A view from Kanaalstraat
  • photography
  • non-fiction

Utrecht, the Netherlands

For Sale: Multi-culture

by Bob Mollema

I know the Lombok district all too well. Sometimes I go there to do groceries and support the local businesses, sometimes I cycle through it or I visit someone who lives nearby. The district is known as a vibrant multicultural district. Some people call it small Turkey and others again small Greece. This sparkling atmosphere mainly takes place in, on and around the Kanaalstraat and brings many residents of Utrecht who live in the other districts.

Minem and I knew that plans were being made to transform Kanaalstraat in Lombok into a safer place for everyone. On the website (https://www.utrecht.nl/wonen-en-leven/wijken/wijk-west/wat-gebeurt-er-in-de-wijk/toekomstbeeld-kanaalstraat-en-damstraat/) of the municipality of Utrecht is there a header with a very poorly produced artist’s impression of the Kanaalstraat’s dream image. There are little to no cars, a strip of trees in the middle of the street, a very visible police officer, a woman wearing a hijab and people walking through the street with their groceries bags. In addition, it was also noticeable in this image some current signs of the shops were placed with a franchise looking shop like Coffee Company, a very tendency to invite hipster-like audiences. What is happening in this district?

It made us feel as if the municipality were brewing a multicultural concept, and try to put it on the market as a product, instead of really stimulate a multicultural neighbourhood. A kind of place where consumers can go and get the feeling of walking around in an unearthly world where everything is slightly different. After this day they will probably think; “That was a wonderful day! I’ve seen so many new things in my own city!”

Minem and I first walked up and down the Kanaalstraat. At the end of the street is a huge building that has been given a new function today, but I’ll get to that in a minute. We decided to take it easy and go in and out of shops. Each time we introduced ourselves and our project, we asked if they noticed any changes in the neighborhood or not. Some people sent us away immediately. Some became shy and showed through body language that it was not a nice subject for them to talk about. Some spoke out loud about the housing prices shooting through the ceiling, and that it is becoming unsafe on the street. How can it be that a neighborhood known as vibrant, fine and multicultural has become unsafe in recent years?

A view of a social housing block in Lombok
A view of a social housing block in Lombok

That unsafe aspect sparked something when I spoke to a shop owner. We came in and he was trying to run his business as he normally did, but he was stressed. He had been burgled last night. The whole window was broken, but they couldn’t have taken anything of value. It was the second time in a year for him. He indicated that on the night it happened, the police came briefly after informing them, but then immediately left again. The man in question was shocked and worried that the thieves would return, so he decided to hide in his car down the street from his shop until daybreak. Coincidentally, on that day we met him. He openly wondered what would happen if someone experienced this in the city center and then called the police. Would the police offer a helping hand?

We directly thought of the artist impression I told you about earlier and the story of this man. It almost felt like a demotivation on purpose. This man, like many others before him, may want to leave the neighborhood. The plans of the municipality seem to be getting closer. Fine for them!

Earlier I also told the end of the street where there is a huge building. This building first functioned as a library. A place where the residents came together and exchanged stories, or simply drank a cup of coffee. It is now sold to an entrepreneur who transformed the library into a true generic hipster-hotel palace. Perhaps his plan also fitted into the plan of the municipality. The walls are dripping with pink and apothecary green. A place where the cutlery is made of fake gold and where it smells like newly produced vintage tables, cushions and chairs. The complex’s old courtyard still gives a nod to its very first function; a monastery. Now prayers are here only to make money quickly and to transform the neighbourhood.

The prices for the hotel are approximately around 100-120 euros per night. That is too expensive for the people who live in the neighborhood. The terrace overlooks the neighborhood where you can enjoy the vibrant multicultural all day long. I imagine that the wealthy people who rent a room there and think wonderfully drink a flat white on the terrace: “What a good and frank person I am! I am not at all afraid of foreign cultures, I just dare to drink a flat white amid all these exotic specimens!”

Minem and I found out after several walks that most of the shop owners don’t live in the neighborhood (for many reasons). Priceless. They often rent the basement to run a shop. In the evening they all go to surrounding villages such as Ijsselstein or Nieuwegein. So Lombok is not that multicultural at all. It is the idea of a multicultural environment that commodifies and transforms diversity into an illusion. This product can be used to generate more money. Because the people who come to the hotel now have more to spend than most people in the district. As a result, surrounding shops and coffee shops can also demand more money, making life more expensive for the original residents. Together with the unsafe feeling, housing going skyrocket high, and a project like a hipster hotel therefore can demotivate some people.

Shot during our field trip in Lombok
Shot during our field trip in Lombok

So we decided to create a dystopian future in our Utrecht story, where Lombok turned into a dystopian open-air museum. In this museum, after buying their ticket, people can enjoy all the exotic people,shows,activities and products they encounter and marvel at the multi-culture. We exaggerate the aspect of ‘commodifying multi-culture’ to make it clear that this will be a very pale picture of the future.

The original blogpost was created on the 30th of March 2020, as part of reflections on our research for the graphic novel.