Recently, in the second week of January 2014, I was invited to a conference in South Rotterdam’s Afrikaanderwijk neighborhood called Freehouse: Radicalizing the Local. This “closing” conference marked both an end and a beginning in the lifecycle of a sweeping neighborhood-based artist project and community organization catalyzed by artist (and Rotterdam resident) Jeanne van Heeswijk. Though I didn’t know much about the Freehouse project initially (like most of Jeanne’s projects, it is complex, long-lived, experimental, and conceptualized and implemented by many collaborators), I have become very interested in what happens to a long-term community-engaged project when it ends. Does it pull up stakes completely, or does it leave something behind? What is its residue and the future of the changes it catalyzed? This conference had a compelling purpose that promised to address some of those questions; over three days, it would ceremonially “hand over” Freehouse to the community as it transitioned to the collectively-run Afrikaanderwijk Co-op.
The conference took place in an old pump house ‘t Gemaal (literally meaning Pumphouse) in the heart of South Rotterdam, directly across from the famed market in the center of the ethnically diverse and largely working-class Afrikaanderwijk. The pump house itself was the physical site that coalesced the Freehouse Foundation over the past year (though the organization has been running for many more), and was dubbed Het Wijkwaardenhuis, or “Neighborhood Store of Goods and Values.” The site also houses the Wijkkeuken van Zuid, “Neighborhood Kitchen of the South,” a vibrant community kitchen that catered the entire three-day conference event with some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted (a meld of Turkish delicacies and traditional Dutch kitchen fare), taunting participants with a sensory melody of wafting cooking smells as we sat listening to presentations.
The participants, strategies, methodologies, and history of Freehouse were present throughout and within the conference, and the project itself was experienced firsthand by its many international participants, but was never fully explained. It was only later that I pieced together a bit more of a timeline and history of the project that helped give context to what we experienced. In short, Stichting Freehouse (Stichting loosely meaning “foundation”), began in 1999 as a gathering of resources and neighborhood cultural assets to investigate a history of restrictive laws limiting the potential for economic vibrancy of the Afrikaanderwijk, despite its many multicultural businesses and attractive semi-weekly central market. Slowly, solutions were demonstrated by the neighborhood councils, partnerships formed, new economic opportunities explored, and connections created. These activities multiplied and expanded as the community became more and more involved in creating their own economies and organizations, and it became clear that Freehouse was no longer necessary as a centralizing catalyst.
Aptly, the first day focused on New Organizational Forms, and the second on New Economic Forms. Each day had a series of 4 speakers, 4 critical referents who responded to the presentations, and afternoon discussion workshops in small groups, scattered throughout neighborhood businesses that planned to become part of the newly forming Afrikaaderwijk Co-op. On the third day, a series of small conversations with conference attendees and Freehouse participants resulted in a ceremonial “handover” — business owners and workers in the neighborhood signed into existence the Afrikaanderwijk Co-op, an umbrella organization, as well as a Business Co-op and a Workers Co-op.
There is an incredible amount to discuss in this watershed event and barely enough time or space – first of all, to witness the complete transition of ownership in what began as a social practice project to its participants (without the continuing financial support of a cultural organization or the leadership role of an artist) is rare and special, and an instance I can compare to perhaps a couple of other examples in the past 20 years. A political project that radically and sustainably distributes power and responsibility horizontally (evidenced in the co-op structure) is also exceedingly rare in any field. This not to say that Freehouse never had any detractors, but its structure and distribution has insulated it to the frequent issues that plague more hierarchically organized non-profits or CDCs or LLCs. Rather than adopt the same structures that led to the economic oppression of its own community, it has actively sought new organizational forms and new economic infrastructures (hence the main topics of the convening). It is an interesting collection of activities, and though I am barely scratching the surface of its complexities in this post, I hope to return to some of these ideas and threads in future work. It was very educational, influential and exciting for me to be a part of this unique project, if only for a few days.
For more on Freehouse and the conference, check out the following links: