The bold, red words jumped out at me as I sipped orange juice and waited for brunch to come, holding meaning I had yet to understand. This sign was one of the most fascinating things I saw in Amsterdam, as someone who thinks all the time about how cities change as they are transformed into global commodities.
Ik lust geen monocultuur (“I don’t like monoculture” in English—according to the artist, there is a double-meaning that is lost in translation), emblazoned across a Nutella jar, is especially fitting in this setting; behind the poster, smiling faces announce a forthcoming location of Pancakes Amsterdam, “Where the world is flat.” (FYI: this new location is next door to a delicious and reasonably-priced brunch place called Singel 404, where I was sipping said orange juice when I first saw the poster.)
It seems as if central Amsterdam, where tourists’ money flows freely, must have hit pancake and waffle saturation by now, but here comes another one. Van wie is de stad? (“who owns the city?”), the street art campaign behind the Nutella-monoculture poster, reminds us that Amsterdam is more than overpriced pancakes. In the words of Yuri Veerman, the artist of this poster and several others:
The poster critiques the rapid rise of cheese, ice-cream and Nutella shops in the centre of the city, shops that often sell mass produced products aimed tourists. These stores have become the symbol of a city that suffers from its own popularity, a city that is turning into an amusement park for tourists and a goldmine for investors, all the while more and more people are leaving the city because they can no longer find or afford a place to live.Yuri Veerman, Van wie is de stad?
Amsterdam is there for Airbnb
We want homes, not your money or rent
Amsterdam is not for sale
Our houses are built of stone, not of gold
An expensive city is a dead one
Where is our dear city?
The campaign identifies foreign tourism and Airbnb as causes of a rapidly rising cost of living that is displacing residents in favor of weekend visitors. Behind the catchy slogans and statistics, there is yearning for a loved and lived-in city that is slipping away.
I couldn’t help but put this information in the context of my knowledge of gentrification and displacement in Philadelphia. We typically think of gentrification of displacement of one group of residents by another; what does it mean when residents are displaced not by other residents but by groups of young people looking to enjoy themselves for a weekend in a beautiful, unique city?
Neil Smith’s definition of gentrification as a “back-to-the-city” movement of capital dissolves the apparent differences between the two cases: in both, rapid investment and capital accumulation have compromised people’s ability to inhabit the places they love. In Philadelphia, the changing social landscape is reflected in the changing physical landscape of neighborhoods like Brewerytown and Point Breeze. In Amsterdam, where quaint, canal-facing buildings are a significant part of the magnetism that drives the city’s tourist economy, physical consistency obscures social upheaval (Amsterdam is also protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which begs the questions: Who gets to decide what and where is worth preserving? What does it mean to “preserve” a city? For whom is it preserved?).
Focusing on capital rather than people reminds us that the real culprits here aren’t a group of guys in Amsterdam for a bachelor party or a young hipster family looking for homes in Philadelphia. These people’s individual-level decisions exist within a political-economic framework that turns destruction and displacement into profit.
That being said, individual-level decisions have the power to reinforce or to resist existing systems. When I saw the Nutella poster, I was eating brunch with a group of friends who’d converged in Amsterdam for a few days to have a good time and spend some money in pursuit of this good time. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, but we played our tiny part in the cycle that replaces family homes with Airbnb listings.
After finishing brunch, I walked over to the poster, snapped a photo, and looked up the website on my phone. I mentioned it to my friends, but our conversation moved on as we made our way toward the Van Gogh museum.
I don’t believe that the answer here is to stop visiting and exploring new places, but clearly something has to give. What could thoughtful and ethical tourism look like?