Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city has sent a "socially disruptive" family to Zeeburger Island, an ex-industrial port zone monitored by a heavy police presence.
Amsterdam has found a new way to deal with families it considers socially disruptive—it’s sentencing them to live in the suburbs.
Following a long period of trouble with the police and neighbors, the city recently evicted the Dimitrov family from Amsterdam’s Noord district and sent them to basic accommodation on Zeeburger Island, a predominantly ex-industrial port zone in the area where the city meets the Ijmeer Lake. Housed in converted shipping containers monitored by a heavy police presence, the idea behind the move is that the family will bother their neighbors less if they don’t have any neighbors to bother.
The plan is part of a controversial, long-threatened scheme to create far-flung, socially isolated communities for the "antisocial," approvingly dubbed "scum villages" by rightist politician Geert Wilders, who suggested the best way to deal with disruptive citizens would be for the authorities to "put all the trash together." Intended to shield the law-abiding from public nuisance, the scheme intends to place the troublesome in a form of social quarantine until they’re dubbed to be sufficiently domesticated to return to their previous homes. Following the current trend for reusing shipping containers, these short-term digs are in effect an open form of pop-up prison. It’s a policy that has some previous form in the Netherlands, where in the 19th century officially designated problem families were resettled in what were then considered distant, sandy wastes near the German border.
Despite the ugly name the current policy has picked up, it’s rather less draconian than its 19th century predecessor. Zeeburger Island may be somewhat bleak, but with one of its corners benefiting from a tram connection that reaches central Amsterdam within 20 minutes, it’s hardly Devil’s Island either. The Dimitrov family’s crimes (denied by the family) haven't been listed explicitly in press coverage, but it’s perfectly conceivable that that their former neighbors are sighing with relief after finally being rid of daily disruption.
The plan has obvious flaws nonetheless. Families deemed "antisocial" almost invariably have a host of other problems, be it unemployment, incomplete education, social isolation, mental illness, or language difficulties. Even if families are difficult to live with – the Dimitrov’s son-in-law has argued that the family are being harassed only because they are Roma – tidying them away into distant metal boxes seems unlikely to make their behavior a thing of the past, provide them with a less antisocial way of living their lives, or create healthy neighborhoods in the places to which they are banished. More insidiously still, the plan has a divide and rule undertow, its naming, shaming and banishing implicitly suggesting that social problems in poorer areas are not connected to deprivation but will simply evaporate if a few bad apples are sifted out, publicly ostracized and sent away. The Netherlands is very likely to experience more high-profile transfers of families to similar container housing over the next year. The possibility of these moves promoting a sudden outburst of neighborliness and social order, however, seems rather unlikely.