Indische Buurt’s Bubbling Treasure: How Javastraat Preserves its Diverse Community

By Franciszek Dziduch

Collage by Veronika Bejczy

Javastraat. Where do I begin? What can I write about the street located in the heart of Amsterdam Oost that will elucidate how special and unique it is? After all,  an entire book was written about Javastraat and a person spent 365 days without leaving it, making vlogs about the street everyday. I remember the first day I stepped foot there. Having freshly moved to Amsterdam, my steps felt more like clumsy crawls. Everything seemed so new, overwhelming, and holding a promise of new beginnings. Not knowing where to start, I was still searching — and Javastraat came with an answer. I was fascinated by Javastraat’s colours, its noise, and its crowd, how it glistened with excitement that awaited at every corner. The street moved like a pulsating wave towards me and I was ready to absorb it all at once. Day after day, I would explore the street better, which gave me the strength to venture further into the city — but still, whenever I return to Javastraat I feel like returning home

Soon, I would discover more and more about Javastraat’s treasures. I was delighted by the falafels of Tarbush and Tigris Eufrat; I enjoyed the cosiness of De Jonge Admiraal and the youthful friendliness of Bar Basquiat; I was mesmerised by the richness of local shops and the wondrous ingredients they offered. But most importantly, I was fascinated by the people: everyone was so different in their appearance, their manners, and yet so approachable; each seemed to hold a unique story that was ready to be explored. 

Eventually I became a part of the street myself: I started working at the restaurant Mitts, serving Middle Eastern-inspired cuisine. Spending most of my days on Javastraat, I noticed a sense of community I have not experienced before. Everyone knows each other and greets you when they pass by. If you say to a stranger that you work here too, they immediately become friendly and eager to talk about their experience of the street. Somehow, there is a feeling that there is something special about Javastraat, but it remains hard to pinpoint. So, I decided to investigate the street I cherish the most in Amsterdam.

Biking through Javastraat. Photo by Franciszek Dziduch

Javastraat is located in the Indische Buurt, the oldest part of the Zeeburg District. Zeeburg is mainly the home to young people and immigrants, the latter making up 55% of its 35’000 inhabitants. The Indische Buurt is known for its diversity. Its people from over 180 different countries speak over a hundred languages. The streets have their names after the former Dutch East Indies. Javastraat is no exception: it got its name in 1900 from the island of Java. 

To find out more about Javastraat, I needed to find a luminary. Who would know everything about the street, its people, the history and the secrets? Upon talking with some residents, the answer was clear: I had to schedule a meeting with Tim Doornewaard, the street’s manager since 2019. 

I met with Doornewaard at his workplace, De Meevaart: the community centre of the Indische Buurt. As it is described on De Meevaart’s website, it is the neighbourhood’s living room. It has eighteen rooms, half of them being free for the neighbourhood. Having been to De Meevart a couple of times, I always encountered the ground floor budding with people and lively conversations, often accompanied by lunch or a coffee. There even is a bar, where you can order a drink of your choice. Upon meeting Doornewaard, what stood out to me was his welcomeness—one could see that he treats De Meevaart as his second home. He made us some tea and soon led me to one of the rooms, which felt like a classroom, with white walls and u-shaped desks. He points at the space, and says: “If you have an idea, you can have the room.” 

Doornewaard has been living on Balistraat, parallel to Javastraat, for twenty years. Ever since, he has been socially active, volunteering in the neighbourhood. Since 2005 he has focused on the climate crisis and how to make Javastraat climate neutral. While investigating how to turn the street into a carbon-free environment, he found out that the municipality does not have any contact with the shop owners on the street. Soon after, the municipality offered him a position as street manager. His responsibilities are how to keep the Javastraat an attractive, clean, and safe space. He is the mediator between the shop owners and the municipality, with which he meets every four weeks to discuss new or empty shops, possible problems and what is being done to solve them.

