On a former shipping wharf in greater Amsterdam, a pair of giggling blonde girls are not following the rules. They run wild over the old industrial estate grounds, clambering over a truckbed in the sunlight, reading a dinosaur book on the floor in the middle of a techno concert at night. Some people call ADM a vegan squat, but you can’t call these happy little girls squatters. They were born here. This is a village.
The oldest child born here is already 18. Last weekend, ADM celebrated its birthday with the annual ADM Festival, Amsterdam’s Burning Man. Burning Man is an annual arts festival in the Nevada desert. Participants construct an entire city in the sand, and take it all down like a theater set at the end of the festival. But unlike Burning Man’s ethereal summer experiment in Black Rock City that regularly draws over 50,000 participants, the radical life experiment that is ADM doesn’t disappear after a week. The kindred places and festivals share, however, the core message that you don’t have to be so obedient all the time. Another world is possible.
Indeed, that world used to be closer to mainstream — for the world’s first city of sin. Just a generation ago, Amsterdam was a squat city. Then, authorities realized they could make money criminalizing individual squatters while taking over abandoned buildings themselves. Five years after a sea change in Dutch squatting law, the city is down from five-figure squatters in the 1980s, to less than two dozen squats today. Riots followed the criminalization of Dutch squatting culture, but the state won the battle. By their very nature, squatters tend to lack the organization and goal orientation necessary to beat a concerted state power grab. Squatting is a celebration of decentralized power and the creative magic of unplanned play.
The first wave of ADM squatters arrived after the Amsterdam Drydock Company declared bankruptcy and abandoned the old ship-building site in 1985. Today’s residents are part of the second wave. By their lights, they moved in legally under a recently changed Dutch squatting law that provided for legal occupancy in a place that hadn’t been used for a year. But instead of taking an abandoned house, office building, or warehouse like squatters normally do, they took a whole former industrial estate. The property has a beautiful waterfront with houseboats bobbing, wooded areas with rainbow wildflowers, and wide, open spaces ideal for building big fires, mutant vehicles, and friendship.
There’s one exception to the openness. When the second wave of ADMers took occupancy, they sent a letter to the city instructing anyone who had a problem with that to take it up with their lawyers. Dutch pawnbroker and real estate dealer Bertus “Bulldozer” Lüske had other ideas.
Considering the property his despite its long-term lack of use and Dutch squatting law, he broke onto the settlement with a 90-ton excavator and attempted to demolish a main building in 1998. A former resident who was up for an unusually early pee came back to find a chunk of concrete in his bed. Lüske was convicted of attempted murder — and given 40 hours of community service. Lüske died in 2003. Today, the ADM building he tried destroying houses a vibrant bar and “volks kitchen” that feeds hundreds for free during the festival. A big “Refugees Welcome” sign adorns a window. The walls are hand-painted with multi-colored brushstrokes. Visitors enjoy free WiFi and exchange of ideas.
This type of bounded yet open space has always been the bulwark of freedom and innovation in Western liberal democracies. French salons and Scottish clubs nurtured the French and Scottish Enlightenments. Physical spaces shelter most social ecosystems. Subcultures such as Dutch squatting are social ecosystems that in turn shelter some of the longer tails of statistical distributions of traits like creativity and openness to experience. Society as we know it would collapse if everyone lived in these tails, but we all benefit from the diversity of their existence. Even if you hate the dissenting opinions they tend to nurture, as J.S. Mill noted, silencing dissent harms the whole human race.
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
— J.S. Mill, “On Liberty”
Criminalizing squatting is a structural way of silencing dissent. Conversely, appreciating and supporting experimental communities like ADM is a structural way of celebrating that diversity. Will Spoor was one example of societal benefit from ADM’s existence. A widely known and loved actor, mime, and street theater organizer, Spoor recently died at 86, the oldest ADM resident.
Increasingly rare places like ADM give some of society’s most creative thinkers an out. These physical spaces and social ecosystems free artists, activists, and avant-garde intellectuals from the fear of making rent and the boundaries of normal jobs and families, enabling them to play their role as culture makers, rebels, and keepers of endangered flames. “When the world is running down,” the people already living happily on the fringes of social acceptability know how to make the best of what’s still around. Protecting them protects society.
The children running happily in the woods don’t think of this, don’t think of the rules they’re not following, don’t think of how most adults have been busy working on the urgent — rent, jobs, marriages — while the window for addressing global climate change to save civilization as we know it slowly closes. They’re kind and gentle, tussling and chattering in the sun and moonlight. Love shines out of their faces like a promise of a better future. I feel it, and I’m grateful.