Bud McGrath

Paradoxes of War

December 27, 2015

According to Freud if we keep track of our dreams over time eventually a pattern emerges that tells us important truths about ourselves. The same may be true about the conscious stories we tell repeatedly about ourselves to ourselves and to others. Since serving in Viet Nam as an artillery officer I have told a number of stories about my experience there. I never thought much about any pattern that emerged from these stories that have rattled around in my memory for the past forty-five years until my anxiety about writing them for this collection provoked a particularly violent dream one night from which I awoke with the outline for this essay full blown in my head. Here are two of those stories.

vietnam mcgregor 2

At the right is McGrath.

One night during the 1968 Tet offensive Viet Cong sappers blew up piles of ammunition at the Long Binh, the largest U.S. supply depot in Viet Nam. One of the sappers caught, rumor has it, worked at the Long Binh officer’s club as a barber. Daily he had a razor to the throats of generals. That we hired to work in our base camps during the day the people we fought against at night was one of the strange features of this war. It also may be why Viet Cong intelligence often was better than U.S. military intelligence.

Another night I was the OIC of one of the sectors of the perimeter guard at Bear Cat, where my unit was stationed. Between the perimeter berm and the jungle was a cleared area of more than a hundred yards planted with mines and barbed wire. At one point in the early morning hours we heard an explosion in one of the adjacent sectors followed by rifle, machine gun, and grenades coming from our perimeter guards. Within minutes artillery began dropping into the area of the initial explosion; then helicopters and an AC-47 gunship poured fire into the area. Before the incident was over B52 bombers diverted from targets in North Viet Nam dropped their thunderous loads in the jungle just beyond the cleared area. Then all was quiet. When dawn broke a patrol went out to investigate. All they found in the area of the initial explosion was a well-mutilated monkey. Apparently the initial explosion came from the grenade launcher of one of our own soldiers who had fired without permission at a sound he heard in the open area.

During my tour in Viet Nam I saw no indication whatsoever of any kind of progress, military or political. In fact, we devastated the country and impeded its progress into the modern world for more than a decade.

McGrath 3

A South Vietnamese soldier rests his eyes at a lonely outpost northeast of Kontum, 1974 (AP Photo/Nick Ut).

In my research as an English professor I read an enlightening essay by British film scholar John Hill, who points out that in most American films violence typically is the solution to social and personal problems, while in British and European films violence is usually the problem that destroys societies, families, and individuals.1 (James Bond films muddy his thesis a bit, but one could argue that Hollywood is as much responsible for James Bond as the British.) We still live in a culture where World War II, with its clear sense of accomplishment and its clear division between the good guys and the bad guys, constructs our paradigm for war, a war made for Hollywood and John Wayne. This paradigm has been reproduced by Hollywood over and over, not only in war films but also in westerns and in the action films that have replaced them, where the solitary hero who lives on the edge of normal society preserves that society through acts of violence.

All the wars since World War II–Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan—have not shaken the Hollywood paradigm. To be sure, there have been some counter narratives, but the Hollywood paradigm still persists; the dream factory rolls out one violent solution after another. Europeans, who have experienced the destruction of modern warfare, are much more reluctant to go to war than Americans, who have been fortunate that no modern war has been conducted on their own territory. Perhaps that is why we can still conceive of violence as the solution to problems rather than the problem to be solved.

1. John Hill, “Images of Violence,” Cinema and Ireland eds. Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill, (London: Routledge, 1988), 147-193.

This is the last post in our blog series ‘The War We Would Forget’. Also read JAI director Tracy Metz’s introduction (December 2), editor Phillip C. Schaefer’s introduction (December 4), the essay by veteran Jim Harris (December 7), the essay by veteran Glen Kendall (December 9), the essay by Karl F. Winkler (December 14), the essay by George J. Fesus (December 16), the essay by veteran Carl DuRei (December 18), the essay by James Laughlin (December 21), and the essay by John T. Lane (December 23).


‘Your Freedom or My Freedom?’ - By Mieke Bleeker


After a harrowing journey, the Pilgrims had finally reached the Promised Land and found their freedom. But what about the freedom of the people who were already there?

Land for grabs
The New England coast might have appeared abandoned at first. Earlier European visitors transmitted numerous diseases that ravaged the Native American communities. Between 1616 and 1619, ninety percent of the original inhabitants of the coastal region had either died or fled. Still, the Pilgrims were aware of native tribes inhabiting the land. But because the way the indigenous people lived was so foreign to them, they considered the land to be ‘unpeopled’ and unused. The Pilgrims took it as a sign from God: the land was theirs to take.

Mutual interests
Still, based on mutual interests, the Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag people developed a relative friendly relationship at first. The Pilgrims were clueless on how to get the colony started. As almost half of the Mayflower passengers had died by the spring of 1621, they were in sore need of help. The Wampanoag on the other hand were looking for allies against other hostile native tribes. This agreement might have been the origin of the so-called first Thanksgiving celebration.

(Mis)representation of the 1st Thanksgiving, J.A. Brownscombe (1914)

Thanksgiving 1621
The popular story of the first harvest festival in 1621, with Pilgrims and Native Americans joyfully coming together to give thanks and share food, came to lead a life of its own. But the exact origin for the present-day feast is hard to pinpoint. Sources tell us of Thanksgiving celebrations in Virginia as early as 1619. But whatever the true nature of the 1621 edition (some say the Wampanoag joined primarily for diplomatic reasons), in 1637 Thanksgiving took on a whole different meaning.

The relationship between the Pilgrims and the native tribes had not been without conflict, but as the influx of colonists increased, so did the competition over land and trade. Confrontations became more frequent and more violent. In 1637, a series of incidents led an alliance of colonists (including some native tribes) to burn a village of the Pequot tribe, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. The ones who didn’t die in the fire were ambushed and shot. This became known as the Mystic Massacre.

‘Sweet Sacrifice’
As far as we know, the Pilgrims did not participate in the attack. Although the brutality of the attack rattled him, Governor and Pilgrim William Bradford seems to have been pleased with the outcome. In his History of Plimoth Plantation he writes: “The victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory.” Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded in 1628, proclaimed an official Day of Thanksgiving to commemorate the battle.

‘History of Plimoth Plantation’ by William Bradford

Day of Mourning
There would be more massacres and many wars. The American colonies expanded, while the native tribes were deprived of their land and their freedom. It would be oversimplified to directly blame the Pilgrims for the demise of the indigenous people, but they did play their part. It is therefore not surprising that the Native Americans of New England chose to regard Thanksgiving Day as a Day of Mourning instead.

The ultimate price
The National Day of Mourning originated in 1970 when Wampanoag leader Wamsutta was invited to make a speech in Plymouth on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s arrival. But when the organization found out that he intended to use his speech to address the tragic fate of the native tribes, they did not let him speak. So instead, he and his supporters gathered elsewhere. While overlooking Plymouth Harbor and the Mayflower replica, Wamsutta gave his original speech. This would become the location of a yearly manifestation honoring native ancestors and the struggles of native peoples to survive today. In the end, it was they who paid the ultimate price for other people’s freedom.

National Day of Mourning Plaque, Plymouth


This was the last blog of the blog series ‘The Pilgrim Fathers: The Price of Liberty’. Click here for part one and two.

The exhibition ‘Pilgrims to America – and the Limits of Freedom’ is part of Leiden400, a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. It highlights not only the story of the Pilgrims but the cultures and places they came into contact with as well. ‘First Americans’ at Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden showcases contemporary indigenous lives, art and politics in North America.

‘Do I Stay or Do I Go?’ - By Mieke Bleeker

Even though the Pilgrims believed strongly in God’s providence, this question must have weighed heavy on their minds. What would it be like on the other side of the ocean? Would they survive the crossing? Could they afford it? In the end, only about fifty of the three hundred people who made up the Pilgrim community in Leiden in 1620 left for the New World.

Design by Northern Light

Getting a land grant from the English King was the easy part. In 1619 they received permission from King James I to settle in Virginia. Although he considered the Pilgrims to be traitors, having them as far away from England as possible was probably for the best.

The unconditional trust the Pilgrims had in God’s will did not always work in their favor. They got misled by the Merchant Adventurers, a group of investors who financed their trip. For the first seven years in the New World, the Pilgrims were supposed to work four days a week to pay off their debt. Two weekdays could be spent working for themselves. After this time period, they would be their own masters and the houses and the surrounding land would become theirs alone. But right before they left, the deal changed: four days of work for their investors turned into six, and after seven years, the Merchant Adventurers would remain part-owners of the houses the Pilgrims built. Apparently, liberty came with a price.

Monument De Vliet Leiden, the Pilgrims’ point of departure

Family separation
And the price for freedom kept rising. In order to save money, the Merchant Adventurers decided to make room for paying customers from England and also added a group of misfits the English were happy to get rid of. Less space meant the Pilgrims had to make some difficult choices: who should go? Who would stay? Families split up, the youngest and weakest were left behind. Most of them would never see each other again.

A rocky start
In July 1620, the Pilgrims left Leiden for Delfshaven, a small harbor near Rotterdam, where they boarded the Speedwell, the boat that was purchased to sail alongside the Mayflower to America. This scene is supposedly portrayed in a painting by Adam Willaerts. After arriving in Southampton, where the other passengers boarded, both the Speedwell and the Mayflower set sail, only to return to the English coast three days later. The Speedwell was leaking uncontrollably, which happened again after a second try. They had no choice but to abandon the ship and cram into the already packed Mayflower. Some travelers, including some of the Pilgrims, decided to abandon the ordeal and stay behind.

The Departure of the Pilgrims from Delfshaven, by Adam Willaerts

Myth of the Mayflower Compact
The ten-week trip was extremely uncomfortable. The delays, bad weather, and poor navigation caused the ship to arrive in winter time instead of summer and at the wrong place: on 11 November 1620, the Mayflower anchored near Cape Cod, Massachusetts instead of reaching the coast of Virginia. After a failed attempt to sail further south, they settled for what would become the coast of New England. The passengers other than the Pilgrims saw an opportunity to get out of the arrangements: “They would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them, since they would not be settling in the agreed-upon Virginia territory.” The Pilgrims feared the new colony was doomed if they did not stick together.

Enter the Mayflower Compact. This agreement, signed by 41 of the male passengers, settled the terms of self-government for the colony which basically held the group together. The document was – and still is – often cited as the first democratic experiment on American soil, and a precursor of the U.S. Constitution.

Text of the Mayflower Compact

But that’s a myth. The Pilgrims did not aspire to a democracy, they just did what was needed for their ‘holy experiment’ to succeed. As the Compact stated, everything was “for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.” Did the Compact inspire the writers of the Constitution? Perhaps. But free exercise of religion for all as laid out in the First Amendment? The Pilgrims would have been horrified.


Next week: How the indigenous people paid the price for the Pilgrims’ newly found freedom

The exhibition ‘Pilgrims to America – and the Limits of Freedom’ is part of Leiden400, a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. It highlights not only the story of the Pilgrims but the cultures and places they came into contact with as well. Part of the program is a city walk which leads visitors along sites connected to the Pilgrims, like the American Pilgrim Museum and the Pilgrim Fathers Monument De Vliet.

“Can I Be Who I Am?” - By Mieke Bleeker


Can I be who I am? It’s one of the questions the exhibition Pilgrims to America – And the Limits of Freedom presents to its visitors. If we could ask the strict, Puritan religious community in England in 1608 which we now know as the Pilgrim Fathers, they would probably have answered with a negative: no, they could not be who they were in the England of that time.

Design by Northern Light

Therefore, after clashing with the English State Church and the English King over their beliefs and in fear of persecution, roughly a hundred of them decided to pack their bags and head to the Dutch Republic. The city of Leiden, a fairly tolerant city for those days, had no objections taking the English refugees in. They were free to live, believe and worship as they saw fit, as long as they worked an honest job and would live in peace.

The Pilgrims settled down quietly in Leiden and lived mostly within the confines of their close-knit community. But God had bigger plans for them.

Heaven or hell
Their ultimate goal was to return to the ‘pure’ faith of the first Christians and rid the church of everything that had no literal basis in scripture. What set the Pilgrims apart from other Puritans, was their conviction that they had been divinely chosen to serve as a beacon for the salvation of humanity, predestined to create ‘one nation under God’. If Leiden turned out not to be the right place for this ‘holy experiment’, God would surely lead them somewhere else.

Geneva Bible as used by the Pilgrims

Their strict beliefs left little room for dissent: anyone who preferred different rules of faith was on his way to hell. The tolerance the Pilgrims sought for themselves in order to freely exercise their beliefs, did not extend to the outside world.

Fear of the other
Not surprisingly, then, one of the reasons why the Pilgrims decided to leave Leiden was fear of assimilation. City life came with all kinds of temptations, and after over a decade, it got harder and harder to stay on God’s righteous path and to maintain their ‘Englishness’. Over time, their journey over the Atlantic has become synonymous with the American urge for freedom, but disdain for how others lived their life should be part of the narrative too.

Devout 17th century couple praying,(anonymous, after J. de Gheyn)

Fear of war
But we have to be fair. The reasons for their desire to leave were manifold. Life in Leiden was tough. They worked hard for low wages, mostly in the textile industry. There was also a fear of war. After a twelve-year truce, the relationship between the Dutch Republic and the Spanish had gotten very tense, with dire implications for the degree of tolerance and freedom of expression.

Time to go
This becomes clear from what happened to William Brewster, a Pilgrim who printed anonymous publications criticizing the king of England. After pressure from the English, whose help the Dutch depended on in case of a new war with Spain, Brewster was arrested and his printing materials seized. This move had been unthinkable in the years before and showed the Pilgrims that their time in Leiden was coming to an end. After eleven years, they packed up and left again, paying the price for how they envisioned freedom.

William Brewster Alley, Leiden


Next week: The Pilgrims face a dilemma. Should they stay or should they go?

The exhibition ‘Pilgrims to America – and the Limits of Freedom’ is part of Leiden400, a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. It highlights not only the story of the Pilgrims but the cultures and places they came into contact with as well.
Part of the program is a city walk which leads visitors along sites connected to the Pilgrims, like the American Pilgrim Museum, De Pieterskerk and the place where William Brewster printed his pamphlets.


Rumblings Among the Dispossessed - By Sjors Roeters


Shelter in place, they ordered. Stay home, they said.

Tonight I have neighbors for a change. I’m new on the block. I parked my van next to a family along the Pacific Coast Highway, half an hour west of Los Angeles. The stuffed garbage bags outside their beat-up car indicate that they’ve been living here for a while.

I actually have dozens of neighbors tonight, because it’s quite a good spot. There are no “NO OVERNIGHT PARKING” signs, so it appears that car and van dwellers are relatively free from harassment by police and security. And of course there’s the luxury of a porta potti on a parking spot a few hundred feet away which, according to the schedule on the door, is supposed to get emptied and cleaned once a week.

Yet even adding the Californian sunshine, and seeing and hearing the waves of the Pacific crash onto Malibu beach, I can’t stave off the sadness that sweeps over me every time I see people forced to live in their cars and on the streets – an inescapable observation in my daily life as a foreign journalist living in a van in this country. Official numbers say that there are half a million unhoused in the US. According to other estimates it is more in the range of two million.

I’m fortunate I’m not forced to live in a van. I chose to because I planned to travel across the United States for a year to follow the Bernie Sanders campaign. Then came the pandemic and all events were cancelled. After Bernie dropped out, my gaze broadened further still.

Slowly making my way up north along the West Coast, I immerse myself in Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States. Zinn was an influential American historian and this is his most famous work. First published in 1980, it sold over a million copies and has seen many updated editions since. It is considered a classic because it provided a new take on American history, from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 to the 2000 election and the ‘War on Terrorism’. The phenomena the book highlights, such as rising inequality and militarization, have become only more pronounced over time.

During its rise as a global empire, the United States, “finding itself possessed of enormous wealth, could create the richest ruling class in history,” writes Zinn, “and still have enough for the middle classes to act as a buffer between the rich and the dispossessed.”

Homeless. Unhoused. Outdoorsy

The homeless, they’re often labeled. The unhoused, they’re occasionally termed. When asked, they sometimes refer to themselves as the outdoorsy. Like Allen, an outdoorsy guy I met on a parking lot in Las Vegas. With or without a pandemic, they don’t have a home to stay safe in.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been living on the streets of the richest country in the history of the world for years. They end up in the streets for all kinds of reasons. Some because of mental illnesses and disabilities – eleven per cent of the unhoused are veterans – for which they can’t get help because they’re uninsured. As Theo Henderson, currently unhoused and residing in LA, tells in his podcast We The Unhoused: “I did not one day wake up and decide to live out on the street. I was working as an educator, and I had a diabetic coma. It happened at the most inopportune time, during the 2008 Great Recession.”

Many of the unhoused work full-time jobs, but still have to live in their cars or tents because they simply cannot afford to pay rent. The pre-pandemic ‘booming economy’ has caused rents to rise astronomically. Considering that at least twenty-two million people lost their job in the past four weeks, homelessness is bound to rise rapidly – unless people go on rent strike.

