital, should by no means be reason to keep visitors away. There are many other parts of the city that should be explored.
Amsterdam Bijlmer is one of these areas. It doesn’t have a glorious name as many Amsterdammers would testify, often being associated with criminal activities. When I lived there, it was not unusual to hear random gun shots at any hour of the night. It was not strange to see someone’s belongings put out in full view of the public, by the debt collection agencies. Drug-related disputes were often resolved by shoot-outs between the warring parties. Police drug-busts to the high apartment blocks after anonymous tip-offs; would end tragically as men attempting to escape the law, would try to scale across to the neighbour’s and inadvertently lose their footing and fall many stories below.
It is a place where women would be assaulted; sometimes stabbed, or beaten senseless by crazy or jealous boyfriends. With all these occurrences, it was quite common to see policemen patrolling the area in their cars, or on bicycles, in efforts to protect the community from itself. When they didn’t patrol, they positioned themselves; stopping cars and people, performing frisk searches and pat-downs for guns, knives or other weapons. Living in Amsterdam Bijlmer required one to have sheer chutzpah.
There were some positives among the negatives. Bijlmer is easily accessible; with a good metro network, buses and even clandestine taxis known as snoda that charge 2.50 euro to drop you right at your door-step. Bijlmer is a place where the different ethnicities not only understand the challenges that face them, but unite and help each other. I have come up with five good reasons to visit Amsterdam Bijlmer;
1) You feel at home: With a mix of 100,000 residents from 150 ethnic backgrounds; from the Carribbean, to Asian, to African, to a smattering of European, you will be forgiven for imagining you are in Accra, Parimaribo, Lagos, Vilnius or even New Delhi. In the streets of Bijlmermeer, greetings and conversation are normally carried out in languages such as Pidgin, Twi,Hindi, Ibo, Papiamento, Creole, Mandingo, Swahili and so forth. The stores, restaurants and street markets sell an array of exotic food and spices to tantalize every tastebud. The locals are a welcoming lot and it is easy to fit in.
2) The celebrations: If you are a party animal, or a pub crawler, you will appreciate Bijlmer. There are parties every other day. People often throw a feast to celebrate birthdays, weddings, summers, migration, thanksgivings, you name it. There is nothing like gate-crashing a party in Bijlmer, nor are the parties there ‘invitation-by-card-only’ events. Folks in the Bijlmer party big and loud. Drinks keep flowing and food seems to be in abundance. People often come in with two or more friends. While in many parts of the Netherlands, playing loud music into the wee hours of the morning will be frowned on, there seems to be an inherent understanding among residents of the Bijlmer, as people party on without neighbours calling the police to complain. As well, there are a good number of pubs and dance halls in Bijlmer.
3) Shopper’s paradise: Any shopaholic will love Bijlmer. The range of shops cater to every pocket, full or empty. The street markets are excellent for purchases of cheap knicknacks, handbags, clothes, suitcases, fresh foodstuff and so forth. For the high-end shoppers, there are several clothing stores, perfumeries, boutiques and so forth. There is a concentration of eateries around Amsterdamse Poort and the Anton De Komplein area if you get hungry.
4) Football: If you are a football fan, you will appreciate the Bijlmer. The modern Amsterdam ArenA, built from 1993 to 1996 and with a capacity of 51,628 seats, is home to the most successful football club in the Netherlands, Ajax. Ajax holds 33 Eredivisie titles and 18 KNVB Cups. Along with PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord, it is one of the country’s “big three” clubs that have dominated Dutch football, as well as being the only three clubs that have never been relegated from the top division. Nestled by the side of the stadium you can purchase memorabilia like T-shirts, cups, scarfs etc from the fan shop.
5) Festivals: The Bijlmer is host to many festivals all year round. The Amsterdam Jazz festival is coming up shortly, but most popular with the locals is the Kwaku festival; a traditional multicultural gathering focused on bringing people and cultures together for a vibrant combination of food, drink, dance and sport. Its origins lie in celebrating the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles on 1 July 1863, and its name is derived from a statue erected to commemorate the momentous event. The festival traditionally attracts around 300,000 visitors over the course of its five weekends, making it one of the biggest events on the Amsterdam calendar. One of the biggest draws of the event is its collection of street food vendors, with tasty treats from all over the world.