Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Who are the Squatters? Mapping and documenting squatting in Leiden as a cross-over project between Public History and Academic Research

This project sets out to map, document and analyze instances of squatting in Leiden from 1970 to 1990, in order to set up an online Digital Archive of Squatting in Leiden. This archive will function as an online resource for academic research, as well as a starting point for public activities such as a historical walking tour through Leiden.

2016 - 2017
Bart van der Steen

Although the practice of squatting houses in the Netherlands is currently near-extinct, the word continues to evoke lively images of punk youths who confront (riot) police in spectacular conflicts over occupied houses and buildings. In fact, the image has become a staple in Dutch popular culture and even European cultural memory. In reality, however, the group of people who squatted was much more diverse.

The sociologist Nazima Kadir has recently criticized the exclusionary nature of the stereotype of the anarchist squatter – ‘usually represented as a thin, white man in his late teens or early twenties’ –, noting that it has not only informed the media, but also the focus of many researchers and even the agendas of many activists themselves. Researching the phenomenon of squatting in Leiden creates possibilities to both question and move beyond this image. As this project focuses not on (radical) squatter movements, but on the highly diverse multitude of people who took recourse to the act of squatting (alternative youths, political activists and working class families), the definition of squatting is challenged and broadened. 

An example of this is the family Van Gellecum, that tried to squat a house in a hofje owned by the protestant church. When the police arrived the same night to evict them, the father told the police that the family had nowhere to go, after which the police generally offered them a police cell to spend the night (they were explicitly not arrested). In the following days, mister Van Gellecum deliberately used the local media to pressure local institutions to provide him with a home, which eventually worked. ‘The police feel for us, every now and then they come by and chat with us – they even brought me a bottle of cider. I can stay up late and read.’ 

Focusing on these individual cases allows for this project to not only document the diversity of the squatter population, but also to analyze how perceptions and images of (decent) housing and housing activism changed, what caused these changes and what its effects were. This is done by taking newspaper articles as a starting point, to see what was reported on local squatting events and how they were represented in local news media.

The project is directed by Bart van der Steen and Peter Burger, but depends on the work of a group of six students who have worked in close cooperation with Bart van der Steen for over a year. It seeks to combine academic research by Leiden University staff members with the training of student volunteers and to further academic outreach by organizing activities for a broader public. The first phase of this project was successfully concluded in August 2016, when the Digital Map of Squatter Events in Leiden, 1970-1990 was finished. The information for this map was drawn from the recently digitized Leiden Newspaper Leidsch Dagblad.

In the coming year, we wish to establish a Digital Archive, which consists of an extended chronology of the main Leiden squatter events, digitized movement material (photos, pamphlets, newspapers) and egodocuments in the form of interviews and memoirs. The information in the Digital Archive will form the basis of a walking tour on the theme of squatting in the history of Leiden. Furthermore, it will form the basis of a scientific paper on the perceptions and experiences of squatters in Leiden. As a precursor to this, a paper on Leiden squatting in the 1970s will appear in the upcoming issue of Tijdschrift voor Stadsgeschiedenis.

The possibility of employing two Research Trainees would allow for a swift development of the Digital Archive. Even the help of one Research Trainee would already considerably benefit this ongoing project. The Research Trainees will help set up the website that will host the Digital Archive, finalize the extended chronology of squatter events in Leiden, digitize documents and assist in writing out and editing interviews. In doing so, the Research Trainees will play an important role in this project and develop both their research and organizational skills.

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