Data shows homeless communities and people of color are two to three times as likely to die from COVID-19. The middle and upper classes complain that life under lockdown is horrendous, that they want to go to bars, restaurants and shopping malls again. Meanwhile images from New York City show the working class, predominantly black and brown, crammed into subways during rush hour (not even six inches apart), because the lowest-paid jobs, the cleaners and janitors and Wal-Mart employees, can’t be done remotely.

Are all men created equal?

All men are created equal, they wrote.

COVID-19 has prompted authorities to address the homelessness crisis that has been sweeping across the US for decades. One might applaud the efforts to house the unhoused in hotels. But for whose sake? And so by extension: for how long?

I’m not getting my hopes up. This country started out as a series of colonial business enterprises – not a noble democratic experiment, as is generally claimed. A highly stratified class society quickly developed. This balance of power in favor of wealthy elites was firmly established long before the American Revolution of 1776 took place and the Constitution was written. The Constitution merely institutionalized and consolidated the power of the economic and political elites.

“The Constitution was a compromise between slaveholding interests of the South and moneyed interests of the North,” Zinn explains. It solidified the injustice and systemic violence already pervasive in the empire. “Four groups were not represented in the Constitutional Convention: slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property. And so the Constitution did not reflect the interests of those groups,” Zinn points out. But now everyone can vote, right? Zinn: “If some people had great wealth and great influence; if they had the land, the money, the newspapers, the church, the educational system – how could voting, however broad, cut into such power?”

Millions across the country are concluding that it is not enough to rely on the electoral component of democracy. People are rising up. In California calls for rent and debt strikes are becoming louder and louder. In Los Angeles people are demanding “Homes not hotels”. Since the start of the pandemic, dozens of unhoused families have taken over state-owned houses that have long stood vacant, and more continue to do so every single day.

Families reclaiming vacant state-owned homes in LA

Workplace strikes, rent strikes, debt strikes: throughout history, strikes were one of the only ways the working class and dispossessed have ever been able to gain political power and drive societal progress. This pandemic has made very clear that it is the working class that creates value in the economy; when they don’t go to work, the economy collapses. And they’re becoming aware of their power. More and more strikes are hitting corporations across the country. On May 1, nationwide rent and workplace strikes are being organized.

Something’s rumbling among the dispossessed.



Sjors Roeters (1991) is a journalist focusing on the influence of economics and tech on society.

Dutch doctors in the epicenter in New York City - By Jaap Jan Boelens and Leontine van Elden


Every evening at seven o’clock we listen to the tens of thousands of New Yorkers cheering in support of all the healthcare workers and other essential workers in emergency rooms, outpatient clinics and nursing homes. Our kids are proud of us: “They are cheering for you too!”

When we moved to New York City in the summer of 2018, we didn’t really know what to expect – but we certainly did not anticipate this. As a family of two physicians and three daughters, we decided together to make the move to New York City, with two cats and a horse. We quickly felt at home here, with the wonderful people this vibrant and multicultural city has to offer. We feel the fear too, but it never crossed our minds to leave the city in its time of need.

Get to know the neighbors

Suddenly we are getting to know our neighbors, such as Ashlee who is a Juilliard alum and teaches music at Columbia University. Daughter Isis (15, tenth grade) and little sister Faye (7) are taking piano lessons, and their music drowns out the ambulance sirens outside. And Carolina, an NYU-student from Brazil who is stuck in Brooklyn without her family, takes the subway every day from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side to guide our youngest daughter Faye through her virtual schooling while we are at work. She is definitely one of those essential workers!

Merle, Faye and Isis

Disruption of our daily life

Our daily lives have been disrupted, not in the least for our daughters. Our eldest daughter Merle (a junior in high school), who loves her social life and misses her friends, bravely celebrated her eighteenth birthday solely with her nuclear family. She has emerged as a real chef, making breakfast for her little sister to keep her ‘healthy’ and preparing meals and lunches. Our cats are happier than ever, with people around all day giving them extra attention, and even horse Zoe gets ridden a couple times a week by a friend.

Seven-day shift at the Intensive Care Unit

Jaap Jan is normally responsible for managing the pediatric (bone marrow) transplantation and cellular therapy team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. We had to drastically change practice in only a couple of days. For example, the usually very frequent checkups in the main hospital weren’t possible anymore, but thanks to telemedicine we were able to do the checkups at the labs in the MSK regional centers.

Even though our hospital is a cancer center, we knew there would inevitably be a surge of COVID-19 patients. In New York hundreds of healthcare workers as well as hundreds of cancer patients contracted COVID-19.

The majority of the COVID patients admitted to our hospital had cancer. That brings an extra dimension to the treatment: what can we and can’t we do. Both of us worked to make sure that the impact on the already vulnerable (pediatric) cancer patients is as small as possible. The routine of going into a room, examining the patient and talking to the patient and the family has changed drastically: as you have seen in the media, we have to wear full protective PPE. This all takes a lot of extra time and makes contact also less personal.

Leontine just finished a seven-day shift at our Intensive Care Unit as a ‘critical care physician’, instead of her usual pulmonology practice. Although MSK is a cancer center and doesn’t have an emergency room, they have managed to create room for critically ill COVID patients. Some staff have been re-deployed to other departments. The pulmonary team Leontine normally works in, for example, is rotating in shifts.

The hospital has put a lot of effort into protecting its healthcare workers and there have been no shortages of protective material. Leontine did come home every day with stories about critically ill COVID-19 patients fighting for their lives, in complete isolation from their loved ones. But she was very much aware that the real “frontline healthcare workers” are out there.

Humble and blessed

People tell us: you are so brave, working “on the frontlines”, whilst we feel humble and salute all the helpers around us. We feel blessed to work in a highly specialized cancer care hospital where everybody is well-prepared. And above all, we are proud of our three cool kids who are handling this situation on top of a life-changing immigration just twenty months ago.


The Dutch doctors Jaap Jan Boelens (oncologist) and Leontine van Elden (pulmonologist) moved to New York City in 2018 with their three children Merle, Isis and Faye, plus two cats and horse Zoe. Jaap Jan and Leontine both work at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where for the past weeks they have been on the frontlines of the corona pandemic.

My Life as a Dog - By Leon Neyfakh


I had gotten pretty good about feeling lucky even before all this happened. But I’m now more conscious of my luck than ever, both in terms of the big picture – I am young, healthy, self-employed – as well as all the circumstantial reasons that have allowed me to experience the pandemic not as a catastrophe but as a novel interruption of my regular life.

My wife’s parents made it possible for us to leave our apartment building in Brooklyn and relocate to an empty house outside the city. We are “stuck” here with two of our closest friends and two cute dogs who don’t mind each other. The four of us spend our days doing work while sitting on couches; when we finish for the day, we take the dogs out to a field where they can run around, and in the evenings, we take turns cooking dinner. When it gets cold in the house, we can turn up the thermostat. There is literally nothing to complain about.

The biggest luxury might be that we have full control over what we know about the outside world, and how much information we’re exposed to about the suffering we’re being spared. We could fill each day reading about people who are sick and dying; doctors and hospital staff who are making impossible decisions on little to no sleep; workers and business-owners who don’t know how they’ll recover their losses or start earning money again. I do read about all those things, and I do empathize and donate and mourn and worry. But I do so from the comfort of my temporary home. And the fact is I could choose to ignore it all if I felt like it.

Having this discretion insulates me from reality to a degree that should be impossible. It is a form of extreme luck that a stronger, less selfish person might try to redistribute. But I have convinced myself, conveniently, that there’s little I could give up that would help anyone else. It makes me wonder how the people without my luck – the people with loved ones who have died, who are waiting in food lines, who are risking their own health by going out into the world to help others – would conceptualize the difference between us, if they didn’t have more urgent things to think about. I wouldn’t blame them for hating my guts.

After I finish writing this, I will take my dog outside to pee; then I’ll give him breakfast and pet him while he sleeps on a literal tuffet. My wife and I have had him for 5 years now, and on countless occasions, during moments of acute work-related stress, we have glanced over at him and thought, “You have no idea what’s going on, you’ve never had to do anything, and nothing bad has ever happened to you.” All true. Lucky dog.


Leon Neyfakh is an American podcast maker. He created the award-winning podcast series ‘Slow Burn’, about the Watergate scandal and the Lewinsky-affair. His podcast ‘Fiasco’ deals with the hotly contested 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush and the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration. Leon Neyfakh visited the John Adams to talk about storytelling in the digital age in 2019.

Quiet Spring in Rock Creek Park - By Bas Blokker


Every morning my editor calls from the Netherlands. We discuss what we think is happening in the United States, what we’ve read or seen, and what could be a topic for me to write about. He used to call from the Amsterdam office of the national daily NRC Handelsblad, a four-storied workspace in the old center of the city. The sound of coffee machines and colleagues in the background. Now the only sounds other than his voice, are the shrieks of his young children. He’s working from home. As millions and millions of people are doing. As I am in Washington DC. Trying to be a correspondent for the USA.

Once our deliberations are done, I get to work. Plenty to write about. And every day, somewhere between four and five o’clock, I put on my shoes and coat, and I go out. I walk, sometimes I ride my bike to some place where walking is nicer, unknown. That’s a new ritual.

A week ago, I went to New York to write a story about a city that has found itself in the heart of the pandemic. As I drove back home to Washington DC, I heard Dr. Anthony Fauci say during the daily White House press conference that people who had been in New York City and left for another place should self-quarantine for two weeks. Since then, my world has shrunk into the size of my house – but for the daily walks.

Car-less Sundays

Now I have to be careful to not trivialize the gravity of this epidemic. Every day stories, pictures and podcasts fill my ears and eyes with people getting sick, people suffocating and people dying. I’ve seen pictures of bodies being stacked in refrigerated trucks in New York because the morgues are overflowing. There cannot be a lighter side to this.

Still, every time I go outside to walk, I see other people doing the same. The sound of cars and busses has been replaced by the sounds of people talking, children laughing, bikers ringing their bell.

In the Netherlands some people have compared the corona-walks there to the 1973 oil crisis. Back then the oil-producing countries strangled the western countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war. The Dutch government proclaimed a ‘car-less’ Sunday for each month the oil embargo held. Kids skated on the highways.

Spike in gun sales

All differences aside, I see what they mean. There is a peacefulness to these walks that belies the severity of this crisis, apparently in the Netherlands just as it is in Washington. It could be that this feeling will fade as the weeks of ‘stopping the spread’ grow into months, which I think is inevitable. As food or other daily needs get more scarce, people might dig in and turn to some real aggressive hoarding. And if I am really trying to scare myself, I read about the huge spike in gun sales. (Not as high as the Obama-election spike, though. Apparently that was even scarier.)

Nietzsche? Or Conan the Barbarian?

But until that moment, let me enjoy this quiet spring in Rock Creek Park. A father throwing balls with his 9-year old son. A couple letting their toddler swing on the hanging branches of a tree. A lonely man (social distancing!) reading on a park bench. My neighbor’s piano playing has definitely improved these weeks.

There are a lot of caveats: domestic violence is bound to spike, some parents could go crazy because of the children being around all the time. My editor keeps warning me to take time off. He says people staying at home tend to lose track of their working hours, at the risk of burning out.

But I can’t help thinking that the people that don’t catch the Covid-19-virus, who don’t get sick at least, will be healthier because of the way of living these weeks. Less stress (maybe) and more walks (definitely). To quote Nietzsche: what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger. Or was it Conan the Barbarian who said that?


Bas Blokker is US Correspondent for NRC Media (NRC Handelsbald, NRC Next, nrc.nl). He lives in Washington DC.

Mieke Kirkels – The Oral History of the Black Liberators - By Jonathan Pieterse


There is one person who has done more than anyone else in the Netherlands to bring the stories of the Black Liberators into the light of day: Dutch oral historian Mieke Kirkels. She is the author of From Farmland to Soldiers Cemetery, From Alabama to Margraten and Children of Black Liberators. I interviewed her to hear how she discovered the suppressed history of the participation of African American soldiers during World War II.

Kirkels decided to interview Dutch farmers in the Margraten area for the National Project ‘Heritage of World War II: Eyewitness Accounts’, which started in 2008, to hear what the farmers thought of their farmland becoming a military cemetery. Kirkels’ story is filled with remarkable coincidences, such as this one: “In one of the first interviews an older woman told me: ‘I felt so sorry for those poor black guys.’ I had no idea what she was talking about: to me, the American liberators were white guys with their shiny boots, helmet and a big smile. But she was talking about black guys having to bury all those bodies! Many of the farmers I interviewed confirmed it.”

The revelation that African American soldiers were stationed in the Netherlands prompted Kirkels to try to incorporate them into her project about the cemetery at Margraten. However, by 2009 she had found so little information that she almost decided to continue without their stories. Then, out of the blue, she got an email from the United States. “It sounds like a coincidence, but to me it felt like fate: An American woman wrote to say she was so glad the website about the cemetery at Margraten was in English, since her neighbor had been a US Army captain in World War II.”

Dr. Wiggins

This neighbor, Captain Solms, turned out to have been in charge of a unit of African American soldiers who dug graves at Margraten. But he was white. Was he by any chance still in touch with any of those African American soldiers? The veterans’ organizations were whites-only back then. But Solms had met one of them two years before, and still had his phone number! His name was dr. Jefferson Wiggins from Connecticut, born in Alabama. Kirkels interviewed both dr. Wiggins and Captain Solms and in September 2009 they both came to Margraten to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Dutch province of Limburg.

Dr. Wiggins asked Kirkels to help him write his memoirs (From Alabama to Margraten, published in 2014) of his three years in the segregated US army during World War II. She was the only person he had met in the Netherlands who knew of the segregation. That ignorance was not limited to the Netherlands. Kirkels: “American journalists, accredited by the US Army to come to Europe, were forbidden to write about the African American soldiers.”

Children of Black Liberators

Another startling coincidence led to her next project, the book Children of Black Liberators (2017). “People could order the book From Alabama to Margraten and pick it up themselves. Suddenly there is this man of color standing in front of me. He took my hand and said: ‘I am so happy with your book, I have been searching for years in archives for black soldiers stationed here, because my father was one.’ His name was Huub Schepers. Eventually, about 25 children of African American soldiers reached out and 12 of them were willing to be interviewed. Through this project these ‘children of black liberators’ became like the family that some of them never had.”

Kirkels also interviewed pastor Matthew Southall Brown sr, a black veteran, by phone in 2016. Three years later in May 2019, he emailed her that he wanted to visit the cemetery at Margraten. The American embassy then invited him to represent the U.S. as a guest of honor at the official start of 75 years Freedom in the Netherlands. Pastor Brown was one of 7 veterans present at the commemoration – and the first guest to shake the king’s hand. “For me, it has now come full circle.”

Race code 2

Kirkels is now researching the African American soldiers who are buried at Margraten. Her colleague, researcher Sebastiaan Vonk, made a final list of 172 African Americans buried there. They were able to identiy them om the basis of the race code on the burial certificates: race code 2 were African Americans. Vonk is now leading a project in the United States to interview the relatives of those 172 soldiers, with the aim of telling the story of a group of soldiers who have been forgotten until now. Kirkels: “There are a couple of websites about American cemeteries, but they are just about white American soldiers. We want to give the African American soldiers of Margraten a face and tell their stories.”


For more stories about African American soldiers in the Netherlands and Mieke Kirkels’ research, visit https://blackliberators.nl. This is the final blog in our series on the Black Liberators. Click here to read the whole series.

Pictures © Martijn Beekman/Jean Pierre Geussens, Artwork © Brian Elstak

All In All We Be Blessed - By Michael Martin


After leaving the Netherlands ten years ago my family and I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where we still rent an old red-brick parsonage adjoining a Moravian church. Directly across our street is an elementary school and around the corner a middle school; within a couple of blocks you’ve got two more churches, a public pool and a few day-care centers. Weekends come and the school playground across the road turns into a neighborhood park; kids shoot hoop and dogs get walked and if you want to talk to someone you can talk. What a big slice of life just out the front door! But no more.

For awhile it’s been like I don’t know what it is we’re nowhere near the end of.

The churches were one of the first acts around town to get wise to the situation. After they shut down on account of the coronavirus everything else soon followed and now the neighborhood and the city is oh so quiet.

But boy are we fortunate. My wife can work from her home office and the boys are dialed into their school with something called ‘remote learning.’ They don’t seem to miss seeing their friends and I know they don’t miss their teachers. When I first thought about all of us being at home together day after day for god knows how long I think to myself, ‘Uh-oh.’ But some survival instinct seems to have kicked in for each of us. I make breakfast for the boys each morning. Never did that before. Christa bakes bread after that. We watch bad movies together at night. We’re taking polaroid pictures of apples and the dog. Hang ‘em on the fridge. The din from the nearby freeway is gone. No planes overhead. The birds seem louder. All in all we be blessed, even though the anxiety visitations come upon me from time to time — that bad worry about everyone I love.

