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Labeling the Schilderswijk

By Sophie Koolma Many labels are applied to Schilderswijk, a multicultural neighborhood in the city of The Hague. Slum, ‘problem area’, ghetto, disadvantaged, poor. These are all words which people use to describe this neighborhood. Schilderswijk’s young adults are confronted with this negative image of their neighborhood on a daily basis, while searching for an internship or a job, for example, or talking to co-workers. Some even hide the fact that they live in Schilderswijk because they are afraid of people judging them or their neighborhood.

However, this neighborhood is seen as warm and welcoming by most of its inhabitants. The young adults I interviewed stress that there is also a lot of positivity in the neighborhood and that they therefore experience a disconnect between how outsiders in the media or politics view the neighborhood and they view it themselves. They feel that their neighborhood is often misunderstood by outsiders.

I discovered a strong attachment and belonging to the neighborhood. Especially young inhabitants attach a strong sense of pride to their local squares. Each of these squares have nicknames for the people who hang out there. For example, the boys who hang out at the football court funded by the Johan Cruyff Foundation are called ‘the boys of Cruyff’. Their social lives predominantly take place at this square and they rarely go to other squares. Locals call these squares islands, because they form their social bubble wherein their social life mostly takes place.

At these squares or ‘islands’, these young adults grew up and formed friendships, but they also experienced bad incidents, often with local police. Even though the bond between local police and the residents has improved in the past ten to fifteen years, a lot of frustration and resentment remains among young residents who feel mistreated. Asking for their IDs for no reason, wrongfully accusing or arresting them, or making inappropriate and even discriminatory comments are examples of negative encounters with the police. This frustration builds up and has, in the past, led to violent confrontations between police and youth during riots.

Looking back on their childhood in the Schilderswijk, young inhabitants often express contradicting feelings. On the one hand, they have many sweet memories of their square and of endlessly playing with friends. On the other hand, many have witnessed shocking events, such as shootings, police chases, and finding used needles in playgrounds. Therefore, it is difficult to say whether they plan on living in the neighborhood when they move out and start their own family. Some want a greener and a safer environment with less social control in their future. Their departure could lead to a brain drain and some say there already is one.

Around 2000, the neighborhood experienced a white flight and many inhabitants thought this was a shame. Growing up around a plethora of ethnic groups paved the ground for a culture clash later in life when they go to university or college, for instance. One woman explained that she grew accustomed to all the foreign cultures growing in the Schilderswijk. But when she started college, she came in touch with white Dutch people for the first time, and she noticed that she knew very little about this group and vice versa. Therefore, some would like to live in a neighborhood where also white, Dutch people live. However, there are also many people who want to stay in the Schilderswijk. They feel a strong attachment to the neighborhood, but also a strong responsibility to help and solve the current problems there.

The municipality should be aware of the multiple disconnects described above when they create new policy plans for the Schilderswijk. Given the deep meaning these squares hold for young adults in Schilderswijk, the municipality should be careful not to disrupt these meaningful places with new building plans. As an outsider, it is easy to dismiss these squares as ordinary features of the city or neighbourhood, however, the local significance and meaning people assign to these places only becomes visible when one actually takes an effort to understand the neighborhood. Furthermore, addressing some of the social problems my respondents experienced (such as labor-market discrimination) may help making the neighborhood more attractive to live in. In this way, the current generation is less likely to leave the neighborhood for better housing. It would be a shame if talented and skilled inhabitants would leave the Schilderswijk, because it would be great if they can contribute to the future developments of their neighborhood.

Sophie Koolma is a master student of Social and Cultural Anthropology (VU), researching locality-production and media representation in the multicultural and somewhat infamous Schilderswijk neighborhood in The Hague.

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