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Good Public Space is Created by the People – Amsterdam’s Javastraat

The morning sun shines bright on a mid-April day as the Dutch seemingly come out of hibernation. It is the first warm sunny day of the year in Amsterdam, where the usual lack of light makes sunny days a solid reason for collective excitement . Large crowds of people of all ages roam the streets, going out to parks and enjoying the much missed sun.

As I walk through the familiar streets leading from the City Centre towards Oost, I notice a homely environment along the canals, and the freshly emerging greens along the sidewalks. I walk with purpose, as I know that there are few places where the liveliness of early summer is as visible as in the area around Javastraat and Dappermarkt – here, a unique sort of buzz emerges: the arguably chaotic yet charming atmosphere of a busy ethnic enclave.

Such a place is of course only unique compared to most other areas in Amsterdam, but by no means a global novelty. Any major city has one–if not multiple–of these historic neighbourhoods in which groups of migrants come together to build homes, businesses, and most importantly communities. Think of the many Chinatowns, Little Italys, K-Towns, and J-Towns spread across metropolitan areas all around the world.

As a Turkish migrant myself, these neighbourhoods mean a lot to me. The Turkish-majority Keupstrasse in Cologne (lovingly dubbed Little Istanbul by my family), for example, has always evoked feelings of belonging and home in me and my relatives. Despite a distance of about 35 kilometres from our home, we turned to this little avenue for all our grocery needs. Whenever we needed haircuts, we drove there to visit our favourite Turkish barber. And whenever we wanted to go out to eat, our restaurants of choice were usually there.

Javastraat is no different – it is in this feeling of community and collective reminiscence of our homelands where the meaning of ethnic enclaves lies. In the many “Javastraats” around the world, migrants of different backgrounds come together to share cultural resources, provide access to products from their homes and offer support in a foreign country.

View of Amsterdam Javastraat in 1908. Photo Credit: J. Vlieger (Retrieved from Wikimedia.)

As I walk down the street, people from all walks of life are visible. I see a mom inspecting tomatoes at the fruit stands outside of a supermarket, followed by a little boy running around, climbing on bike racks and playing with anything he gets his hands on. They will surely move towards the nearby Bazaar next. A young couple passes by, aiming to catch one of the few empty seats outside a cafe. In a hurry, a teenager runs towards the bakery, where the wonderful smell of freshly baked Pide, the traditional Turkish flatbread, overwhelms the senses. To his dismay, a long line of other Muslim residents preparing to break today’s fast has formed already.

Spread along the streets, I see the occasional group of retired Turkish and Moroccan men sitting in their own stools outside of various shops. Not for any purpose in particular, but because they prefer to sit among their peers in public space, attracted by the liveliness of this street, rather than spending their days at home.

Around 70% of our public space is reserved for streets, but all these activities give the street a purpose beyond mobility only – they turn public streets, public spaces, into a human expression of culture, of community and of leisure. They facilitate a jacobsian atmosphere of safety, where human eyes on the street become an ever-present watchdog over what happens in the area. The watchful eyes of the neighbourhood aunties or uncles prevent a child from misbehaving as much as a deviant from breaking any laws.

The community makes the street their own through practices like loitering–existing outside for long periods of time with no apparent purpose. While these are arguably borderline strange activities in other parts of the city, especially when there is a lack of public seating, its normality in Javastraat transforms the street into a place to ‘hang out’ and loiter solely through the zest of the people.

‘You see a lot of the same people every week and you really start getting to know everyone,' a stand owner at the nearby Bazaar says, ‘It is a warm environment.’

Dappermarkt Bazaar near Javastraat, 2022. Photo Credit: A. Kiraz

It is remarkable how such an environment can be created from the ground up, with little support from governmental actors and urban planning facilities. In fact, according to some locals, planners concerned about the Javastraat-Dappermarkt area devote much more attention to newer, mostly non-immigrant shop owners, and the available public facilities merely include parking spaces, bike racks and the occasional circular bench.

‘You know, new Horeca is given priority by the municipality these days. They get to use the space in front of their cafes and restaurants for chairs and tables, while I am not even allowed to put up a sign outside.’, long-time local business owner Recep claims.

Some careful investment into expanding these amenities could do wonders in supporting these communities and creating even better public space; in Amsterdam and any other place of similar characteristics.

Good Public Space goes beyond its design–it is what people make of it. In ethnic enclaves, people know to make the most out of minimal interventionism, as evidenced by Javastraat. Through its liveliness, the people’s charm and ingenuity, and the presence of eyes on the sidewalk, the area transforms from a regular migrant-majority neighbourhood into a place of community and congregation.

View of Amsterdam Javastraat in 2022. Photo Credit: A. Kiraz



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