Horses don’t like being alone either. It’s the herd thing. I was out riding the other day with a friend who has three horses stabled at her farm about an hour from our place. My friend rode the gelding and I took one of her mares while the other mare, Daisy, remained behind at the barn.

We steered Gigi and Elijah along the shoulder of a two-lane asphalt road. Even in these rural areas, everyone is laying low so only a few vehicles came up on us. As they slowly eased by each driver would wave and we would wave back.

“My dad loved his country because he could criticize it. It meant he cared”.

Horses spook easily when they’re away from what they’re used to – the scent of other critters, funny noises, those kind of things can get them edgy. If they sense a danger they might dash for home – with you or without you, makes no difference to them. But Gigi and Elijah were easy that day. The ride smooth and peaceful and as the morning rolled along for some reason I got to thinking about my father.

I got to thinking what my old man would make of the mess America is now. The Trump Virus and all. My dad had flown hundreds of missions in the Air Force in two wars. But he was no patriot. Didn’t own the Vietnam Vet hat. Would have scoffed if someone ‘thanked him for his service’. He was just a good pilot and liked the steady pay for being one. He loved his country because he could criticize it. It meant he cared. When he was alive he’d make his comments on the whole national circus without saying a word. He’d couch in front of the evening news and I’d be close to the old man, studying what he’d shake his head so incredulously at, when he’d take a deeper pull from his cigarette. I was working all that stuff in my head as we turned the horses around to head back to the farm.

“Gigi and Elijah picked up their gait, ready to canter back to their farm.”

It’s called ‘barn sour’ – the herd instinct. Gigi and Elijah picked up their gait right away, ready to trot, ready to canter back the long haul to their farm. To Daisy. We worked the reins and held the horses back and had we not they would have had their way with us and galloped home. As we rode along the mare and gelding heard Daisy braying from the barn and brayed back. And we weren’t even that close.

We rode the mare and gelding into my friend’s pasture. We unsaddled the horses and slipped the bridles off and carried it all away as the horses ran around. When I got to Daisy in her stall she was loathing it all like a tiger in a cage. I cornered her and slipped a harness and rope on her. Walked her toward the pasture. The closer we got the more I had to hold the mare back. The closer we got it felt she’d pull my arm off just to get into the pasture with her pals.


Michael Martin is the author of ‘Extended Remark: Poems from a Moravian Parking Lot’ (Portals Press). For decades his poetry has been published widely in literary magazines, including Poetry Ireland, the Moth, American Journal of Poetry, RHINO Poetry, New Orleans Review, Carolina Quarterly & Berkeley Poetry Review.

He co-founded the literary magazine Hogtown Creek Review and for a decade lived in the Netherlands, where he was a feature writer and contributing editor with Amsterdam Weekly. In 2010 he edited the anthology ‘Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing’ from Harper’s Magazine. He’s been a consulting editor for Lewis Lapham, Dutch film director Louis van Gasteren, poet Jack Butler and author Jim Bouton. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and boys.


False Reassurance - By Casper Thomas


Life under lockdown in Washington DC has quickly led to new habits. The daily late-afternoon walk ranks in the category ‘pleasant’. The Corona-crisis has turned parts of DC into what sometimes resembles a Southern European city: countless people just going around the neighbourhood, stopping for a chat. People on the streets instead of cars. This is one aspect that I hope remains after the days of quarantine are over.

There is of a course a local touch to this leisurely spectacle. Normally one of the most dressed-up cities in the US, DC now seems to wear little else but sports kit and ‘athleisure’ wear. If I were to make a Corona-investment, it would be in companies producing yoga pants. Until then, I try and spend money at local restaurants than are eerily empty now. Ben’s Chili Bowl – in business since 1958 – had a radio add calling on customers to do take out. I happily obliged.

Five o’clock is now competing with other moments of the day for the cocktail hour slot. ‘We have rediscovered daytime drinking’, a neighbour merrily announced. Being a foreign correspondent means 17:00 hours is Trump time. At that moment the White House holds its daily Corona-briefing. Like the daily sitcom, there is always anticipation about who will star today. The President himself of course is the lead character, and vice-president Pence is rarely absent. Around this core duo, there is a revolving cast of characters. Medical experts, military men and the president’s own family, to all of whom Trump grants the stage.

Will Anthony Fauci, the country’s top epidemiologist speak? Or will he only stand there, keeping a plain face, trying to not reveal his inner thoughts as the president of the United States touts unproven drug treatments for Corona and spreads misinformation. ‘We are doing a great job’. ‘We have this under control’. ‘I have great relations with the State governors’.

In the midst of the greatest health crisis the US has seen in a century, Trump deals in false reassurance. The registered death toll is nearing the 15.000 and expected to reach the 100.000 or beyond. New York City is considering mass burial sites in public parks. On Twitter, Trump taunts and insults State governors, who beg the federal government to supply more emergency ventilators and masks. As long as the Corona-crisis lasts, United is the last thing these States are.

On a recent occasion, The Corona-briefing featured Michael J. Lindell. From Minnesota and with an estimated net worth of $300 million, this businessman stood behind the lectern to explain what Americans should do now the virus spreads. The US was a nation ’that had turned its back on God’, Lindell Said. It was time to ‘go home and get back in the Word’.

The enormous reservoir of religiosity among Americans is, admittedly, one of the things I struggle with most to get my head around. Maybe it’s my personal conviction that faith, or non-belief, is best practiced in private – I consider a church congregation hovering between the public and the private sphere – and preferably not talked about. Lindell reminded me why. ‘God gave us the grace on November 8 2016 to change the course we were on’, he said. I consider politicians elected, not as divine gifts. When faith meets political power, the inexcusable becomes a priori pardoned. Trump has proven a case in point on numerous occasions.

Lindell is also an ‘inventor’ and the CEO of My Pillow, an online company dealing in, well, pillows. On its website, you can buy his book filled with entrepreneurial wisdom as well as a Mike Lindell bobble-head-figure. Perhaps this effigy will now be in higher demand, as Lindell has converted part of his production capacity to making facemasks. He had been invited by Trump to announce this generous act of supplying the nation in times of need. There was a question begged by this little spectacle of capitalist theocracy that America in a way has become. Why are facemasks, cheap and even less perishable than Twinkies, in such short supply in the US?

The Surgeon General recently reported critical shortages of all medical supplies. US hospitals report having to compete for stock amongst each other, often finding batches snatched away by a higher bidder. The Corona outbreak is considered a global health crisis. At the same time, it is a crisis of completely market-based healthcare systems that promise rewards for those who can turn scarcity into profit.

While writing the paragraph above, the name of one of the main proponents of an alternative health care system, pops up in my mailbox under the header ‘breaking news’. Bernie Sanders is quitting the primaries, making Joe Biden in all likelihood the Democratic nominee. Sanders’ free health care for all plan was one of the reasons many moderate Democrats were reluctant to pit him against Trump. Political history does not deal in ‘ifs’, but one wonders how the primaries would have played out if Corona had hit a few months earlier.

Still, health care persistently ranks as the number one topic of concern for American voters on either side of the political divide. Bernie throwing in the towel was a reminder that a presidential election waits at the end – or maybe in the midst – of this. US financial institutions operate on scenarios that the economy will not return to full normal until the summer of 2021. Events drawing large crowds, for instance, may be banned for a significant period of time. The mass rally is perhaps the most defining feature of US elections, and I was looking forward to reporting on them. Instead, I brace myself for more televised speeches. Not having a fired-up MAGA-crowd may turn out to be Trumps biggest problem that comes out of the Corona-crisis.


Casper Thomas is correspondent in Washington D.C. for Het Financieele Dagblad and editor of De Groene Amsterdammer.




Marga Altena – Bringing Color to Dutch History - By Jonathan Pieterse

Marga Altena wrote the text for the graphic novel Franklin – Een Nederlands Bevrijdingsverhaal (Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story). She is a cultural historian who publishes about class and ethnicity like the book A True History Full of Romance. Mixed Marriages and Ethnic Identity in Dutch Art, News Media and Popular Culture (1833-1955). The scenario for Franklin, her first non-fiction book, is based on her own research and studies like Cees van Kouwen’s Forgotten Liberators and Mieke Kirkels’ Children of Black Liberators. Marga is a project coordinator for Loving Day.nl, a platform for researchers and others interested in mixed race relationships and families in the Netherlands. As such, Loving Day facilitated and organized the Black Liberators project. Loving Day was named after the married couple Mildred and Richard Loving. You can watch the trailer for the movie based on their life.

How did Marga come to be interested in mixed-race couples and African American soldiers in World War II? “I was asked for this project because of my earlier work. For my PhD thesis, I studied how in the Netherlands about 1900, photos and films of female factory workers were employed by various producers to support very different political agendas. I discovered that there was a great likeness in the ways class and raciality were expressed. That’s why my thesis Visual Strategies was followed by my study of ethnicity in the Netherlands, resulting in the book A True History Full of Romance.

© Brian Elstak

An important storyline in Franklin is how Frances, the granddaughter of the African American soldier Franklin, decides to find out who her grandfather was. She visits archives and searches online, looking for hints of her past. Was this a way for Marga to incorporate her research methods into the story she was writing? “Yes indeed. It was a way to show how historians do research, but my main object was to write a scenario about African American soldiers that would interest a large and varied public. It helps that Franklin includes several generations. For young readers it can be difficult to relate to people who lived 75 years ago. For them, it is easier to sympathize with a protagonist who they can imagine to be their grandfather. I hope that Franklin shows that this history still affects people’s lives today.”

The Black Liberators have long been a forgotten part of Dutch history. Why? Marga speaks from her own experience: “In Dutch research and in society the topic of raciality has long been avoided. I was told that researching racial issues in the Netherlands meant risking my career.” This is still a problem: When the Dutch news organization NOS covered our NIOD exhibition, their website received 900 negative reactions within 5 days. Comments dismissed NIOD, a respectable organization, as “a left-wing grachtengordel institution’ and the exhibition organizers as “out to divide the Netherlands.” Other comments stated that we are “forcing diversity into Dutch history” when we aim to fill a void in historiography and do justice to the Black Liberators. As a researcher, Marga studies patterns in people’s expressions and in media representations. If patterns of exclusion keep repeating themselves and prove to have long histories, you cannot but conclude that that the Dutch still have a problem with racism today.

In Franklin the children of the Black Liberators are highlighted. They were included to do justice to these children, and to show how history influences peoples’ lives today. The children of the Black Liberators were very visible in Dutch society at that time and they were considered a disgrace. Often, these children were sent away from their mothers and put in foster homes and institutions. There they were mistreated and sexually abused to such an extent that many were traumatized for life. As adults, they could only feel safe with their spouses and children; the rest of the world felt hostile.

Black Liberators Exhibition

Finally, I asked Marga how Franklin and the Black Liberators exhibition have been received by the public. At the exhibition at NIOD, like at the Vrijheidsmuseum in Groesbeek and at Theater aan het Vrijthof in Maastricht, visitor reactions have been very positive. Some of the visitors were children of Black Liberators themselves and they felt recognized and seen. Other visitors are surprised to learn about the existence of black soldiers in the Netherlands. Some wish to make them more visible in Dutch history, saying: “Every Dutch person should know this story!” The book sales for Franklin started slowly but are now picking up. And even more now the book has been selected as one of The Best Book Designs. Marga hopes that before long, Franklin will become widely popular and turn into a textbook classic. 100 copies are donated to school libraries to ensure that the story remains accessible in the future. Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story is available at book shops, websites and through Rose Stories.

The first installment of our blog series was an interview with Brian Elstak, who created the art of Franklin. The second blog is an interview with NIOD researcher Kees Ribbens. The third blog is based on a talk by professor Gloria Wekker, about forgotten and suppressed history.

How We Live Now - By Russell Shorto


My wife and I both work from home. We live in a small town in the mountains of western Maryland, which is always quiet. So: not much change. Except that our 10 year old is no longer in school, and our 19 year old is back from his first year at university. Both of them are here with us, roaming around the house, settling in front of a computer to do some school work, then roaming again. Maybe what’s weirdest about that is that they’re both being so nice. We all are. Nobody is panicking or getting on each other’s nerves. I guess we all know there’s nowhere to go, so we don’t let ourselves slip into bitchiness or pouting, which would only spiral downward.

We go on long walks, together or in pairs or alone with the dog.

Of course we consume news fiendishly, including from friends and family, and report findings to whoever is in the same room. “Prince Charles has it.” “Is somebody taking care of your aunt?” Yesterday we learned that Pamela’s niece, a nurse in the neo-natal unit at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, was told they were running out of hospital masks so they should be prepared to bring bandannas to work. That is possibly the single most alarming thing I’ve heard to date.

It is impossible to overstate the hideousness of Trump, including the fact that a large majority of Republicans continue to see him as a credible human being, let alone as a credible leader. His hideousness has grown exponentially with all of this. The future will look back on the Republican Party in the United States at this moment as on a par with the very lowest depths of human thought and morality.

My mother is sheltering with my sister and her family, which is a relief: everyone in that household is working from home. My niece was on a plane last week and the man next to her was coughing; today she doesn’t feel well so everyone is wondering if she has it. A friend in New York told me yesterday he has been volunteering at a homeless shelter, which is noble and kind, but I worry about him getting the virus. He lives alone and has no family.

Every day more people tell me they are watching Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences as an antidote to Trump’s horror shows. Cuomo offers information and empathy. In the evenings he appears on his brother’s news show on CNN. Their mix of news with fraternal taunting is the first big TV hit of the coronavirus era.

At the start of all of this, I bought a jigsaw puzzle, figuring we would be stuck together and it would be a family project. Nobody has done more than fiddle with a few pieces. Maybe we’ll start on it in a week or two. It’s a painting of the facade of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris. I loved going there when I was in Paris in my early twenties, pretending that I’d just missed Ernest Hemingway paying a visit to Sylvia Beach.

Benji, the 19 year old, has become a body builder. When I told him he couldn’t go to the gym, he didn’t get angry but instead put together a homemade gym in the car port out back, then announced that he was going to provide customized training regimens for Pamela and Anthony. They’ve been doing their workouts, maybe more for his sake than theirs. So far I have been able to resist getting buff.

We all four eat dinner together every single night. They’ve been pretty great dinners, both the food and the conversation. Relaxed, roaming topics. The virus filters into the conversation, then gives way to another subject. Last night we were talking a lot about our apartment in Amsterdam, and the time one of the two cats — Simon — ran away. Simon never returned. Garfunkel continued living with us for years, then last year he got hit by a car. We wondered if maybe Simon was still out there, roaming Oud Zuid.


Russell Shorto is an American writer, historian and journalist, best known for his book on the Dutch origins of New York City, ‘The Island of the Center of the World’. He is also the author of ‘Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom’, which tells the story of the American Revolution through the eyes of six Americans from vastly different walks of life. Shorto is a former director of the John Adams Institute. He currently lives in Maryland. He is a senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

A Stage Set without Actors or Audience - By Brian Rose


As a photographer, the concept of sheltering in place is foreign to my instincts, but here in New York, in the midst of this invisible infectious storm, we have been ordered to stay at home. However, we are permitted the liberty of taking walks as long as we maintain the requisite social distance of six feet (2 meters). So I’ve been walking the streets and parks of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, largely devoid of human presence, a stage set without actors, and no audience, still brightly lit. It is a troubling, but strangely beautiful moment in the history of this dynamic city, the daily ebb and flow of commuters from the suburbs frozen, and the countless flights from abroad grounded. We are alone in the world together – all nine million of us.

Having done this work a long time – documenting the urban landscape – I understand the value of taking a patient measure of change and continuity in contrast to the more episodic nature of photojournalism. In 1980 I photographed the Lower East Side at a time when New York was crumbling, and many had given up on the city. In retrospect, it turned out to be a moment of rebirth more than a moment of decline. My photographs serve as a record of that inflection point in history.

A few years later, I photographed the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. I did not know when I started that project that the wall would soon open, that democracy would sweep across eastern Europe, and that my work would constitute a key document of that time.

Before 9/11, I made many photographs of lower Manhattan that included the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers as ubiquitous signposts on the skyline. After their destruction, I continued to photograph the site, collecting visual evidence, following the gradual rebuilding of the city. I had no special access. No commission. I just did what I do as a photographer.

The greatest lesson for me, as obvious as it may be, is to never take anything for granted. Even the most seemingly permanent of structures – physical, political, cultural – can disappear in the blink of an eye. The present is quite likely another pivotal moment in history. It will test our resilience as urban animals, human beings, living in a complex, dense environment. It will test our institutions and possibly our democracy.

The pictures I am taking are not dramatic depictions of the calamity that has befallen New York. They are simply what I see walking the streets in this “time of plague”. The trees are blooming, and the sky is blue, adding insult to injury. Or perhaps, signalling hope that we will come through this stronger, as we have come through great upheavals in the past.

Photographer Brian Rose studied urban design at the University of Virginia and moved to New York City in 1977 to attend Cooper Union. In 1980, he and fellow Cooper graduate Edward Fausty photographed the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1985 Rose began photographing the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, resulting in the book ‘The Lost Border. The Landscape of the Iron Curtain’ (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004).