What makes Javastraat special? Doornewaard believes it is because the street offers everything there is: “It’s a whole world in one street.” He judges that people do not only shop, but also meet here and sit in one of the many corners of the street, just for a chat. He describes Javastraat as diverse, dynamic, and social. “A lot of shop owners know their community, so they know how to address it,” he said.

Javastraat: Before and Today

Javastraat has not always been what it is today. For a long time, Amsterdammers considered it to be the dangerous street of Amsterdam Oost. Iris Clarkson, who lived on Javastraat for a year in 1998—just above the liquor store—remembers Javastraat as much more local. “Now, it is a famous part of Amsterdam. Back then, that was not the case,” she says. Not many students lived there at the time; it was more mixed and the crime rate was higher. “There were fights between different groups, more than once I saw the red and white tape, which forbade trespassing.” She even remembers seeing a dead body. Back then, she wouldn’t want to raise kids there. But above all, living there while being young, she stresses that she still felt safe and didn’t feel affected by the crimes. She loved the warmth and the cultural mix of the city.

Javastraat has undergone a great change over the last twenty years. In 1999, it was decided by the district council to improve the neighbourhood, with two thousand homes, previously owned by housing corporations, being sold to private individuals. As reported by NapNieuws, Javastraat was renovated in 2008 by the district council: the gray sidewalks tiles were replaced by rectangular, golden-yellow once, in an attempt to give the street a “Mediterranean appearance”. As explained by Doornewaard, gentrification played a big role in the development of the street. The first restaurant opened in 2008. Now, there’s twenty four of them. The new, luxuriously renovated apartments attracted people with more money. This affected the kind of shops being opened: before, there were a lot of shops where nobody knew how they made money and supposedly carried a black market. Now, “we have trendy shops for clothes, presents, plants, books,” Doornewaard enumerates. He judges it to be good for the rich people and for the general safety of the street, but worse for the poorer, original community of Javastraat: “They cannot find the way to find some other house in the area, because it’s getting so expensive.” People who are so present on Javastraat — immigrants, mostly Turkish and Moroccan — do not actually live on the street anymore.

Despite the ongoing gentrification, Javastraat preserved its local, multicultural spirit – mostly through grass-root activities. At De Meevaart, more than 40 social communities get together weekly for various projects regarding sustainability, mental health or helping the poorer members of the community. It is one of the biggest community centres in Amsterdam and entirely managed by the people who live in the neighbourhood. Although it is not a professional welfare, Doornewaard believes it actually works to De Meevaart’s advantage. “They have more contact with people and they can offer more, as they know what the community wants,” he said. In the entire neighbourhood, there are more than 500 hundred local initiatives for impoverished people, such as Dutch language classes, sports activities, or support systems for people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Another common initiative are free cookout events. One of them happens every Friday in Javastraat’s Etheltokerk – the street’s Protestant Church. 

Doornewaard remembers an example of the Javastraat community’s do-it-yourself actions that happened three years ago. The local municipality had prohibited the decoration of the street with Christmas lights, but since it was a long-standing tradition, Doornewaard began talking with the residents and the shop-owners, and ended up writing a letter to the municipality. “More than 300 apartments asked for the Christmas lights,” he remembers. Doornewaard believes that the action helped tighten the relationship between the shop owners and the people who live on the street. “The Indische Buurt is known for its sociability and solidarity,” Doornewaard concludes.

The Secrets of Javastraat

Becoming more commercialised, Javastraat still manages to hold interesting secrets: the building located on Javastraat 126 is home to fifteen artists who have their art studios there, while a building next to it, on Javastraat 128, is home only to musicians. Eva van Diepen has had her art studio in the building for over a year. The building used to be a school that was squatted in the nineties. Only then, it was reformed by the municipality as a home to artists. Diepen’s art is about migration, a theme she developed in 2014 after photographs of people on the boats trying to reach Europe went viral.

Van Diepen in her art studio. Photo by Franciszek Dziduch.

