Saturday 19 August 2023

The Saga Continues


Yes, that day has finally come.

It's DAY TWO of the Amsterdam trip.

I know.  I never thought we'd get here either.  But here we are, on a quiet Monday morning, at Gaasperplas on the south east of the city, collecting the terminus of Line 53.  

A descent from the viaduct to the ticket hall, a pause for the sign pic, and then I was in amongst lush trees and winding pedestrian paths.  It was quiet and peaceful with nobody about and I merrily strolled away from the station, cheery and excited at another day out on the Metro.

The thing about being in a foreign city is: your perception filter is damaged.  If I was visiting, say, Moss Side underground station - well, first I'd be in a parallel universe where Manchester had an underground railway, and wouldn't that be a better world?  Anyway, I'd arrive at Moss Side with my guard up.  I'd be aware of its reputation and be ready for dangerous situations.

Here, I was totally without that protection.  I was wandering down these dark, overgrown pathways, round the back of city-built blocks of flats, and I was merrily thinking how nice it was.  Slowly, however, I began to realise that this wasn't quite the residential idyll I'd thought it was.  The entrances to the apartment blocks were that little bit over-secure, their glass reinforced with metal wire in case they were shattered.  The lights were solid and unattractive.  The archways from one side of the block to the other had been broken up with walls to create a zigzag, stopping people from driving vehicles or bikes through.  It was defensive architecture.

I was glad I had arrived so early in the morning.  One good thing about smackheads is they tend to have a lie in.  I ducked between two blocks to head for the Brasapark.  The scheme to put the motorway in a tunnel round Zuid station isn't the first time Amsterdam has done this.  The Gaaspedammerrtunnel was constructed to bury the A9, and opened in 2020.  That enabled the demolition of the viaducts that had previously carried the motorway and in their place a park was constructed, opening in 2022.

It's still very much a work in progress.  Since the Brasapark sits on top of the tunnel, it had to be carefully designed; the trees and plants have to be able to be watered, but at the same time, the rain needs to be drained away so it doesn't sit on the roof.  At the moment it's a lot of grasslands, rough, but a vast improvement over what was here before.  

As I crossed the Brasapark, following a desire path that cut between the curves of the cycle route, I became aware that the man I'd spotted as I turned into the park was getting closer.  He was scruffily dressed, a cigarette in his mouth, and a squat, ugly dog on a lead beside him.  It was a ball of brown muscle and teeth.  They'd been distant earlier, but now they were within ten metres of me.

Of course, it was just a man walking his dog.  Of course, he hadn't given even the tiniest thought to the nerdy fat guy up ahead of him.  But my paranoia flooded in, as I imagined being mauled by the dog, left for dead in the grasslands, dying here.  And, more importantly, never managing to complete the metro map.  After I crossed the canal I swung to the right, into a network of small houses and cul-de-sacs.  The man and his dog continued blithely on the footpath, uncaring, unbothered.

At Karspeldreef the road opened out into a wide boulevard with grass either side.  The shops told me I'd entered an immigrant area: stores to send money home, African homewares, hairdressers specialising in Black hair.  In the distance, the minarets of a mosque broke the sky above the metro viaduct.  Next to the mosque was a building site, with an information board telling me that it would soon be the home of a Pentecostal church.  I would very much like to watch the sitcom based around those mismatched neighbours.

Kraaiennest station used to be - let's say, unloved.  Along with the district around it there was a general feeling of abandonment and meanness.  There had been a shopping mall here, which was largely empty and a magnet for anti-social behaviour, while the station attracted undesirables and graffiti.  A large scale demolition programme saw the shopping centre go completely and the station rebuilt with an entirely new look.

The intention was to create a lantern under the viaduct, one that would glow at night as a beacon and also discourage loitering.  The architects did this by replacing the walls with delicate filigree patterns - not only extremely pretty, but also a right bugger to graffiti.  They also installed a high escalator hall to carry you up to the platforms - a real statement piece of drama.

It worked on all counts.  Kraaiennest stopped being a dangerous hole and became a place worth visiting.  The architects, Maccreanor Lavington, won an award from RIBA for the renewed building.  And I really enjoyed using it, which is surely the greatest prize of all.

The viaduct here is actually two viaducts, with each line getting its own supports either side of island platforms.  The architects did this deliberately so that the area underneath wouldn't be quite so dark and intimidating.

The next station, Ganzenhoef, also got a comprehensive rebuild in the early 21st century, though this was a bit more disastrous for the line as a whole.  Arriving at it, even from Kraaiennest, felt like a massive shift in the design - it was more like the stations at the top of the Nord-Zuidlijjn with an overarching glass roof covering both tracks.

It was, unfortunately, also extremely expensive.  The cost overruns were so significant that plans to rebuild the rest of the M53 in a similar style were abandoned; they'd get an overhaul a few years later that was nowhere near as dramatic (but actually more charming - we'll get to it).  

There's another huge escalator hall, although the use of glass and white metal makes it a lot less interesting than Kraaiennest.  This could be anywhere, really, any metro station built in the last few decades; if you told me this was Copenhagen or Dubai I'd believe you.  It lacked the quirkiness I'd seen in the other stations on the Metro.  

They'd demolished another precinct here, and in its place was a row of trim shops with flats above.  Again they were very much targeted towards the immigrant community of Amsterdam, with cafes offering foreign cuisines and grocery shops that spilled fresh produce out onto the street.  A mobile phone shop offered budget rates to call abroad.  The Dutch had colonies too, it wasn't just the British, though it must be said we were rather more committed to the idea.  They're also wrestling with immigration and their post-colonial legacy.

I had very few things I wanted specifically to see on this trip.  I certainly didn't have time for visits to the Rijksmuseum or - much as it called to me - the Heineken Experience.  I did, however, scoot over my routes on Google Maps, and sometimes something would catch my eye and call out to me as somewhere I wanted to see.  

It is, objectively, absolutely nothing special.  It's some flats.  That shape though, that angled question mark; I found it so fun and fascinating I knew I'd have to walk through it.  

Inside, you can't even tell it's a big hexagon of homes.  There's green space around you and the flats are distant - it's not an internal courtyard, where you can see the people in the block opposite and watch them doing their tea.  It wasn't grand or elaborate.  But I found it immensely pleasing, an interesting spot to stroll through, even if the builders putting up new LED lighting sort of ruined it by blocking off routes and dangling long cables from balconies.

Beyond was more parkland.  I was impressed; there seemed to be green spaces everywhere I went.  A colourful square of roughly metalled building was home to Elixir, a community restaurant that grew its own ingredients.  Unfortunately its days - and the days of that park I liked - were numbered, as it was destined to be a new neighbourhood called E-Buurt.  In fact, Elixir will close next month, though their website says they're hoping to find a new home.

Cranes on the horizon showed how the E-Buurt was close to encroaching; the area around Verrijn Stuartweg station was dominated by an apartment building under construction.  It makes sense to put new developments close to metro hubs, and I am pro- it happening all over.  Here though, I wondered about those working class homes, the places that had been sanctuary for people from across the world, and how long before they would be prettied up and gentrified and sold on.  I'd found it intimidating walking through the area round Gaasperplas, but at least it provided a home for people who might not be able to afford one elsewhere. How long until the Ogiri African Kitchen was quietly replaced by a Starbucks?

I think that's enough for now, don't you?  Four stations is plenty for one blog post.  I don't want to overwhelm you, or worse, bore you.

Who said "too late"?

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