From 1993 to 2007, Rose lived in Amsterdam. In 1998 he photographed the Mercatorplein neighborhood with its immigrant population and Amsterdam School architecture: ‘Mercatorplein, Image of a World in Amsterdam’. Back in New York in the mid-2000s, Rose began re-photographing the Lower East Side of New York. ‘Time and Space on the Lower East Side’ (2010) was followed by two companion books: ‘Metamorphosis’, about the Meatpacking District, and ‘WTC’, a chronicle of the Twin Towers and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.

His most recent project was about Atlantic City (Circa Press, 2019). In a series of urban landscape images, Rose portrays Atlantic City as a metaphor for America’s dysfunctional politics. The John Adams Institute devoted a blog series to this project. Rose’s images have been collected by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All images © Brian Rose






Gloria Wekker – Suppressed Histories - By Jonathan Pieterse


Gloria Wekker is an professor emeritus of Gender and Ethnicity at the University of Utrecht. In 2016 Duke University Press published White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, about racism in the Netherlands. She is Surinamese-Dutch. At the Institute for War-, Holocaust- and Genocidestudies she spoke about the importance of an inclusive history. The occasion was the opening of the exhibition Black Liberators, about the Afro-American soldiers who helped liberate Western Europe during the Second World War.

©Lenny Oosterwijk

While reading the graphic novel Franklin: A Dutch Liberation Story, professor Wekker was struck by the general ignorance in the Netherlands on the topic of the children of black liberators. Is this a forgotten history, or a suppressed one, she wondered? There is an important difference between the two. A forgotten history has an accidental character, there was no deliberate attempt to ‘forget’ it.

Tapestry depicting the history of African-American soldiers during World War II in the Netherlands. After drawings by Brian Elstak, designed by Lyanne Tonk and woven by FiberArt Pure Country Weavers.

However, the suppression of history is very intentional. It refers to hidden power structures. Who decides which questions are addressed in the discipline of history? Why has it taken until now until the history of these children of black liberators was written? It may be a cliché to say that history is written by the victors: but like most clichés it is also true. Ann Stoler, the Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, has coined the term colonial aphasia, which may be of use here.¹ Aphasia is a disorder which impairs a person’s ability to process language. Instead of talking about colonial amnesia, we should speak of the collective inability to speak. Colonial Aphasia is about 1. Actively cutting off knowledge, 2. The inability to create a vocabulary that connects appropriate words and terms with the corresponding things, and 3. The inability to understand the importance of that which has already been said.

Professor Wekker can speak about colonial aphasia from experience. When she was the Chair of the Diversity Commission at the University of Amsterdam in 2015-2016, many of the interviewed staff spoke openly of the lack of female professors and associate professors, but there was an incapacity to speak about religion and especially race and ethnicity. There was no vocabulary that allows the staff to speak out. Those who manage to speak on the topic, say: “with time, more teachers and students-of-color will come…” effectively placing the blame for their absence at the feet of the excluded groups.

Jonathan Israel – The Dutch Republic

Professor Wekker returns to history. She says that what she regards as the four canonical works on Dutch history, Israel, Schama, Shorto and Kennedy―all by foreign authors, coincidentally―have one fact in common: Race is conspicuously absent from their histories of the Netherlands. They reflect to the Dutch what they believe of themselves already and what they presumably have told these authors: we don’t do race, nor racism. And so, the issue of race in Dutch history is not forgotten, it is suppressed. Only now, it seems, has the time come where we can finally allow ourselves to look at the history of the black liberators and their children.

Tapestry depicting the history of African-American soldiers during World War II in the Netherlands. After drawings by Brian Elstak, designed by Lyanne Tonk and woven by FiberArt Pure Country Weavers.

If you have missed our previous two blogs, click here for my interview with Brian Elstak, the illustrator of Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story. And click here for my interview with professor Kees Ribbens, about comics and popular history.


  1. Stoler, A.N. Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France, Public Culture 23:1, 2011.


Celebrating a Birthday – via Zoom - By Deborah Frieden


It was time for my first social distancing Happy Hour. On the block where I live, in Oakland, California, my neighbors stepped out onto their porches or front yards with a drink and we all toasted each other from a safe distance. My husband and I live at the bottom of a hill. So when we stepped outside we couldn’t see anyone. Still holding our French 75 cocktails, we emailed our neighbors that we were outside. Seconds later, one replied – just walk up the hill, we are here!

Since then other small moments of connection and generosity have occurred – calls from distant friends, a visit from a neighbor checking in on us (standing ten feet apart on our deck) and the forming of a neighborhood email list to provide help to anyone in need. Tonight, we are holding a virtual birthday party for my husband with friends who had otherwise intended to throw him a party. We will convene over Zoom with drinks in hand so we can see one another despite my aversion to how the computer camera seems to age me worse than in real life! Small gestures are now big things in our lives.

“We are simultaneously in need of news and yet unable to take one more minute of it all.”

We have been at home for 12 days now, although it was only 4 days ago that Governor Gavin Newsom put the “shelter in place order” into effect for all Californians. This means Californians must stay at home except for essential trips like grocery or pharmacy shopping, medical help or other necessary activity. Yesterday was a glorious spring day and we took a walk through the neighborhood to see all the gorgeous flowers in bloom – it seemed like an ordinary weekend, except we crossed the street every time someone came toward us. There remains a surreal quality to it all – everything looks normal except for how quiet it is on normally busy streets. Getting out for exercise and fresh air is helping a lot to keep our spirits up, but the rain is returning so we’ll have some gloomy days coming up.

Shopping is very much an issue…what’s safe and what’s not? Picture a bumper car game, but now the objective is to stay as far apart as possible when traffic is coming from all directions. This was us this past weekend, when my daughter Adrienne (33) and I braved our local farmers’ market to obtain some fresh food. Weirdly only the young people were wearing masks. We could only wonder what that was about, as my daughter helped steer me away from busy stalls or the inevitable oblivious wanderer.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf had asked the markets to stay open to support our small farmers, but also to make fresh produce available when the grocery stores’ shelves were often bare. I bought an armload of tulips in season now since I don’t know if the small family farmer will be able to stay in business. Since then though, we are no longer even going out to shop and are using online purchasing.

“My daughter scored toilet paper at her local market and gave it to my husband for his birthday.”

Ordering food is a game of chance too. Deliveries get postponed for no apparent reason but then when they do come, you get a quarter of the order and it is always the most random set of items, rarely the basics. Today two tubes of toothpaste, a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of rice vinegar arrived at my doorstep – what will I do with these? Supposedly, the flour, oatmeal, milk and butter will come later… but no mention of the meat. There is still almost no toilet paper anywhere, although my daughter scored a 12-pack at her local corner market and gave it to my husband for his birthday. Fortunately he appreciated the ironic humor of her gesture. That said, there is a lot of food coming into the city and the delivery networks are ramping up, so we expect things to improve shortly.

Finally, I must say something about the TV. We are simultaneously in need of news and information and yet unable to take one more minute of it all. Many of us have substituted the ‘news’ sent by friends as we sit at our computers hoping to work but distracted by a sense of restlessness, curiosity, and an overwhelming need to know what our friends and family are doing. Which brings me back to where I started…the small things mean a lot right now.


Deborah Frieden lives in Oakland, California. She is a cultural project planning consultant assisting organizations and municipalities in planning for the creation of new museums, cultural centers, district initiatives or the re-envisioning of existing institutions. Her work is national as well as international and goes beyond the walls of the institutions and explores the contextual issues of cultural organizations in their specific communities, who they serve, and how their development will enhance their community. In 2006, Deborah was awarded the prestigious Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in recognition of her work. She spent a year in residence in 2006-7 and is currently serving on the Alumni Council. 

At Sea Without A Captain - by Kim Wehle


The question of how America is dealing with COVID-19 warrants a response on at least three levels: the personal, the political, and the ethical.

On a personal level, the feeling in the United States seems to toggle between anxiety and fear on the one hand and, by some reports, indifference on the other. I live right outside Washington, D.C., hunkered down with my four daughters, who are finding ways to enjoy the downtime even though they can’t see their friends. My older, college-age girls have quickly realized that this is a rare time in their young lives where the ‘have-to’s’ cease. They still do online classes, but are able to indulge in art, reading, TV-binging, and cooking without having to satisfy the social draw of their friends or the obligations of work. The younger ones seem more able to tolerate the hours that lie ahead with ease – perhaps a reflection of how “boredom” is something that children learn to handle with aplomb.

Yet in some parts of the country, people are reportedly still going about their business as if little has changed. This is due no doubt to a lack information – or blatant misinformation from certain facets of the media and even the White House – as well as, perhaps, the general human instinct to shy away from truths that are too overwhelming to fathom. Death is one of them.

“We will collectively lose many lives that could have been saved if measures had been taken earlier.”

Politically, the United States is at sea without a captain. President Trump has proven himself unable to muster basic compassion or leadership and continues to dispute the validity of science and expertise. This is not surprising given who he is, but the implications are devastatingly serious. Without a strong leader, Americans are left to navigate the storm largely on their own. State and local leadership have stepped up to varying degrees, as has private industry, but the country needs more federal help.

The clear-eyed view here is the same as that of countries across the globe: the current state of infections and exposures means that we will collectively lose many lives that could have been saved if measures had been taken earlier to test, to quarantine, to track contacts of infected people, to stock up on medical supplies—especially ventilators, and to convey consistent information to an often misinformed and frightened public.

“We are engaged in an astonishing debate over whether economics are more important than people.”

With the $2 trillion congressional aid package that Congress passed this week – the full Senate voted on Wednesday, the House on Friday – the silver lining is that the U.S. Congress is finally kicking into gear after years of overall obeisance to the White House and private interests. The needs of struggling individuals and small business are finally taking center stage – because now there is no choice.

Ethically, Americans are finding ourselves engaged in an astonishing debate over whether human life matters. Or, to put a finer point on it, whether economics are more important than people. One of my sincerest hopes-against-hope is that, with our populace having toyed with the extreme edge of humanity, this catastrophe will bring core principles of benevolence, mutual respect, honesty, truth and common sense back to America to one degree or another – because now there is no choice.

In the meantime, please stay safe.

Kimberly Wehle is a former assistant United States attorney, a former associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, and a visiting professor at the American University Washington College of Law. She is a CBS News legal analyst, a BBC News contributor, and author of “How to Read the Constitution and Why.” She spoke about her book on the Constitution at the John Adams Institute on Super Tuesday, March 3rd, at an event moderated by Eelco Bosch van Rosenthal. Her second book, ‘What You Need to Know About Voting – and Why’, will be published in June. Click here to follow her on Twitter.

Kees Ribbens – Comics and Popular History - By Jonathan Pieterse


Kees Ribbens is a big comic book fan. He has a large collection of comic books, many of them about World War II and so I interviewed him about his involvement with Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story. He is also a senior researcher at the NIOD, the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies and one of the organizers of the exhibition ‘Black Liberators’, about the African American soldiers in the US army in the Second World War.

Franklin: A Dutch Liberation Story

It was Kees Ribbens’ and Mieke Kirkels’ idea to create a graphic novel as a way of telling the story of the Black Liberators, the African American soldiers who helped liberate the Netherlands at the end of World War II. Black Dutch artist Brian Elstak was asked to draw it. The result is Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story. You can read my interview with Brian Elstak here.

Given his interest in popular culture, Ribbens himself has a substantial number of comic books published in various western countries. But actually very few of them depict black soldiers in World War II. Throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ’70s an incredible amount of cheap black-and-white comics about World War II were produced. They could hardly be called nuanced depictions of history, and so the absence of African American soldiers is not very surprising.

Sergent O’Brien, by Jean Pape

The comic Sergent O’Brien (written in France in the 50s) shows an African American soldier, but he is portrayed as part of a white squad of soldiers and as carrying a weapon. The illustrator completely disregarded the fact that the US army remained strictly segregated until 1948, and that African American soldiers were rarely allowed in combat roles in Western Europe, during World War II.

Only more recently have comic books started to pay more attention to soldiers of color. For instance, recent French comics now often feature soldiers from the French colonies in both World Wars. Ribbens explains: “Comic books are not the most progressive of literary genres. They often follow where film and novels have gone before. They are more a reflection of movements in society than they are pioneers. Perhaps that is why it is only now that comics have started to incorporate minorities into their depictions of history.”

Commemoration 1955, Wageningen

Why have the Black Liberators have been absent so far from the Dutch collective memory of World War II and the liberation? Ribbens: “Historical collective memory tends to be somewhat one-sided and lacking in nuance. The liberators were Brits, Canadians and Americans. Most of them were white men and so they were all remembered as white men. Moreover, the Dutch have always focused on the liberation of the north and the west of the country in 1945. The liberation of the south by the Americans in 1944 is a less-known chapter. As a consequence, the African American soldiers, who made up some 10% of the American army that liberated the South, were left out of the picture.”

The graphic novel Franklin finally acknowledges the role that African American soldiers played in the liberation of the Netherlands. Our collective historical memory is becoming more diverse, more inclusive. This is due in part to changes in the Dutch population during the past decades.

Cemetery Margraten

Kees Ribbens explains how the NIOD became involved in the Black Liberators project. A few years ago, with the 65-year commemoration of the end of the war, a government grant to the NIOD helped to start research into the multicultural aspects of World War II. At the same time a project was initiated to study the history of the American cemetery at Margraten. This research revealed that the cemetery was constructed by African American soldiers, and a number of African American soldiers are buried there. This discovery represented a forgotten piece of history: the role African American soldiers played in the Netherlands during World War II. Mieke Kirkels has continued this line of research in recent years, revealing various stories of these African American soldiers and their descendants.

Can New York City Lose its Twinkle? - by David van der Leer


Questions are typically more appealing to me than the right answers, but tonight I realized I am yearning for answers to questions I had been avoiding for weeks.

It is 9 pm and I am standing on the roof of my apartment building in Chelsea. We are sandwiched between the skyline of the Financial District to the south, and Midtown with its grand Empire State and Chrysler Buildings to the north. In just a few weeks, all I see around me has gotten downgraded from what many still seem to consider the capital of the world, to ‘an’ and perhaps soon ‘the’ epicenter of the pandemic.

Sunday evening, strict measures were announced to stop the spread of the virus: in the city and all around the state non-essential businesses have been ordered closed and we are only allowed to go out for bare necessities like food, medicine and brief stints of exercise. Who knows for how long? And who knows when there will be even stricter measures?

For the past four weeks I have been preparing for this moment, from moving my team to work from home and readying my apartment to lock myself in, to testing videoconference dinners and drinks with friends and family. Getting it all done in time – just before the strict rules that finally went into action, and before I possibly get sick – feels like a strange New York accomplishment that I should not be so relieved with having succeeded at.

“I realize I never heard the birds in the trees sixteen floors below me until this morning.”

I look down. Normally hundreds of cars drive on 7th Avenue below me. At night they create a cloud of lights that when you squint your eyes, looks like a twinkling Christmas tree that is crowned by the bright lights of Times Squares in the distance. Tonight, I squint as usual, but a long 42-city block strip of grey asphalt stretches out in front of me, and however much I try, I cannot make it twinkle with just a handful of cars.

A helicopter with a search light keeps circling the Google East-Coast headquarters a block away from me ominously, but when it finally disappears, there is so little traffic that for the first time in years I hear a church bell ringing in the distance. Staring at the empty sidewalks, I realize I never heard the birds in the trees sixteen floors below me until this morning. Those who can leave, have left, or more likely they occupy the dark apartments in the towers across from me only for a few weeks a year anyway. The city is quieting down.

“Why we are so focused on growth, that we cannot manage a massive slowdown?”

With the quiet around and in me, the questions I have been pushing away for weeks, hit me in full force. Probably like many other people, I feel a pressure build in my chest when I question if the healthcare system is ever going to be able to handle what is about to hit us? Why we are so focused on growth, that we cannot manage a massive slowdown? And, how we are going to be able to take care of the most vulnerable around us while we are all cooped up in our apartments? Finally, I wonder how one protests against the many political mistakes that now have become blatant threats to our lives, when the act of congregating is a risk to those same lives? How selfless or selfish will we turn out to be?

All questions that, if we are not alert and pro-active enough, will in a matter of weeks unfold into answers that we never imagined having to hear. Stay safe. Be well. Let’s squint and find that twinkling in the distance.

David van der Leer is Dutch, but has lived in New York for almost fifteen years. He is a forecaster and cultural advisor at his agency DVDL DD, the former Executive Director of the Van Alen Institute, and a Guggenheim Curator.

“My apartment is small but so close to everything that I walk and bike everywhere. My fridge is the size of a hotel room mini bar, and I keep virtually no stock of anything in my pantry as I eat or take 85% of my meals out. I keep barely any plants because I am often traveling, and many of my friends live a 30-minute subway ride away. My doormen send and receive my many packages and dry-cleaning throughout the week. Frankly, I don’t even know how to operate the washing machines in the basement of our building. Usually I like all of that – it is all still so New York after all these years – but calamities of the past, like Superstorm Sandy, have left their mark. And judging from the manic Amazon delivery trucks, and the lines at the supermarkets and pharmacies, I was not the only who had to figure out what it means to suddenly stock up, and imagine a life in which you cannot rely on any of the trivial luxuries I have gotten so used to.”