Through her art, she wants to make Europeans aware of these people’s condition. She also strives to expose a paradox: while Europeans have historically extracted from and abused the native lands of the migrants, they, in turn, are not welcome in Europe when their motherlands become inhospitable. When asked about her studio, Diepen admits that she had a lot of art studios in her life. This one, she says, is the best so far. The rent is not expensive and the contract is open-ended.

Aviv Noam is an Israeli student who has been living in the musicians’ building for three and a half years. The building is part of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, which rents the edifice to its students from the Jazz and Classical departments. Noam himself plays saxophone and flute. He loves living with the musicians. Especially during COVID-19 lockdown, he “had good friends to spend time with, a substitute for family.” During that time, the residents were inspired by viral videos from Italy of people interacting with each other from balconies and singing together. They decided to organise something similar for themselves and for the neighbours. It was easy to arrange — they distributed parts of the classical music sheet to different people for low, middle, and high register instruments, so everybody could participate. Some people performed from the balconies, others took their instruments out to the shared garden.

Noam, pictured in the garden outside his apartment. Photo by Franciszek Dziduch.

Upon reflecting on his life on Javastraat, Noam stresses that it is the cultural mix that makes the street magical. Although living an atheist lifestyle, being born Jewish and speaking Hebrew, Noam at first feared speaking out about his identity, as the street is known for a big Arab population and he was worried about possible hostile attitudes due to Israel’s politics regarding Palestine.  “But I soon grew to see it’s not the case in most interactions,” he says. Now, many people recognise him, know about his roots, but are still happy he participates in the street’s cultural life. Aviv thinks Javastraat is a street like no other. “It’s incomparable,” he says. He also stresses his worry about the ongoing gentrification. “Businesses stay, but the residents leave for poorer areas. The neighborhood can become false.” 

Celebrating Javastraat’s differences: the Diversity Mural

Still, there is hope for the original community to be preserved. People become aware of the beauty that diversity brings to Javastraat. An example of that is a big mural under the viaduct that marks the end of Javastraat and the beginning of Eerste Van Swindenstraat. The mural portrays people from different backgrounds, varying in races, gender expressions, age, and ability. Everyone holds colourful umbrellas and groups together to escape the rain. I remember the mural’s opening a few months ago, on 15 October. Passing by with my bike, I saw people dancing, playing live music and having a potluck dinner. Soon, I found out that the development of the mural was another product of the grassroot network of Javastraat’s community and that its significance is larger than I expected. 

The Diversity Mural. Courtesy of Tessa Gulpers.

The idea for making a statement that celebrates diversity budded in the time of COVID-19 in the mind of Tessa Gulpers, a geography teacher at a local school. In April 2020, a gay couple was called slurs and spat on, while walking through Molukenstraat and holding hands. A month later, the same couple was assaulted – again in Amsterdam Oost. Gulpers, who lived on Javastraat seven years ago, while now residing nearby, felt exasperated that such occurrences took place in her neighbourhood. “It was the time when everyone was isolated, you couldn’t do much. And then you get this news. It was just so upsetting,” she says. Being a teacher, she sees her students undergoing transitions or coming out as gay — she feared for them being raised in a neighbourhood where such violence takes place. “I wanted to do something positive, to show my neighbours that not everyone is discriminated against.”

So, Gulpers ordered twenty rainbow flags and asked her neighbours to hang them on their balconies. Everyone wanted to do it. “I didn’t really know my neighbours, but after we did it, we formed a bond,” she remembers. Gulpers’s actions sparked a movement: over the summer of 2020, more and more people started hanging rainbow flags across the neighbourhood, including Javastraat. But then, the flags started being egged and thrown fire rockets at. At that moment, Gulpers realized that hanging the rainbow flags was not enough and something bigger needed to be done. “Statements like this, for inclusion and diversity, should be not just because people are willing to do it, but so that other people can see it,” she says.

Gulpers’s activism resulted in her apartment building to be covered with rainbow flags. Courtesy of Tessa Gulpers.

Eventually, Gulpers met Wim Kerkhove, a puppeteer. Kerkhove has lived next to Javastraat for ten years now and has fought for diversity and inclusion since the early eighties. Angered by the violence towards LGBTQ+ people in the neighbourhood, he has been actively opposing it since 2018, writing letters to local politicians to tell them that the neighbourhood needs an artistic political stance. Gulpers and Kerkhoveformed a group with six motivated residents and decided to strive for an artistic monument committed to the diversity of the local inhabitants. For Gulpers, it was clear since the beginning that the site for the monument would be under the viaduct, as it links the two neighbourhoods Java and Dapper. “It is a connection between worlds, between differences and diversity,” she says.

Soon, the group managed to get approval and funding from the municipality of Oost. A project was announced and the organisation of Kunstmest was assigned by the municipality to find the right artist, who would be responsible for the artwork. Ultimately, the committee consisting of art professionals, stakeholders, and people living in the neighbourhood, chose Enzo Pérès-Labourdette. Gulpers liked Pérès-Labourdette’s idea for the mural from the start, as he had a personal relationship with the subject. Mette Samkalden, one of Kunstmest’s founders, explains that the project, which celebrates differences, was important for the artist, since he himself is part of the queer commuity and, during his studies in Groningen, has been a victim of anti-queer violence. She goes on saying that, after being selected for the assignment, Pérès-Labourdette talked with many locals and organised a potluck dinner, asking them what it means to live in Oost and to be different, and how they understand diversity and inclusion in the broadest sense. “He found out that many people were eager to stand up for each other, but sometimes were too afraid to,” she says. 

Pérès-Labourdette spent a lot of time under the viaduct, talking with people passing by. Once, when it rained, he noticed that many people gathered together under the tunnel to wait until it stopped. For the artist, it was the example of forming an unexpected community between the people who didn’t know each other. “In the artwork, he tried to combine all these things metaphorically: people hiding in the tunnel for a dry place, with flags having colours of different queer flags and people being different skin colours, shapes, styles, preferences,” Samkalden says. She continues to say that throughout the project, the artist found out how diverse Javastraat is in all senses. “It’s incredible how much of a community there is within this street that is so lively; it’s not just a shopping street, but a village within a city,” Samkalden says. 

Kerkhove (second from left), Pérès-Labourdette, and Gulpers (fourth and third from right), on the opening day of the mural. Courtesy of Tessa Gulpers.

Gulpers expresses happiness that the mural will stay there for a long time. “We can be proud of this,” she says. Gulpers asserts that one needs to believe in the power of art to bring change and start conversation in a different way. And the mural is already doing so — one of the unexpected results is a program undertaken by De Rode Loper, an organisation that creates educational programs for children in elementary schools. The program centers around the monument and consists of two days: the first day is about art and the meeting with Pérès-Labourdette, while the second is about diversity and inclusion. The children will see the mural and be asked to think about their own identity. Lastly, they will paint a symbolic pattern that, joined together, will form their own tableaux. “Art, music, and food are the best ways to bring people together,” Gulpers says, and adds: “This educational program can mean a lot to some children.”

When being asked about Javastraat, Gulpers and Kerkhove unanimously say that the street’s power lies in its differences. “It makes you feel more free to see so many differences, because why would you like to copy someone if everybody is different,” Gulpers says, while Kerkhove remarks that “from rich, to poor, to all around the world, this is really what makes it a nice part of the city.”

Javastraat. Picture by Franciszek Dziduch.

So, the next time you will be in the neighbourhood, park your bike and take a walk through Javastraat. Do some shopping, have a coffee or beer, eat a falafel or go to one of the restaurants serving food from all around the globe – who knows, maybe you will encounter another Javastraat’s secret hidden in its richness of people and their diversity. And don’t forget to finish your trip under the viaduct, enjoying the beauty of the mural that represents what is most magical about the street – its people.

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