Entering the World of Fieldwork: first experiences at the NDSM Wharf in Amsterdam

By Zoë Oosterveld

Entering the field

The first day in the field was nerve-wracking for me. Firstly, because this was my first time ever doing official fieldwork. Secondly, I was apprehensive about approaching people to ask them questions. I feared that there would be many people who would object to us interviewing them or consider our questions a waste of their time. However, I quickly realized that this was my anxiety filling me with unnecessary fear. I was relieved to conduct the fieldwork together with one of my group members, who, on our ferry ride to the NDSM Wharf in Amsterdam Noord, was just as nervous as I was. Because of our nerves, we decided to create an overview of the day ahead; first walk around the entire wharf area and then begin conducting interviews with whoever seemed “approachable”. It was a simple plan, but it supported us (mentally) through the entire day.

Although we had not yet settled on a research topic at this point of our research, our focus was on the discursive and sensory forms in which the gentrification process could be experienced at the NDSM Wharf. We believed our research was relevant for this particular place because it highlighted the tensions between the culture of the old inhabitants, i.e. craftsmanship, and the new inhabitants as a result of gentrification. In addition, we wanted to shed light on the character of the NDSM Wharf, as it had struck us as authentic, that is, unique by its very nature.

As we exited the ferry, we headed towards the left, or what my group members and I referred to as the “gentrification side”, and began our endeavor. On this side of the wharf were the newly constructed buildings – mainly living spaces, but also recently opened shops. Making our way along these buildings we noticed that there were hardly any people outside, as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown and the gloomy weather. Because of this, we could only hear the waves of the water, surges of the wind, beeping of the arriving ferries, and construction workers drilling and moving objects.

As we continued our way through the gentrification side, we both felt how chilling the weather was; our feet and hands were freezing, my group member’s legs were cold, and I was shivering. We were unfortunate with the COVID-19 restrictions; whereas otherwise we would have gone to a restaurant or a shop to get warm, now our only option was to grab a bite and eat outside.

Fieldwork-ing

Remember how I mentioned that my group member and I would look for “approachable” people for our first few interviews? Well, we took that literally. As we were making our way through the wharf, we formulated a list of individuals who we judged approachable or not. When we came across a middle aged man with his dog on the leash, we decided that this was the most approachable individual that we would find. We approached him, introduced ourselves and our research, and then began asking questions such as, “do you live around here?”, “what do you think of the wharf area?”, and “what do you think of the changes that are taking place, such as the new buildings and banning of graffiti in the new area?”. To our surprise he answered our questions with negative perceptions of the graffiti art, stating that if it were up to him he would have the graffiti removed. This came as a shock to us, because we entered the field with the conception that gentrification is something negative, and that usually inhabitants of a place attempt to make the forms of placemaking – the connections between people and the places they share – stay the same. In this case, that was street art. We expressed that we were surprised by his answers and thanked him for his insights. We were genuinely thankful, because it was conflicting with other perspectives, such as those of many other interlocutors we interviewed shortly thereafter, deepening our analysis and understanding on the topic of gentrification.

We continued our walk on the right side of the wharf, or what we referred to as the “old side,” as most of the buildings there remained untouched by construction workers and urban planners. I was mesmerized by the creativity we encountered, particularly by the unique manner in which artists situated their art pieces around the right side of the wharf.

After conducting interviews with several people, I felt a sense of pity, because I knew street art was the wharfs’ form of placemaking and that within a short amount of time all of it would get demolished. However, whereas I witnessed individuals expressing sadness at the idea of the graffiti art disappearing,  I also recognized the expansion and improvement of facilities. Whether through the events, museums, and displays, I hope that the essence of the wharf will remain.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, I really enjoyed conducting fieldwork. It was an exciting experience, since it pushed me out of my comfort zone and I got to learn a lot of different perspectives on the NDSM Wharf. Additionally, I got the opportunity to witness the process of gentrification, after learning about it in theory during my studies. The interviews opened my eyes to a positive glimpse of gentrification, such as an increase in ferry rides, supermarkets and restaurants, and improved facilities. On the downside of conducting fieldwork, I started to understand what anthropologists mean with “fieldwork fatigue”. It was the amalgamation of being in the cold, walking around the same place during a lockdown, and doing this multiple times that got to be tiring and frustrating. Nevertheless, I was grateful to have my group member with me so that we could share our thoughts, analyze our findings, and walk around together.

Zoë Oosterveld is a bachelor student at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She also took the photos accompanying this post.

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