Brian Elstak – Art, Racism and the Black Liberators - By Jonathan Pieterse


For the first instalment of this blog about the Black Liberators, I interviewed Brian Elstak. Not only did he contribute to the Black Liberators exhibition at the NIOD (temporarily closed), he’s also the illustrator of the graphic novel Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story. It tells the fictional story of the African American soldier Franklin, stationed in the Netherlands during World War II. He meets a Dutch girl, they fall in love and conceive a child. The novel also tells the stories of their child and grandchild, as they search for answers about their heritage.

Brian Elstak, who is himself black, describes his own style as ‘sketchy and raw’, which makes it particularly well-suited to a frayed and raw story such as Franklin. Asked why he wanted to participate in this project, he quotes the famous singer Nina Simone: “A true artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Through this project he addresses the very real racism that still plagues the Netherlands. Much of his art deals with serious, heavy topics, but he tries to offset the heaviness with other projects: he has written several children’s books as well.

When I asked Brian if he already knew the history of the African-American soldiers in the American army in World War II, he said: “You know, but you don’t know.” There are hints in the known histories, here and there. But it is not widely known that there were black servicemen, nor that the US Army was segregated till long after the war. Movies don’t usually show it either, with a few exceptions. For instance, the movie Red Tails (2012) is about the Tuskegee airmen, a group of African-American pilots during World War II. The movie’s producer, George Lucas, had to fight for years before he finally got the movie made. Yes, thát George Lucas, director of Star Wars and Indiana Jones! Another movie that shaped Brian’s view of African American soldiers before he started working on the graphic novel is Miracle at St. Anna, directed by Spike Lee.

It is set in Italy in 1944, and shows a group of African-American soldiers in the thick of battle. Brian explains that he was inspired by this movie while drawing the African-American soldiers in Franklin as carrying weapons, only to be told later that they weren’t allowed to carry weapons at all in the Netherlands – nor in any other part of Western Europe, in fact. The African-American soldiers were assigned to support roles, delivering equipment and provisions to the front lines and serving as mechanics. The only exceptions were the African-American soldiers assigned to guard German prisoners of war. They just didn’t receive any ammunition to go with their weapons. As Brian put it: “They were allowed to die for their country, but they weren’t allowed to defend themselves.”

This was part of the challenge to create a historically accurate graphic novel. A lot of research was required, and Brian had to comb through a mountain of photographic material. A lot of it came from the BBC, where a large number of African-American soldiers were stationed before they went to the mainland. The stories from that time are similar to those from the Netherlands. They all provide the ingredients that Brian used to draw Franklin.

I had gotten the impression after reading Franklin that the period of liberation might have been one of the most racism-free times in Dutch history. Brian explained that the Dutch population was simply glad to be liberated, and anyone who brought freedom, food and commodities was welcome. But just like when a famous person dies, after a short time we forget and life goes on. The stories from this time are forgotten if we don’t talk to those who lived through it. The oral history can only be remembered if it is talked about – and if it is forgotten, you can only see one side of history. A Golden Age, but Golden for whom?

Franklin shows how everything is connected, through the characters of Frances (Franklin’s granddaughter) and her father. It is not just a World War II story, people today still grapple with racism. Brian hopes that Franklin will become pop culture, so we may learn to listen to one another’s stories.


Follow Brian Elstak on Instagram and his website. You can buy your own copy of ‘Franklin: A Dutch Liberation Story’ here (use discount code BOEKKORTINGFRANKLIN – valid from April 1-May 31. In Dutch). The book has been added to the list of ‘The Best Dutch Book Designs 2019‘. All images © Brian Elstak.

John Brown: friend or foe? - By Mieke Bleeker


“John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.”

‘John Brown’s Body’ – Union marching song (tune: Battle Hymne of the Republic)

For people either very much against or in favor of slavery, the question whether John Brown was a hero or a villain must have been easy to answer. While Union soldiers marched to the tune of the song dedicated to Brown, many in the South viewed him as a criminal and a madman, or someone we might nowadays call a domestic terrorist. For people in the middle, he was a little bit of both, as this quote by Abraham Lincoln seems to indicate: “Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against the state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong.” 

Marching Union soldiers

Different views, different treatment

But the different views of John Brown and his fellow raiders did not end there. They also become apparent when we look at how they were treated after their arrest and even in death. While many abolitionists pleaded for the release of Brown, they did not ask for the freedom of the two black raiders who were captured. These black men were hanged separately from their white fellow raiders, and while all convicts had asked to be buried in a free state, only their request was dismissed. Instead, their bodies were hastily buried in Virginia, only to be dug up by medical students for dissection.


Heyward Shephard Monument

A topsy-turvy monument

Things get even more topsy-turvy when we look at the case of Heyward Shepard, the free black man who was – presumably accidentally – shot and killed by John Brown’s men. In 1931, a monument was erected for Shepard by – of all people – the United Daughters of the Confederacy, claiming it to be a symbol of faithful black people who did not join the raid or believed in its purpose. Besides the fact that we have no idea what Shepard’s thoughts on the raid might have been, the monument feels more like a bad PR-stunt to defend the lost cause of the South. It’s still there, although it seems to go unnoticed by most visitors to Harpers Ferry.

Modern day views

Booklet Centennial 1959

Even in this day and age, people still seem to have mixed feelings about John Brown’s actions. At the raid’s centennial in 1959, the reenacted capture of Brown was met with wild cheers from the crowd. The black raiders did not play any part in the ‘festivities’. Under President Barack Obama, things changed, and descendants of both the black and white raiders were invited to attend a commemoration. Some called upon the President to posthumously pardon John Brown. In 1965, Malcolm X uttered the following: “If you are for me and my problems – when I say me, I mean us, our people – then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did.” Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh once cited Brown as an inspiration.


So what should we make of John Brown? Was he a liberator, a murderer, inspired, radicalized, sane or mad? It’s an ongoing debate. What we can say, is that when it comes to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, nothing is black and white.


Crossroads of Abolitionists - By Mieke Bleeker


Frederik Douglass

Why John Brown opposed slavery in the way he did is hard to say. We know that as a twelve-year-old, he witnessed a slave boy about his age being severely beaten with an iron fire shovel, which shocked him greatly. We also know that his father, who was involved in the Underground Railroad by providing a safe house to escaped slaves, sent his son to be schooled by an abolitionist. And when John started his own business, he used his work place to hide countless runaway slaves. Still, Brown seems to have been primarily motivated by religious principles during this time of his life, not by fanaticism or political conviction. But he lived in polarized times, which might have triggered his activism, as the following incident indicates. In 1837, a pro-slavery mob attacked and killed minister, journalist and abolitionist Elijah Parish Lovejoy, prompting Brown to claim: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”


Six years later Brown and his family moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, a hotspot of the abolitionist movement. He joined the Free Church, where he listened to anti-slavery speeches by renowned abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. It proved to be another pivotal moment in his life. Sojourner Truth was born in to slavery on an estate owned by Dutch settlers and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. After finding freedom, she travelled the country preaching abolition and equal rights for all women and blacks alike.

Sojourner Truth

It’s unknown whether she ever spoke to John Brown, but Brown did meet Frederik Douglass several times. Douglass was also a former slave, who became a vigorous social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman. Their meetings had a profound influence on Douglass. Up until then he had hoped abolition could come about peacefully, but his conversations with Brown made him strongly doubt this. Still, when Brown asked him to join his armed revolt on Harpers Ferry, Douglass was intrigued but refused, believing it was likely to fail and would hurt their cause.


Help and admiration

Historical marker Harriet Tubman, Maryland

A famous abolitionist who did help John Brown with the raid was Harriet Tubman. A former slave herself, she carried out dangerous missions to slave-holding states, freeing hundreds. Tubman was well acquainted with both Douglass and Truth and met John Brown in 1858. Due to her knowledge of escape routes and her contacts in the region, she was able to offer Brown valuable information to plan his assault on Harpers Ferry. She also recruited supporters. It is said that ‘General Tubman’, as John Brown called her, was planning to join the fight, but illness prevented her from going. After John Brown’s death, she claimed that Brown “had done more for her people in dying than hundred men would in living.

Portraits of John Brown and his family at Frederik Douglass’ house

Douglass agreed. Although he had to flee to country temporarily after a letter addressed to him was found among John Brown’s possessions, he often voiced his admiration for Brown: “John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared.” Up till this day, a picture of John Brown and his family adorns the hall of Frederick Douglass’ former house in Washington D.C.


Was John Brown’s failed raid still a success? - By Mieke Bleeker


Just over a week after his capture, John Brown stood trial. He was charged with treason, conspiracy and murder. It must have been quite a sight: the courtroom was packed with witnesses, journalists and spectators, while John Brown was lying on a cot due to stab wounds he had sustained during his arrest. Brown’s lawyer made an insanity plea, but Brown wasn’t having it: “I am perfectly unconscious of insanity, and I reject, so far as I am capable, any attempt to interfere in my behalf on that score.” He knew the trial was his only chance to get his case against slavery on the front page of the nation’s newspapers, and being described as crazy would not help his argument.

Grave of John Brown

The trail took four days. The jury – all slave owners – found Brown guilty on all charges. He would be hanged a month later. Four of his surviving raiders received similar sentences. To add to the drama, Brown sat on his own coffin in the back of a horse-drawn wagon on his way to the gallows.


During the raid, fear of a massive slave rebellion sent the people of Harpers Ferry into a frenzy, further fueled by the liquor that was served in the saloons throughout the night. Dangerfield Newby, an ex-slave who had joined John Brown hoping it would lead to the release of his enslaved wife and children, was shot and killed, his body heavily mutilated and left for hogs to eat (the alley where this took place is still called Hog Alley). William Leeman, who had killed the mayor of Harpers Ferry, was shot while attempting to escape across the river. Angry townspeople and militia men used his body for shooting practice for hours afterwards. They also turned on raider William Thompson who was taken prisoner at some point during the raid. He was dragged onto the bridge, shot and thrown into the river, where the mob emptied their rifles into him. John Copeland surrendered and was greeted by an angry crowd shouting “Lynch him! Lynch him!” One of the slaves John Brown freed during the raid was beaten unconscious and drowned.

Dangerfield Newby

War fever

A journalist at that time wrote: “The Harpers Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion more than any other event that has happened since the formation of Government.” The war fever that had already began to emerge grew fast. The excessive response of both the military and the townspeople was a clear symptom. Although John Brown’s army was only small, multiple militias from nearby Frederick, Charles Town, Martinsburg, Shepherdstown and Winchester marched to Harpers Ferry to suppress the revolt. Robert E. Lee brought no less than ninety U.S. Marines with him. Not what you would call a fair fight.

Domino effect

Emancipation Memorial

The raid made clear that compromise was no longer an option. While the voices against slavery in the North grew louder, the South felt more and more threatened. Both sides braced themselves for a conflict. John Brown’s actions created a domino effect. The aftermath split the pro-slavery Democratic Party in two, while the Republican Abraham Lincoln went from dark horse to frontrunner for the presidential candidacy of 1860. Soon after his election, South Carolina was the first state to secede. Civil war was coming, as John Brown seems to have predicted in a note he wrote shortly before his execution: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.”

In hindsight, the raid on Harpers Ferry seems merely a prelude. When the war ended, four million enslaved people were freed. So, if we could ask him, would Brown consider his failed raid a success in that sense? With 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians dead, it would be an extremely hard question to answer.

The raid: “Men, get on your arms, we will proceed to the Ferry” - By Mieke Bleeker


John Brown

John Brown, a white man, was a fierce opponent of slavery who saw the enslavement of black people as a sin against God. At an anti-slavery convention in Canada in 1858, he proposed the creation of a free state under a new set of laws called the ‘Provisional Constitution of the United States’, which would apply to anyone who joined his cause. Brown became Commander in Chief of the Provisional Army, which consisted of only twenty-two men, sixteen white and five black (four of them were born free, one was a freed slave). Extensive preparations followed. On October 16, 1859 he finally told his followers: “Men, get on your arms. We will proceed to the Ferry.”

Harpers Ferry, 1859

Smooth start

Strategically, the attack on Harpers Ferry made sense. To reach Maryland and disappear into the wildness of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you needed only to cross the bridge over the Potomac River. Also, the town was home to the United States Armory and Arsenal, where over a hundred thousand guns were stored. Surprisingly, the Armory was hardly guarded. Upon entering Harpers Ferry around 10.30p.m., they encountered just two watchmen: one on the bridge and one at the Armory. This might seem odd. But in the late nineteen hundreds, an organized attack on the US government by its own citizens on such a scale was simply unimaginable. Rumors of the raid even reached the Secretary of War, but he dismissed it as something not very likely to occur.

Bridge over the Potomac River

With the darkness providing cover, John Brown and his men easily took over. Within a couple hours they took 60 hostages (among them the great-grandnephew of George Washington) who were confined in the fire engine house, which later would become known as John Brown’s Fort.

Going down

But things quickly fell apart. At 1.30 p.m., a train arrived at the station which was held until daylight. The long stop-over stirred enough commotion on the train for Howard Shepherd, the station baggageman, to walk out to see what was happening. He was shot and killed by John Brown’s men as he approached the bridge. The first victim of the raid had fallen. He was a black man, a former slave, already free. John Starry, the town’s doctor, also became alarmed after noticing armed black men in the streets. He saddled his horse and warned the authorities. Soon the bells of a nearby church rang out to warn the town’s citizens. Meanwhile, the passengers on the train that had been allowed to continue its journey, told everyone at the next station that a massive slave revolt was underway in Harpers Ferry. So great was the fear in the South of an armed slave uprising, that the number of raiders got higher every time the incident was passed on.

John Brown’s Fort

Killed, captured, questioned

While John Brown and his small group of men waited for the hundreds of slaves and other like-minded men who they expected to join the fight (but who never came), the townspeople, several militias and the U.S. Marines moved in. On October 18, Robert E. Lee, who would soon become the Commander of the Confederate States Army, quickly captured or killed most of the raiders and stormed the engine house where John Brown and the last of his men and their hostages were now trapped. Once they were in, the ordeal lasted no more than three minutes. Brown and his surviving followers were arrested.

During his questioning John Brown made clear that, although he failed, the story of his raid did not end there: “You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this Negro question I mean – the end of that is not yet.”

The capture of John Brown

Atlantic City: Excess and Decline - By Tracy Metz


In this fourth and final blog of this series, John Adams director Tracy Metz selected photographs from Brian Rose’s book ‘Atlantic City’ showing Atlantic City as a symbol of excess and decline.


“Atlantic City is a dramatic symbol of American excess and decline. Once the most popular family vacation destination in the United States, the city has slid into a dystopian version of its former self, with beachfront property plummeting amid vacant lots and deserted high-rise hotels garishly positioned against the coastal backdrop.” Nowness – March 7, 2017


“How can a presidential candidate look at a city damaged so directly by his own business practices – and say only that he’s smart to have gotten out when he did?”Arielle Brousse, The Washington Post – October 6, 2016

“Down at the Boardwalk’s terminus, by night, the seagulls keep flying into the Revel and dying. Or they flap and limp around a bit before dying. You never see or hear the impact, you just get what happens after. Immense white gulls, flapping, limping, expiring. They fly into the Revel’s giant vacant tower of panes and break their necks, because without any lights on, the glass is indistinguishable from the sky.”Joshua Cohen, N+1 magazine – Winter 2017


You can order the book here at Circa Publishers. Watch a video with Brian Rose here, and read a review and interview in the Guardian here.


Trump’s failed Kingdom - By Tracy Metz


For the third blog of this series, John Adams director Tracy Metz selected several photographs from Brian Rose’s book ‘Atlantic City’ showing the remnants of Donald Trump’s failed Atlantic City kingdom.

“The shuttered Trump Plaza will likely be torn down. It is one of four casinos that closed in 2014, representing a third of Atlantic city’s gaming halls. Trump’s name has been removed from the façade. Only the gaudy golden crest, a color reminiscent of Trump’s famous hair, remains.” Matt Katz, WNYC News – August 26, 2015

“In January of 2016, after a winter storm flooded parts of the Jersey coastline, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, then a candidate for president, sarcastically asked whether he should ‘pick up a mop’ to help with flooding – a remark that was criticized by environmentalists for being out of touch with the gravity of the situation. Christie accepts that human activity contributes to climate change, but contends that the issue ‘is not a crisis’.” Michael Edison Hayden, National Geographic – May 4, 2016

@realDonaldTrump: “Remember, anything you read about Atlantic City has nothing to do with me. I sold years ago and left. Good timing but very sad!” Twitter – Sept. 6, 2014


You can order the book here at Circa Publishers. Watch a video with Brian Rose here, and read a review and interview in the Guardian here.

