I stumbled upon the Ruigoord artist colony one grey spring morning in Amsterdam, after the colony had held one of its famous trance music parties in the church on its spacious green property. Contrary to what one might imagine a hippy community would look like on an after-party Sunday when the sun is barely shining through the trees, the community was alight with activity. After having been told by people living in the area that this was one of the last vestiges of Amsterdam’s truly alternative scene (It was only my second time visiting the city, but this time, no longer being in my late teens/early 20s, the red light district with its array of coffee shops for smoking marijuana and the lines of windows with prostitutes showing off their wares was far less fascinating, and the groups of drunken American and English tourists far more repulsive), I decided to take a bus out there and do some exploring.
The bus to Ruigoord is only about a half a hour’s ride outside of the city centre, and leaves you at a small, nearly abandoned looking bus stop with a sign indicating Ruigoord. If it hadn’t been for the bus driver’s instructions I may have missed it altogether. In fact, the landscape surrounding Ruigoord is hardly what one would expect for an oasis of free spirited artists and lovers of the land. The area surrounding Ruiggord is completely industrialized. Passing the startlingly large number of chemical plants and oil silos that dominate the landscape, my travel companion and I joked that “wouldn’t it be funny if our destination was smack in the middle of all of this”, until the bus stopped and we realized…It was!
After leaving the bus and looking around confused as to where to go next, we crossed the train track directly behind the bus stop, noticing a scattering of small houses, a horse grazing and a little girl emerging from the bushes to caress the horse. When we got closer, however, we realized we were in the right place. Smack bang in the middle of a clearing between the Amsterdam harbour, a Starbucks warehouse and industrial windmills is the Ruigoord artist community.
Ruigoord was squatted back in 1973 (squatting wasn’t made illegal in the Netherlands until 2010) by a group of artists hoping to set up a community there that would combine art with everyday life. Since a property becomes legally yours after having squatted it for 10 years or more, Ruigoord is now legalized and the proud possession of its original occupants. The place has a definite homey feeling about it, and one can’t help but wonder if many of the people who frequent the community haven’t been there since the 70s. While we were told that there were around 50 people living on the property, in an array of small houses, VW buses and RV camper vans, there were far more than 50 people visiting the place that Sunday morning. Many of the people there were obvious regulars, greeting each other warmly and sometimes even sporting Ruigoord sweatshirts and t-shirts.
We wandered into the church, with the large pagan pentagram in the stained glass window on top, and I was pleased to see a tight knit community of families and people of all ages gathered around tables drinking beer, coffee and juice and chatting away incessantly. Inside the church is a bar where you can buy drinks of all kinds at a reasonable price, and on this occasion the bar staff even provided what appeared to be a homemade lunch. Folk artists and jam bands were taking turns on the stage providing the Sunday afternoon crowd with a bit of entertainment. Children and elderly danced together in front of the stage. Inside the church children ran to and fro ordering their juice and water at the bar with the air of confidence of someone who has been coming here all his life. Dogs barked, old men debated near the small library in the corner and a woman sang and played the guitar underneath the decorations from last night’s party. It was a lovely communal Sunday gathering.
After spending some time in the church we wandered around looking at all the little houses and art projects littered around the property. Some of the houses looked like homes, while others had been made into art galleries. We even found an area where a group of clowns was putting on a performance and a film crew was documenting their activities. We wandered up just as the show ended and the clowns jumped into a massive van and drove away waving and smiling (I believe this may have been a performance by the Amsterdam Balloon company, which is established in Ruigoord). We also found a house with a small community of very friendly chickens and turkeys. I couldn’t help but think that if it weren’t for the oil rigs at the nearby Amsterdam harbour in the not so far distance, this would be a great place to grow up.
After wandering around the property we decided to join the last group of people still partying on after last night’s trance music extravaganza. For those who wanted to continue the party well into Sunday afternoon someone had set up some speakers that blasted trance music, and a small group had gathered around sitting on what appeared to be brightly coloured bails of hay. A fire had been lit to keep out, despite it being early April, the still chilly weather.
People were sitting and talking while others practiced their hoola hooping and fire poi skills. We entered into a conversation with a man who claimed to have been visiting the property for the last 18 years. Despite the fact that many of the people there seemed to know each other, people were open and friendly and eager to talk to the foreign strangers. Almost all passers by greeted us with at least a smile. While the majority of people appeared to be Dutch, people were happy to speak English with whatever visitors weren’t familiar with the language, and we were far from being the only foreign visitors to the community.
According to the people we spoke with at Ruigoord, the companies that had bought and “developed” the land surrounding the property, together with the Amsterdam harbour, had made offers to buy the property from the official owners. The community, however, had refused to give in to corporate interest and stayed on the land as the only remaining oasis from capitalist greed in the area. The land surrounding Ruigoord was once a paradise of green fields and trees. Now the only trees left are the ones on the property still owned by Ruigoord.
Instead of giving in to the wishes of Amsterdam harbour to completely develop the area, in 1999 the community presented a plan to transform the area from a residential one into an artist’s workplace. In 2000 the plan was approved by the city council and many of the residential buildings were transformed into workshops, galleries and studios. The property is perfect for both indoor and outdoor festivals, which take place regularly.
The Ruigoord community, aside from offering a safe space for community members and neighbours to spend time outside of the overwhelming and excessive tourist industry of Amsterdam city, provides a wide array of cultural events, classes and community activities. Their website (which can be found at the beginning of this blog under social centres) is also very well developed, demonstrating a dedication to maintaining the schedule of cultural events and a desire to inform and invite members of the public. All of the events are virtually free and include trance dance, African drumming workshops, Summer solstice gatherings, experimental theatre, poetry and music festivals just to name a few. It’s definitely worth taking a look at their website to see the wide repertoire of activities and resident artists, and if you are close enough, making the journey over to see them. I know I will definitely try to make it to one of their many festivals this summer and see what this beautiful community has to offer on days other than Sunday!
Some of my pictures (I don’t claim to be a photographer!) of Ruigoord can be found on my flickr page if you’d like an idea of the place… http://www.flickr.com/photos/50435020@N08/sets/72157629747714175/