Living in a City District

It had been in the bookcase for a while now, so this autumn it was about time to start reading it: ‘Afri’ by journalist Jutta Chorus about the Afrikaanderwijk in Rotterdam (The Netherlands). This district is for many the district of the multicultural market and the second generation of Turks and Moroccans that has gone astray. However, the book shows that a lot more, both positive and negative things, is happening in this migrant district.

Chorus lodged in the district for 18 months, and described the story of a couple of families that all get by and on in their own way by means of participating observation. The lived world described in great detail.

It is a book that fits in the new tradition of journalists lodging in districts for a longer period of time. Like the very amusing ‘Zwijgende portieken van de Haagse Schilderwijk’ and ‘Onze wijk’ on the working-class district De Graafsewijk in Den Bosch. The hardest part of this research method is always to bond enough with the interviewees to make sure they tell you just a little bit more, but at the same time you have to stay objective. Furthermore, it is always difficult to place anecdotes in a larger context, and to separate main issues from side-issues. Although Afri is a very interesting glimpse behind the scenes of this district and very readable, you can tell that Chorus occasionally stepped in these pitfalls. Especially towards the end the story gets a bit monotonous, and various family problems get the upper hand. Unfortunately, at that point it’s beginning to sound like a script of a soap opera. A true story, that has to be said.

On the other end, the first part uncovers some interesting processes.
In the first place, the acquaintance of an outsider with a focus district which does not seem to be her territory. And so you can read the tension and prejudices between the lines at the beginning. Slowly, you can see how the journalists become familiar with her surroundings and the inhabitants. Because of this, later on the story becomes more than just a description of a city safari (the publisher obviously never got that far considering the picture on the cover). Slowly, a realistic image of a district in which everyone is trying to survive is created.

The book also gives a good description of the youth culture, or rather the street culture, which is more important for the conventions that the culture from an ethnical viewpoint. Especially the tension between the youth, social workers and the police gives a recognizable picture of how all parties involved are trying by the skin of their teeth to keep the peace. With this, it provides a clear image of how complicated it is to have a good balance between on the one hand repression, punishment and on the other hand youth prevention efforts. Do you take the ‘language of the street’ as a starting point, or the ‘policy language’? How do you gain their confidence? By being a friend or a ‘teacher’? And at what time? Because the youth take on another shape for every situation (during the day or at night, alone or in a group, at home or outside). Different characteristics are shown in different situations, and this requires a different approach case by case.

Finally, the book contains some stories that put all the problems in a nice historical perspective. The current diversity and tensions between population groups has always been there. If you think that this is something recent, you will be disappointed. The Afrikaanderwijk, but also other districts, has always had a very useful function as a settlement location. From 1875 onwards, the rise of the industry caused a drift of impoverished farmers from Noord-Brabant and the islands of Zuid-Holland and Zeeland to the cities. This led to a lot of tension between the different religions and to a lot of confusion because of the different dialects. In the sixties and seventies, immigrants from Turkey and Morocco were for their part looking for cheap houses to reunite with their families. These groups also had their own language, culture and customs. And since a couple of years, the Bulgarians and Poles are causing a similar process. So history seems to be repeating itself. There has never been homogeneity.

All-in all a must for anyone who wants a more realistic image of the everyday life in a district, both on the street and behind the front door. However, it depends on the experiences of the reader himself/herself whether he or she is surprised, angry, confused, disappointed or confirmed in his or her view at the end of the book.

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