Can Trump make Atlantic City great again? - By Tracy Metz


For the second blog of this series, John Adams director Tracy Metz selected photographs from Brian Rose’s book ‘Atlantic City’ showing the effect Donald Trump had on the city.


“As for Michael MacLeod, the sculptor of the elephants outside the Taj, he says his anger over the episode has faded, and he can now joke about how he once got stiffed by a famous billionaire.” Bernard Condon, Associated Press – June 28, 2016


“Trump told the New York Times about his 25 years in Atlantic City: ‘The money I took out of there was incredible.’ It’s the only thing he has to say of my now-destroyed home town. He came, he took and he left. And I hate to break it to you, America – he’s not coming back for us.” Arielle Brousse, The Washington Post – October 6, 2016



@realDonaldTrump: “I would absolutely consider investing in Atlantic City again, great and hard working people, but much would have to change: taxes, regs, etc.” – Twitter, October 26, 2014



You can order the book here at Circa Publishers. Watch a video with Brian Rose here, and read a review and interview in the Guardian here.

Taj Mahal in Atlantic City - By Tracy Metz


Atlantic City, on the coast of New Jersey, was born in the mid-nineteenth century and grew so big, so fast, that it captured the American imagination. It was ‘the World’s Playground’. Its hotels were the largest and finest, its nightclubs legendary. And then, as it began to fade, the casinos came. Donald Trump was one of those who built casinos on the Jersey shore, the more exotic and fanciful their themes the better. On the presidential campaign trail he boasted of his ‘success’ in Atlantic City, of how he would do for America what he had done for Atlantic City.

Looking at the haunting book by the same name by the American photographer Brian Rose, that statement of Trump’s does not bode well for the rest of the nation. Rose has documented what remains of the city in the aftermath of the casino explosion. Empty lots, huge vacant buildings made of painted cardboard and chipped concrete, all under the same cloud of sadness and decay.

“The closure of Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Plaza have sent this already depressed city reeling”, writes Rose. “And now Trump is President. Is Atlantic City emblematic of what is happening to the country as a whole?” When the Trump Taj Mahal opened in 1980, he proclaimed it ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ – but five of the city’s casinos closed down within four years. Atlantic City is a metaphor for decline, but also a very real place, which lost 11,000 jobs since 2014.

In his introduction, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger calls Atlantic City ‘New Jersey’s Potemkin village – a façade of pseudo-prosperity facing the sea, with little of substance behind.’ It tried to be glamorous, but what is managed to be instead was a curious combination of the aspirational and the tawdry – a little bit of grandeur seasoned with a lot of popular entertainment.” It’s not Las Vegas, it’s not Miami Beach – “and the empty lot is now the true symbol of the forlorn place that is called Atlantic City.”

You can order the book here at Circa Publishers. Watch a video with Brian Rose here, and read a review and interview in the Guardian here.



The Eternal Tourist - by Rachelle Meyer


I like to think I can tell which passengers on the ferry are tourists. There are some dead giveaways, of course – suitcases on wheels, pairings of cargo shorts with baseball caps, shopping bags from cheese shops and major museums. What I envy is their fresh-eyed excitement.

‘Mother & Son’ – sketch (15-8-2018)

 When we turned our gaze towards Amsterdam Noord as a potential place to live, we had already been in Amsterdam for eight years. I wouldn’t say I was jaded, but a city that once inspired me to move across an ocean had lost some luster to the wear of everyday life. As soon as we’d step on the ferry though, something changed. It was like we were traveling again, and not just because the ground was literally moving under our feet. The ferry was our gateway to a new start, a fresh perspective, and a chance to fall in love with Amsterdam a second time. The whooping alarm that announces the lifting of the gangplank would cause a Pavlovian reaction in me. It meant that I was headed for adventure and I’d break out in a grin.

‘Our Golden Time’ – summer collection

As an adult I’ve chosen to live in international cities with high immigrant populations. On any given day, I can meet someone from Ghana, or Croatia, or Iraq. I remain an eternal tourist in the land I call home. Every face I come across is uncharted territory. Every person I meet is a potential discovery. The ferry brings us all together without discrimination. There is no first class on the ferry, there’s just us. The working folk, the holidaymakers, the party people, we’re all one and the same. Thanks for coming on this journey with me. I’m glad you’re here.

‘Diamonds (Father & Son) – summer collection


Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator and artist originally from Texas who came to Amsterdam 13 years ago by way of New York. She lives in Amsterdam Noord with her English husband, Dutch son, and two wild backyard bunnies. https://www.rachellemeyer.com

The Faces on the Ferry installation can be seen through Nov. 17th in NDSM Fuse, NDSM-plein 85, Amsterdam Noord. https://facesontheferry.nl

‘Something in Common’ – sketch (22-8-2018)

Springfulness - by Rachelle Meyer


Spring comes on like a gift. The sun, an almost forgotten friend, coaxes the ferry passengers out onto the deck. He opens us up like flowers.

It was the changing of the seasons from winter to spring that inspired the broader Faces on the Ferry project. When I flipped back through my mini sketchbook and relived the journey from January to May, I experienced the gift of spring for a second time. I wanted to find a way to express that joy through art and pass it along to others.

‘Unwind’ – spring collection

Spring has its own innate capacity to bring us into the moment, if only to turn our faces up into the light for a few minutes and celebrate that we survived the most brutal season. This is a natural form of mindfulness, but we greedily seek any methods that can bring us to this state. Sketching does it for me. My attention is turned outwards, and I feel calmer. Aware. More empathetic.

“The Twelve-Minute Sunbath” – sketch (23-03-2017)

The play of mindfulness is performed regularly on the ferry as it shuttles back and forth, rhythmic as a meditative breath. Whether it’s this particular seasonal surrender to the sun, or a deliberate decision to use the short journey to collect one’s thoughts, sketch, or simply observe other passengers, we are literally all in the same boat, trying to enjoy this moment, yearning to seize the now.


Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator and artist originally from Texas who came to Amsterdam 13 years ago by way of New York. She lives in Amsterdam Noord with her English husband, Dutch son, and two wild backyard bunnies. https://www.rachellemeyer.com

‘Touch of Spring’ – spring collection

The Faces on the Ferry installation can be seen through Nov. 17th in NDSM Fuse, NDSM-plein 85, Amsterdam Noord. https://facesontheferry.nl

‘Back to (Virtual) Reality’ – sketch (10-4-2017)

Illustrate with Words - by Rachelle Meyer


I love the written word. One of the reasons I chose to put “Dedicated Readers” in the spotlight in the Faces on the Ferry series is because I think they deserve attention, simply for choosing to absorb information in this thoughtful, patient way. A book, of course, is the traditional cherished object. But I’ll read anything put in front of me, even if it’s just a cereal box at breakfast.

“Book Lover (Valentine)” – sketch (14-2–2017)

When I go to exhibits and dutifully read the descriptions provided on the title cards, I often feel pushed further away from the artwork instead of being brought closer. I see a lot of multisyllabic words that obscure meaning rather than clarify it. I squint through the text to find the intention between the lines, but the only thread I pick up belongs to the emperor’s new clothes. It’s all puff and pomp, signifying little, and illuminating nothing.

As an illustrator, I often create images in the service of a text. If they do their job properly, illustrations not only help define a text, but add further value. They can and should be beautiful, thought-provoking, and multi-layered. I believe that when artists write texts describing our work, we should do the same. The text should act in service of the art, but it can also add more – if we dare.

Being earnest is not very cool. It is downright vulnerable. Who wants to lay open her heart, allowing the world to pick over its private intentions? Well, I will try.

Dedicated Reader #1 – winter collection

I hope that this art project brings people a sense of peace and communion. By tying together the still moments that people experience on a ferry ride with the larger scope of a year passing, I want to create a sense of awe at our small position in the universe. It’s ambitious and maybe even impossible, but I hurl myself at transcendence.

Let your words be clear and crystalline. Rather than covering your intention with a drift of snow, strive to make each word sparkle in its specificity. Illustrate your art with words.

Dedicated Reader #2 – winter collection

Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator and artist originally from Texas who came to Amsterdam 13 years ago by way of New York. She lives in Amsterdam Noord with her English husband, Dutch son, and two wild backyard bunnies. https://www.rachellemeyer.com

The Faces on the Ferry installation can be seen through Nov. 17th in NDSM Fuse, NDSM-plein 85, Amsterdam Noord. https://facesontheferry.nl

“The Knitter” – sketch (2-3-2017)



Common Time - by Rachelle Meyer


After I moved to Amsterdam Noord, I started sketching fellow passengers during my twelve-minute ferry ride to the center in the mornings. I’d finish the pencil sketches off with fineliner pens and marker over a cup of coffee once I got to my studio. Between January and May 2017 the tiny sketchbook filled up with images. When I flipped back through it, I discovered that it not only told a story of how people spend their time during the quiet ferry ride, but how the seasons change. I wanted to find a way to express these overlaps of time.

Dedicated Reader #4 (autumn collection)

Like any good pattern-seeking animal, I make sense of things by putting them in order. It sets a rhythm to a world which is otherwise chaotic. I came up with a visual system for expressing these overlapping currents of time, which flow in and out of each other like the waves that gently rock the ferry.

I am (autumn collection)

Since our year is divided into four seasons, I chose four images for each season from the two tiny sketchbooks. Each season has its own unique four-color palette, with one color that carries through to the next. Thus, a streak of orange tethers the fall to winter. The baby blues of winter float into spring. The warm gold from spring brightens up into the summer. And the almost shocking fluorescent yellow of summer creates a vivid autumnal mix.

Let’s start here, in autumn, my favorite season. We’re situated not only in real time, but common time. A four-four beat, the most workaday musical signature, will set the pace for our journey. Are you ready? The ferry’s just about to take off.


Buiten Dienst (sketch 20 Oct. 2018)

Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator and artist originally from Texas who came to Amsterdam 13 years ago by way of New York. She lives in Amsterdam Noord with her English husband, Dutch son, and two wild backyard bunnies. https://www.rachellemeyer.com

 The Faces on the Ferry installation can be seen through Nov. 17th in NDSM Fuse, NDSM-plein 85, Amsterdam Noord. https://facesontheferry.nl

Hush (sketch 3 Sept. 2018)


Old and Young - By Emile Waagenaar


When Milton Vanicor, 90 years old in this picture, was still a child, his father made this 1-string fiddle for him. It only sounded good if it was a ‘Prince Albert’ cigar box. His wife Odile used to arrange the financial agreements for the bands Milton played in, among others The Lacassine Playboys with Iry LeJeune. After I took this photo Odile wanted to know what the photo was going to be used for. She looked very doubtful when I said I didn’t know yet.

Cajun music and culture are not just for the elderly. I visited Kira Viator in 1998, when she was about 12 years old. She was surrounded by her collection of stuffed animals. Kira has had her own band for years now, and says she plays Cajun music out of respect for her musical heritage and for the ‘Cajun Country’ way of life.

Steve Riley, older than Kira but a lot younger than Milton, is the great example of the renewal in Cajun music in the late 1980’s. He played the traditional songs just a little differently than the generation before him, with a bit more ‘modern floating beat’ as I call it. When I photographed him in his apartment in September 1997, he had just returned from a tennis match. On sandals. He held his head a little crooked, but that went fine with the crooked frame on the wall and the crooked bin next to the couch. Good Cajun music also sounds a bit crooked.

D’Jalma Garnier, a fantastic Creole Cajun fiddler, warned me that I hadn’t photographed enough Creole Cajun musicians. I have to agree – but they don’t really live in my neighborhood either.

Morris Ardoin, a Creole Cajun musician who lived on Creole Road in Mamou, brought me to his father, another living legend, Alphonse ‘Bois Sec’ Ardoin. He got his nickname ‘Bois Sec’ because, when working in the fields, he always was the first to sit dry at home when it started to rain. The black Creoles often have horses, that is why I thought the old horse trailer was a nice background.

Boozoo Chavis, more a Zydeco than a Cajun musician, lived in Lake Charles and I had heard that he gave a big garden party on Labor Day. But I didn’t have his address. When I arrived in Lake Charles I saw the TV studios. The main entrance was closed, but through a back door I entered in a small canteen where 2 women were eating at a table and another woman was sweeping the floor. Asked if anyone knew where Boozoo Chavis lived, the woman with the broom shouted with her beautiful Southern Louisiana accent, “Oh boy, that’s my brother, wait a minute until I’m done and I’ll take you there.” Another wonderful Louisiana coincidence.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info: here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon here.

This is the final of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

See You Later, Alligator! - By Emile Waagenaar


Shelton Manual was blind. Long ago he was blinded by a bullet during the hunt. So he could not see what his room looked like. He had a housekeeper who benefited from it and had taken half the interior of his house. Shelton’s neighbor welcomed us warmly and showed us to the living room. I saw Shelton in a small bedroom, the door ajar. I heard him whispering with the neighbor: “Are these guys ok?”. “Yes, they are,” the neighbor whispered back a little too loudly. Shelton had become more careful who he brought into his house. His neighbor watched his guests. We had a wonderful time with this still happy living legend.

Don Montoucet from Scott, Louisiana, couldn’t stand mess. He pulled out a white sheet to hide the dirty carburetors on the table. Of course there was no time to tidy up in Don Montoucet’s life, because in addition to the automobile and agricultural garage, he was also a bus driver on the school bus in Scott, he manufactured triangles with a double curl at the ends and cared for his wife who had Alzheimer’s. But luckily he had time to pose for me, below his mounted trophies.

Bobby Charles of Abbeville told me that he had written the song “See you later, Alligator!” at the age of 15. He played it on the piano for the family and some friends. Someone asked if he could have it, Bobby thought it was fine and just gave that song away.

He got that worldwide hit in his head when one afternoon, in 1955, when he left the bar and called in the doorway “See you later, alligator!”, a girl in the back of the bar shouted “After a while, crocodile!”  He went back inside to ask who had called out, and he thanked the girl who timidly replied that it was her. When he got home he wrote the alligator and crocodile song that was made world famous by Bill Haley & His Comets. The girl later became his wife. He also told me that he was still trying to get the rights to that song back. Years later he finally succeeded, but shortly afterwards he died. He wasn’t able to enjoy the royalties for very long. “After a while, crocodile!”

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info: here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon here.

This is the sixth of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 


Eddie, Eddie, Ervin, Rodney and Doris Leon - By Emile Waagenaar


I also visited several small but world-famous sound studios such as Eddie Shuler’ s Goldband Records in Lake Charles, not far from the Texan border. A small dark recording studio where in 1959 Eddie recorded the first single by Dolly Parton, then 13 years old, called ‘ Puppy Love’ . But also in the 1950’s he made the first recordings of Iry LeJeune, the legendary half-blind father of Ervin and Eddie LeJeune. He also repaired television sets. In 2017 they tore down that historical building.

Iry LeJeune died in a car accident at the age of 26 in 1955. I first met his son Eddie LeJeune in September 1998, when I photographed him with his grandson Emerson Jr. at their house in Morse. When Eddie went on tour in Europe a few months later, I met him again at a gig in the Netherlands, in the Blues Café in Apeldoorn. He was wearing the same house slippers that he wore in his living room in Morse.

Ervin Lejeune showed me the accordion and fiddle of his father Iry. He was an accordion builder and a passionate Cajun musician. When I bought one of his handmade accordions I paid him with all the money and checks I had with me, but I still came up $30 short. That was fine with Ervin. He said: “Ok, now we go out for a crawfish meal!” I said, “But Ervin, I have no money anymore!” Ervin with a big smile: “But I have!”

Ervin died on January 26, 2018, 67 years old.

Rodney Lejeune, a cousin of Iry, lived just across the border in Texas, in a town called Nederland. It was founded in 1897 by farmers from the Dutch province of Friesland. When Rodney saw that I wanted to take a picture with an image of Obama on the giant tv set, who was still in the election battle, he said kindly but strictly: “Oh no, not with that man!”

Looking for Mr. D.L. Menard, I stopped at a police station in Erath to ask directions. “Drive a little until you get to a small bridge with trees on the left, that’s where he lives.” But after 10 minutes,  not a bridge with trees in sight. I went back to ask again. “Just keep on driving”, was the answer. After another 10 minutes still nothing, but I did see some people standing by a house. As I approached them, a man came up to me and asked if he could help me. “I’m looking for Mr. D.L. Menard.” “Well, that’s me,” the man said, “follow me.” He had been visiting friends. It was at least another 10 minute drive to his house. Now I know that “a little further” in America is at least another 20 miles.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info, click here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon here

This is the fifth of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

Cajun Musicians At Home - By Emile Waagenaar


In those first years I traveled from here to there, on roads like the LA 82, passing the Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge near Grand Chenier. No idea where I would end up.
But the more musicians I got to know, who all referred me to other musicians, the more I got the idea that I was working on a special project, photographing the founders of Louisiana’s Cajun music at home in their living room, kitchen or in front of their car. The pictures you always saw of musicians were during performances, never how they lived at home.

In 1982, for example, I visited Leroy ‘Happy Fats’ LeBlanc, a former alderman in Rayne, a radio DJ and guitarist and singer with the Rayne-Bo-Ramblers. Happy Fats was in his pyjama jacket and wanted to be photographed with an old guitar without strings. He was very ill. A year later a son of his set fire to his mobile home, and he had to go to a nursing home where he died on February 23, 1988.

No ‘Happy Fats’ at all.

The city of Rayne, about 18 miles west of Lafayette, is known for its murals with frogs and for the annual Frog Festival organized by the local newspaper, the Rayne Acadian Tribune. Myrta Fair Bradbury Craig, 74 years old in 1982 and director of the Tribune, photographed me with her beautiful Ya-Ya-Yashica camera for an article in her newspaper. It was a nice story, this strange guy from the Netherlands who came to photograph frogs!

I found the oldest frog mural in Rayne, Frog Capital of the World, next to the beautiful Worthmore five & dime store on North Adams Avenue. Both the store and the wall painting are from the end of the 19th century. When I visited it again in 2017, you could hardly see the entire painting for the trees.

Another great musician from Rayne is Jo-El Sonnier. He opened the door for me with a big yawn, he’d had a late night. When he heard that I was from the Netherlands, he pulled me into his living room. A few months before, had he had an interview with a prestigious music magazine from the Netherlands, Block Magazine, and would I please translate. After an hour of translating of 8 pages he said “Bien, that was a good interview”, climbed on his exercise bike and started playing some songs from his new LP for me.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info: here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon here.

This is the fourth of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

A Warm and Humid Evening in Louisiana, 1982 - by Emile Waagenaar


On a warm and humid evening in May 1982 I got off the Greyhound bus in Lafayette. I found myself standing at the crossroads of another culture, across from the Grant Street Dance Hall.

I went into a bar where a band was playing, they told me it was Zydeco. Good music, but not what I was looking for. This is Rockin’ Dopsie & Zachary Richard playing at the Grant Street Dance Hall in that same year, 1982.

That evening someone gave me the name and address of the godfather of Cajun music, Ambrose Thibodeaux, written on a paper napkin. The next morning I met Ambrose in his yard, mowing the lawn. He was very surprised that somebody from the Netherlands was interested in his music! He put away the lawn mower and we went into his house. For the rest of the day.

One of the places where I discovered real Cajun music and culture was at Fred’s Lounge in Mamou. People gave me the names of musicians scribbled on little pieces of paper or on cardboard beer coasters. Time and again I was surprised by the cultural endurance of this relatively small group of people. Both old and young keep their history alive through a simple bond—the culture, the language, and the songs of their ancestors.

Fred’s Lounge is a special pub. After Fred’s death, his wife Sue (‘Tante Sue’) kept the bar open only on Saturday mornings, from 9 to 1 pm, with live Cajun bands. Here Kurt Daigle and friends are hanging out at Fred’s on one of those Saturday mornings. On my first trip, in 1982, I visited Fred’s at 10 in the morning and asked for a cup of coffee. Sue looked at me and said almost angrily, “Coffee? I don’t have that, you have to be across the street at the hotel on the corner. Here you can get beer or whiskey!”

At Fred’s Lounge a nice lady gave me the name and address of another living Cajun legend, Aldus Roger. Aldus was married for the third time, his wedding photo hung over his couch. I got a 45-rpm from him and I asked if he would sign it for me. His wife did that for him because he had never learned to write. As a child, he was constantly hit with a ruler on his fingers when he spoke French at school and not English. Then his father took him out of school to help pick cotton in the fields.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info, click here. To order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon: click here.

This is the third of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

Cajun Origins in Acadie - by Emile Waagenaar


The Cajuns trace their history back to French people who left their homes in the 1600’s and ventured to Acadie (today’s Nova Scotia, Canada). Among these migrants were carpenters, notaries, even prostitutes. Later, many French farmers and fishermen also moved there. This is a passenger registration list from 1636, from the Archives Départementales de Charente Maritime in the French town of La Rochelle, with the names of several early settlers in Acadie.

They originated mainly from small villages such as this one, Beauvoir-sur-Mer in the Vendée, and from the départements of Normandy, Brittany and Poitou-Charentes. Their descendants would become known as the Acadians. In 1755, the British, who had taken control of Acadie earlier in the eighteenth century, began dispersing the Acadians across North America and Europe.

In 1774, one group of Acadian refugees ended up back in France. The Marquis de Pérusse d’Escars built them 150 farms near Archigny in Poitou-Charentes, in an area still known as ‘La Ligne Acadienne’.

Each family got a house, a harrow, a plow, a wagon, two oxen, two cows and 42 acres of land. Some of the buildings are still standing, although the houses are more often used as barns today. For some of the Acadians (‘Acadiennes’) in France, as well as for others scattered around the northern Atlantic, Spanish Louisiana beckoned as an attractive option for resettlement. Originally founded as a French colony, its inhabitants shared a language and religion with the dispersed Acadians.

This sign marks the home of Francois Daigle and Jeanne Holley, who lived here in 1774. More Acadiennes started arriving in Louisianain the mid-1760’s and on through the 1780’s. The colonial government settled them along the bayous and prairies of south Louisiana, where over time they developed a distinctive culture and their name was corrupted into ‘Cajuns’. Influenced by neighboring black Creoles, and bringing their own historical references to the table, by the twentieth century these Cajuns created music rooted in its heritage yet almost constantly evolving.

After 25 years working as a manager at Burger King, Bay Hebert decided to change his life dramatically. He went to live with his wife and son as his ancestors had lived in Louisiana in the 19th century. This is him plowing his land with his two mules near Carencro, Louisiana, in 1998. A wonderful example of slowing down, just a pity that he died a few years later. While plowing his donkeys were startled by something, Bay fell and hit his head on a rock, and did not survive.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info: click here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon: click here.

This is the second of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

How I Discovered Cajun Music - By Emile Waagenaar

This is the first of a series of blogs for the John Adams by the Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar, author of the book ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South

Louisiana’ for which he photographed Cajun musicians at home. The blog will appear biweekly on our website. 

It all started in 1979. On the radio I heard a Dutch-American music program called ‘Nashville’, playing music that was completely new to me. So pure, so honest. It turned out to be Cajun music from Southern Louisiana.Three years later I traveled there to find it. Being a photographer, I made some portraits of some of the pioneers, but also of the next generation of younger musicians who were carrying on the Cajun tradition. And I went to places in France where the Cajuns originally came from.In 2010 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC enthusiastically accepted my donation of sixty-four portraits of Cajun musicians. Curator of photography David Haberstich wrote an article about it. You can read it here.

My book Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana was published in 2017 by the University of Louisiana Press at Lafayette. It has twice been nominated as the best photo book of 2018 by an independent American publisher.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will lecture on his photo series in Utrecht. More information can be found here.
You can order Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana from Amazon here.


When I was visiting my cousin in Boston, he showed me a picture of me in an old family album. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was 7 years old, wearing my grandfather’s hat and vest and holding a real Cajun toy accordion. I had totally forgotten that I had ever had that accordion…. And 25 years later I started photographing the real musicians, like Ambrose Thibodeaux.




Ann Savoy, who wrote the foreword in my book, is an author, a record producer and a photographer. She is also a musician, and plays guitar, fiddle and accordion. Ann has written about the history of the Cajuns, and in 2006 she made an album with Linda Ronstadt, ‘Adieu False Heart’, that was nominated for a Grammy.

How America was lost - by Willem de Bruin


The merchants of St. Eustatius were used to the presence of British warships around the island, on the lookout for ships with supplies for the rebellious settlers in North America. It therefore took some time before they realized that the fleet approaching the island on the morning of February 3, 1781, came for a different purpose.

After the warships had cast their anchor in the bay of Oranjestad, a sloop rowed ashore from the flagship. The officers on board climbed the path to the fort, where they handed the following statement to a totally overwhelmed governor De Graaff: ‘We the General Officers, commanding his Britannic Majesty’s Fleet and Army in the West-Indies, do, in his Royal Name, demand an instant Surrender of the Island of Saint Eustatius and its Dependencies, with everything in and belonging thereto, for the Use of his said Majesty. We give you One Hour, from the Delivery of this Message, to decide. If any Resistance is made, you must abide by the Consequence.’

Nest of villains

Great Britain was presented a casus belli when the Royal Navy in September 1780 intercepted an American ship on the Atlantic Ocean. One of the passengers was Henry Laurens, special envoy of the Continental Congress. In his luggage he carried the draft of a secret trade agreement between the United States and the city of Amsterdam. Surely no more evidence needed of the insidious behavior of the Dutch?

War was declared on December 20, 1780. The first war goal was set in advance: the island of St. Eustatius, ‘this nest of villains’ as commander of the British fleet admiral George Rodney put it. “If it had not been for the treasonable assistance” of the island’s merchants, “the American War must have been long since finished.”

Admiral George Bridges Rodney had a questionable reputation. No one doubted his capabilities as commander of the fleet. But there was also George Rodney the gambler, who only barely managed to keep his creditors at bay. In those days it was still customary in wartime for the crew of the fleet to share in the proceeds of the seized goods. But what was legitimate war booty in this case? All the goods or only from those traders who had done business with the Americans? And were British citizens from nearby islands who had settled on St. Eustatius excluded?

Rodney decided to keep it simple. This was a unique opportunity to free himself from all his worries. He ordered the confiscation of all goods on the island. His greed was apparent from a letter to his wife: “The riches of St. Eustatius are beyond all comprehension. The capture is prodigious.”

Rodney was asking for trouble. Soon the British merchants filed a series of complaints against the admiral, maintaining that he was not entitled to expropriate British citizens.

The worst was yet to come

But the worst was yet to come. The main purpose of occupying St. Eustatius was to cut off the supply line of the insurgents, enabling Great Britain to win the war. But George Washington was no longer fighting alone. In 1778 France had entered the war and had already sent a number of troops, though not enough to tip the balance. However, in the course of 1781 a large fleet set sail for Martinique, the main French naval base in the West Indies. It was obvious that the ships would set sail for North America from there. Thus it was of the utmost importance to prevent them doing so.

But Rodney was too busy filling his pockets and did not take the threat seriously enough – and the French fleet sailed unhindered to the American east coast. The result was a crushing defeat for the British in the Battle of Yorktown, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, in October 1781. They would never overcome this blow. As Edmund Burke later declared in the House of Commons: the capture of St. Eustatius indeed ended the war, but not in the way that Great Britain had envisioned.

This is the third and last blog in the series ‘The Golden Rock’, based on Willem de Bruin’s book by the same name on the role the Dutch island of St. Eustatius played in America’s war of independence. De Bruin worked for most of his career at the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant, as editor of the news section and later of the op-ed page where he was responsible for the daily editorial. He wrote essays for various sections of the newspaper on both domestic and international topics. He left the newspaper in 2011 to write books on history.

‘You find here everything’ - by Willem de Bruin


When in the spring of 1775 the first shots sounded in the American War of Independence – as it would later be known -, neither party was prepared for a prolonged struggle. Washington’s Continental Army faced many problems. His army was not only smaller, but in need of everything, especially weapons and gunpowder. So when Captain Robinson set sail on the Andrew Doria from Philadelphia in October 1776, his instructions were to sail to the Dutch island of St. Eustatius and bring back any and all supplies you can lay your hands on.

The British navy did everything in its power to prevent supplies from reaching the insurgents. Both the Dutch Republic and France were only too happy to provide the necessary war-material for the British settlers, though their motives differed. For the Dutch, selling arms and gunpowder to whoever wanted them was simply a pragmatic matter of supply and demand. The French, on the other hand, were primarily interested in weakening the enemy.

Bustling free port

But transport by ship from Europe directly to the east coast of America soon became too risky. The solution was to let the shipments make a detour via the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. The French colony of Martinique was used for the same purpose. The cargo was picked up there by American ships.

At the time St. Eustatius was already a bustling free port where merchants from all nationalities met to do business, hence the nickname The Golden Rock. Walking through the now almost deserted Lower Town you can still see the ruins of the warehouses and shops that once stretched over a distance of nearly two kilometers along the coast. A visitor wrote in 1775: ‘It were endless to enumerate the variety of merchandize in such a place, for in every store you find everything.’

All trade, legal and illegal

The island acquired this position thanks to its strategic location and the monopoly the other powers – Great Britain, France, Spain – maintained on the traffic with their colonies. As a consequence, the British, French and Spanish possessions in the region were not allowed to trade directly with each other. The Dutch, however, traded with everybody. The Dutch West-India Company therefore saw the opportunity to create a neutral free port, open to all ships and to all trade, legal and illegal. The island offered a range of services, including the reflagging of ships, the repackaging of goods and the ‘adjustment’ of freight lists to conceal the nature of the merchandise or its origins.

The war in Britain’s colonies in North America offered new opportunities. No more lucrative trade than the arms trade. In the eyes of the British government the selling of arms to the rebellious settlers was a hostile act, but the profits outweighed the risks. In an attempt to secure the delivery of the badly needed supplies, the Continental Congress in the fall of 1775 ordered the foundation of what was to become the US Navy. The Andrew Doria was one of the first ships to be put into service.

Double-dealing Dutch

The salute the warship received in St. Eustatius strengthened the morale of the insurgents, but the British government became more convinced than ever that the Dutch were double-dealing. That put both countries in an awkward position. The merchants in the Dutch Republic gambled on a victory for Washington’s army and already dreamed of the possibilities the American market offered. But they also knew that Holland, with its neglected fleet, could not win a war with Great Britain.

London in turn was eager to punish the Dutch for their support of the insurgents, but then England would lose its only ally – at least on paper – in Europe. Both countries tried to avert a war without making concessions. In the aftermath of the ‘first salute’ the Dutch authorities kept the British at bay by promising an investigation into the behavior of the governor of St. Eustatius. The British government finally lost the momentum and had little choice but to wait for the next chance to teach the Dutch a lesson.


Next week part 3: How America was lost at St. Eustatius

Journalist Willem de Bruin worked for most of his career at the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant, as editor of the news section and later of the op-ed page where he was responsible for the daily editorial. He wrote essays for various sections of the newspaper on both domestic and international topics. He left the newspaper in 2011 to write books on history.


The First Salute - by Willem de Bruin


St. Eustatius – or Statia as the English-speaking islanders say – is hardly a tourist destination. Unlike neighboring St. Maarten, visited by thousands of Dutch and American holiday-makers, St. Eustatius has no golden beaches. Yet this small Dutch island on the northern end of the Lesser Antilles is popular with divers, who are attracted by the numerous shipwrecks in the surrounding waters – all of them reminders of St. Eustatius’ turbulent past.

The island’s history is closely related to that of the United States. To learn more about this, you have to leave the lower part of the only town on the island, Oranjestad (Orangetown), and climb the Old Bay Path to the picturesque Upper Town, built on a cliff forty meters above sea level. The first major building on the top is Fort Oranje (Fort Orange), balancing on the edge of the cliff.

Fort Oranje in the 18th century

Flagpole and plaque

Entering the complex through the small gate, you cannot miss the huge flagpole in the center of the courtyard. On its base a plaque states: ‘In Commemoration of the Salute to the flag of the United States fired in this fort on 16 November 1776 by orders of Johannes de Graaff, Governor of Sint-Eustatius in reply to a national gun-salute fired by the United States brig-of-war Andrew Doria under captain Isaiah Robinson of the Continental Navy. Here the sovereignty of the United States of America was first formally acknowledged to a national vessel by a foreign official. Presented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States of America.’

Roosevelt presented the plaque in 1939. Others followed. One plaque on the fort’s wall is from the nearby American Virgin Islands, maintaining that the salute to the Andrew Doria turned the Dutch Republic into ‘the first nation to officially recognize America’s independence’. Though this claim is somewhat at variance with the historical truth, at the time the event was certainly seen this way.

Eleven salutes

What actually happened on November 16th, 1776? That day the commander of the fort, Abraham Ravené, saw an unknown brig approaching. As was the rule, the ship carried the Dutch flag on the main mast. But from which country was the flag waving from the foremast and the stern? From a distance it looked like the ‘red ensign’, the flag all British ships carried, but on this one the red plane was divided in thirteen stripes. And was the brig a man-of-war or a merchantman?

Before anchoring the ship discharged eleven salutes, forcing the commander to decide with how many salutes he would answer: with two less, as was the rule when greeting a merchantman, or with an equal number, confirming the ships status as a war vessel – and by implication recognizing the country it represented? He asked the governor, Johannes de Graaff, for advice. Without knowing the status of the ship either he ordered: answer with two shots less.

It turned out, however, that the brig, named Andrew Doria, was a converted merchantman now in the service of the recently founded Continental – later US – Navy. It bore the new flag of the United States of America. The consequences of De Graaff’s order, therefore, were far-reaching. The governor’s defense that the salute from the island’s fort proved he was convinced that he was dealing with a merchantman, made no impression on the British government. In Britain’s view this was the utterly unjust recognition of a bunch of rebels – a hostile act Great Britain could not accept.


Next week part 2: Why did the Andrew Doria sail to St. Eustatius?

Journalist Willem de Bruin worked for most of his career at the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant, as editor of the news section and later of the op-ed page where he was responsible for the daily editorial. He wrote essays for various sections of the newspaper on both domestic and international topics. He left the newspaper in 2011 to write books on history.

And so the Story Ends - by Laila Frank


My first week in Los Angeles was miserable. Months of fantasizing about a new life and a new career reality ended in a shitty campervan in a garden in the Valley, an empty mailbox, loneliness and instant self-doubt. On the fourth day I drove my rental car straight into the rear end of a sharp white Nissan on the 405-highway. The sound of metal crushing was the sound of my evaporating savings and a reminder that procrastination is not a good idea when it comes to arranging car insurance. In seven days I went from journalist on an adventure to immigrant illegally scraping a lousy job as a furniture mover for a bossy Hungarian women I deeply disliked.

It was a bad start, but it made for a good story – at least so my friends in LA kept telling me. In the end, stories were what I had come to the Mecca of podcasts, documentaries and movies for. I wanted to understand what makes Americans so good at telling stories and why they value it so much that they start teaching storytelling at kindergarten. Why every soul I meet on the road seems to be able to tell you a novel-worthy version of their lives. Why I can’t buy a pack of cereal without consuming a brand story and why commercials from American politicians can move me to tears where Dutch ones just make me feel uncomfortable.

This is where the plot twists: I didn’t find my answer in LA. I found it in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights was my first stop on an afternoon with time to kill. Not far into the exhibition the museum guard escorted me to an imitation of a bar in a 50’s diner. “Take a seat,” she said. “Put your hand on the bar and close your eyes. I’ll put on your headphones.” Instantly I am sucked into history. A man asks me what I want to drink. “Coffee please.”  Just after he pours me a fresh cup, a group of men come in and start shouting. ‘What you doing here nigger, you filthy piece of shit.’ They hit me. I fight back but they are with too many. My bones crack. Blood drips from my head. I fall to the floor. I am not supposed to be there. I want to get out. Get me out! Silence. The lady taps me on my shoulder and tells me it is over. I know it’s fake. But it makes me cry. And I am truly angry.

In the mood for something a little more cheerful I cross the square where a smiling face and a can of Coke welcome me to the Coca Cola Experience: a genius piece of marketing. A museum built solely on visitors making selfies with Coca Cola paraphernalia from around the globe and sharing them on social media while being high on liquid sugar. It all starts with an obligatory group tour and a short movie. For five minutes, my brain is injected with stories about friendship, family and Coca Cola. And although I know it is all a lie, and I am fully aware that I am being worked, I can’t help it: I cry. Again. Yet this time my tears have nothing to do with injustice. This time it is a carefully orchestrated artifact of capitalism that sincerely moves me.

Two slices of Americana served at the same square on the same afternoon. They couldn’t be more different yet they are both communicated through powerful stories. It made me realize that stories in America are not just an art form or a way to transfer knowledge: storytelling is a necessary survival skill in America. You need it to sell: yourself, a politician or a brand. You need it be heard. You need stories to prevent history from being repeated. There are so many fights to be fought in America, so many products to be sold. The ones that tell a good story will always win from the ones that don’t.

After that first week, things got better quickly. Work started flowing, a better neighborhood brought new friends and I never received a bill from the car crash. Yet now my adventure in LA comes to an end. Time to explore new parts of America. Time to find new stories.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.

The Architecture of Being Lonely - by Laila Frank


Chris looked like the popular hunk in a teenage movie. His defined jawline, toned muscles and shiny set of teeth kindly greeted me at his door in Corpus Christi, Texas. Like most estates in that part of Texas, the place looked more like a castle then like the single-family home it really was. Two dogs the size of calves frolicked around on the ground floor – a huge open space – hampered only by furniture of the most essential kind.

A television screen as big as a small camper van just started screening an NBA play-off game and Chris invited me to join. We casually chatted and cheered through the first half. Turned out Chris had moved to Texas for work: he reorganized hospitals for a living. At age 32, it had provided him with a huge paycheck and enough savings to retire at forty. “Let’s drink”, he said at half time and offered me a shot of cherry flavored vodka. My lack of enthusiasm sparked a quick drive to the liquor store: by the start of the second half, 3 bottles of wine had joined us. As the night unfolded, I realized I had mistaken his generosity for loneliness.

Quickly into the second half, Alexa joined the conversation. I didn’t take Amazon’s virtual assistant to be more than a fun addition to our evening and an endless source of basketball trivia. Then, after singlehandedly consuming two and a half bottles of wine, Chris turned to Alexa and asked her to wake him at 6 am. “I like it when she wakes me”, he said. “She asks me how I slept. Sometimes I tell her my dreams.”  I didn’t know what to say. He continued: “When I get home after work, I talk to her. She’ll ask me about my day. People keep to themselves out here. It is hard to find new friends. Alexa is my friend no matter what.” He finished his glass and went to bed.

Chris fits a harsh statistic. Half of Americans experience severe feelings of loneliness, a recent large-scale survey from a health care provider showed. Thirteen percent of Americans say that zero people know them well. Although the scale of the problem is growing, it is hardly a new insight. In the 60’s architect Paolo Soleri took on loneliness in his vision on urban planning. The widespread suburbs of America created a waste of natural resources, he said. It also designed compartmentalized lives where people just moved from A to B in cars and never met. Urban implosion rather then explosion was his solution: cities without cars where all aspects of life were within reach and natural resources were not wasted.

Soleri and his wife started the construction of Arcosanti, a prototype of his vision for urban design in the northern Arizona desert. It is an ongoing experiment. Volunteers that live and work in this remarkable piece of architecture keep Soleri’s heritage alive. A couple of weeks after my stay at Chris and Alexa’s, I am welcomed into the womb of Soleri’s love child. Our tour guide for the afternoon is Tim, a 35- year- old actor from New York City accompanied by a hangover he extensively apologizes for: they had a party the night before. Tim moved to Arcosanti in search of a different life: “less chased, more true connection”, he explains.

We follow his easy pace into the Arcosanti community, greeting residents shooting hoops in the open air, manually manufacturing bells –the signature souvenir of the Arcosanti foundation – or adding to the construction according to Soleri’s principles. His girlfriend – an artist he met at Arcosanti – joins us for lunch. “Come back any time”, he says as we exchange numbers and say our goodbyes.It is not hard to be lonely in America. I have met many wandering souls on the road. Their stories show there is no real recipe for loneliness. Some seek the company of others, some the company of nature and some the company of a virtual friend. At times it breaks my heart, watching their struggle. Yet I also find comfort in their stories. Because in the end, the search for love and belonging is what it is all about. And that is the one thing we’re all in together.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.




(The City of) What If - by Laila Frank


The place was deserted except for one man, carrying the unmistakable air of a long-life surfer. With a cigar between his lips he had sat his slender and tall body on a rock, patiently staring at the ocean. “Waiting for the waves?” I asked. “It might be a while”, he said. “Care to join?” We sat and waited. Richard, as it turned out, was not a man for chitchat. After about ten minutes he broke our silence: “I surf because the water is the only place I feel free. There is only the moment itself, the waves and the motion. There, I am present. In that moment, everything is perfect.”It turned out life had not been quite perfect. His ex-wife recently drank herself to death. Two years earlier they had divorced, leaving him with a large debt. She left him for his best friend. What if things had gone differently? he asked of no one in particular. The ocean responded to his reminiscing with a set of waves and we went in. We surfed in silence until sunset, grateful we had the waves to ourselves. Hungry and satisfied we decided to share our Christmas dinner at a funky little fish place a bit further up the coastal highway.

Richard was a gifted musician. “I wasted a lot of it on booze, though”, he said. Casually, the way only Americans can morph a celebrity into a conversation, he mentioned his favorite artist to play with was JJ Cale. A surfer late in life, I learned: they went into the water frequently. On one of their last sessions before his death, Cale made a remark that still haunts Richard: if you want to make it in this business you can’t hold back. You have to give all of yourself to it. “What if I had spent all that time on my music instead of drinking? What if I had spent all that time in the water on my music?” Richard asked of no one in particular. The waitress brought the check and we parted.

His ‘what if’ resonated on the drive home that night, passing endless strips of billboards with the promise of success and a life of fame and fortune. Los Angeles is filled with what ifs: American Dreams as business models captured and romanticized in many stories of Hollywood. What if tomorrow is my big breakthrough? What if I get the gig, the house, the girl, the investment, the part? One the one hand it’s this wonderful, contagious, palpable energy the City of Angels drives on. Whenever I need courage or the feeling that anything is possible, it’s always there providing inspiration on demand.

Most dreams don’t come true, though. ‘Part of the journey’, they say out here. You dust yourself off and try again. It’s part of the narrative. Richard moved me because he refused to march to that drum. He voiced the sound of broken dreams. He was a man who had given up on them and was not afraid to show it. He was a breath of fresh air in a choking mantra of success. I knew I did not have to feel sorry for him in any way. He would be fine. Richard had found his place in LA free of ‘what if’s’, the only place he was truly free. Richard had the ocean.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.






The Last Free Place on Earth - by Laila Frank


It was a little before sunset when the sign ‘Last Free Place on Earth’ welcomed us to Slab City. Abel drove up in his ragged pick up truck and the unmistakable aroma of marijuana to drop off the keys. Our home for the night was a gutted-out RV in the southern California desert, one of two that Abel and his wife rented out to make some extra bucks. “Do you want a tour? Hop on in!”

We pass Salvation Mountain – a handmade mountain dedicated to Jesus that artist Leonard Knight gave twenty years of his life to build. We sail past empty barracks, skillfully covered in graffiti and construction of waste transformed into pieces of art. “Is this a great place to life or what?” Abel cheers. He and his family are some of the few permanent residents of Slab City, a snowbird community in the Southern California dessert. Several thousand campers use the site during the winter months. ‘When the hornets arrive, it’s time to go. To darned hot,’ one of them explained on his way out late March.

I asked Abel how his family survives summer. “We lay under wet blankets all day and come alive at night. We adjust.” Leaving is not an option: the earthship he and his wife have built carefully over the years would most likely be squatted and leave them with nothing. It’s the downside of living in a community where government is absent. Hobo’s, beggars and addicts are as much part of the community as the RV-snowbirds and the permanent residents. But that lack of control is also what draws people to Slab City: no rules, no laws, no schools, no taxes; an alternative living community away from the norms and demands of society.

It has been four years since they arrived here from Colorado. Abel lost his job a couple of months after his wife Cherry did. They struggled to keep up with the bills and the requirements of city life. “We wanted to be free, just break out of it,” Abel explains, sitting outside the family earthship underneath a shed. They sold what they had no need of, packed up their four kids (2, 6, 8 and 10 at the time) and their leftover belongings and drove off to Slab City. Two years later, their fifth kid was born: a true ‘slabber’. All of them are homeschooled. “There is one other family with kids but we don’t really hang out,” their oldest daughter says. “Do you ever miss Colorado?” I ask. “I don’t know,” she answers and walks off.

There are many places like Slab City in the southwest of the States. Desolate spots where people go to be left alone and escape society. Some of them choose consciously to live off the grid. Some choose the desert sun just for winter. But most of the communities I visited over the year are filled with stories of people falling behind. The one thing they are truly free of is the fear to lose it all. That all American reality lingering somewhere around the corner only one lay off, unexpected hospital bill, divorce or a bad turn of events away. They have been there. Then they gathered what was left of their lives and drove off to Slab City or places alike.

On our way out, the irony of the welcoming sign we passed strikes me again. The Last Free Place on Earth is a sanctuary for those who have the liberty to leave if they choose. But if you don’t have a choice, you are captured in a phrase that promises freedom but gives you life.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.


Good Neighbours and Distant Friends - by Laila Frank

An unexpected gust of homesickness snuck up on me while watching a Scandinavian series on Netflix. Maybe it’s because everybody here seems to think Amsterdam is the capital of Scandinavia and I have given up explaining it’s really not. Nonetheless these gorgeous blond people driving around at night between Northern European countries, mingling languages that sound identical to me have become indicators of home. When away, the sound of exception becomes a reminder of where I am, and where I am not.

I contemplated on this lying butt naked, my head repetitively banged into the belly of a tiny Korean powerhouse wearing black panties I came up close with every time she bowed over to scrub my back. At least ten other women were voluntarily suffering the same routine in this particular area of the Korean spa, best described as the salon version of a cubical office. Beauty comes with a price. “Sit,” she said. “Go to sauna, 10 minutes. Then come back.”

A Korean soap opera on a huge screen awaited me in the dry sauna, volume way above relaxation level. I decided to sit in the hot tub instead. In the corner an older Korean woman was rubbing another woman’s back. A mother washed her daughter’s hair. Two friends were sitting on the side of the bath chatting, relaxing. The beauty of the bathing ritual struck me. Surrounded by naked bodies of all colors my white skin was an exception.


I hardly ever notice it anymore. Being a minority is everyday life; breaths of air I take in unaware. California is one out of five states with a minority (non-Hispanic) white population – only 38 percent. Asian Americans make up 15 percent of the population (the highest in the country) and 35 percent is of Hispanic decent, making California the third ‘Hispanic’ state (New Mexico and Texas being 1st and 2nd). No other city showcases diversity like LA. When you move to another part of the world, your get new neighbors. But when you move to LA, you get the world.

In Western Europe, our neighbor is the East Coast. We are focused on Washington DC and New York City. That’s where most of our news comes from and where our media are based. It’s where the biggest population of European immigrants historically set foot. Of all the mindsets in the States, it’s the one we know best and have internalized unaware. But in California, our neighbors are Mexico and Asia. News from those countries affects everyday life here more than what happens on the East Coast. Some of the newspapers out here with the largest editions are in Mandarin or Spanish.

The Far Left is a nickname for California I have come to appreciate in particular. It gives meaning beyond the obvious political statement and the independent character of the Golden State. It tells you where we are and who we live with. It tells you what shapes life out here. Therewith it tells you what we value. While the East Coast is our distant friend, Mexico and Asia are our good neighbors.

“Lay down,” the dominatrix yells at my return to the torture lab. While she climbs on my back for a massage, I realize I will miss her and the Far Left she represents dearly when I get back to Amsterdam. Because when far away, exception reminds me of where I am and where I am not.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.

Money Talks - by Laila Frank


“Do you have en emergency number you would like us to call? It saves you the expensive ambulance ride to the hospital in case something goes wrong during class. And welcome to your new yoga school!” “Happy to be here”, I reply, aware of the appropriate response. Yet inside I smile and warily shake my head: nothing reminds you of being in America like a casual remark about capitalism.

I remember the first time I noticed a remark like that. It was was on a memorable nocturnal Greyhound ride from Montreal to New York City, about a decade ago. Around 2 am a woman with six kids entered. With a toddler on her arms and a bunch of kids and bags in her wake she reached the back of the bus. A big man, vastly asleep occupied her seat. There was plenty of room in the bus but she wanted that particular one. Half awake he asked her to pick any other spot –easier for everyone. Bad move. Things got ugly quickly.

What started as a screaming standoff escalated into a full-blown showcase of a certain America: swearing, racial accusations, a scuffle and KFC-buckets flying around (thanks to a previous pit stop the bus smelled like fried chicken all the way to the Big Apple). The bus driver pulled over and called in the police. Unloaded we drove of to our final destination, hours delayed. What stuck with me more than anything was the argument the woman loudly screamed out over and over again: “I PAID FOR IT, I HAVE A RIGHT TO THIS SEAT.”

It may not seem like a world shocking remark but that simple sentence defines everyday interactions – big or small – in this country: if I pay for it, I have a right to it– whatever it may be. It’s the argument that makes all others disappear. Casual remarks about money and what having it or lacking it means keep sneaking up in everyday situations. When taking a bus ride, in random conversations with strangers, or taking a class in a California hippie yoga school. ‘Clasp your hand like you’re holding a 100 dollar bill’ is most certainly the most out of context instruction I have ever had in a yoga class. Namaste.

Ever since I moved to America, money is top of mind and not just because journalism pays shit and California is ridiculously expensive. Money is part of life and everyday conversations almost like the weather is in the Netherlands. Friends – rich and poor – all talk about their side hustles; their projects on the side to safe for a rainy day they are pretty sure will come one day.

It’s not just money in politics or income inequality, or Piketty’s Capital that expose capitalism’s meaning in society. It’s the remarks that keep on sneaking up in everyday rituals and habits. It’s the casual expressions that slip into a conversation, the friendly joke the bartender makes while pouring you a drink, the date that starts a conversation saying: I know I am a good catch, I am good for at least 300 grand a year (it was a very short date). I keep a list of these remarks. It grows steadily. And every time it does I smile on the inside, warily shake my head and answer the only way appropriate: “Happy to be here!”


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.

Dirty Joe - by Laila Frank


It had been two months since Dirty Joe caught a wave. The last one broke his arm; another casualty added to a long life of surfing. His return did not go unnoticed. It was a Sunday morning, just after sunrise. There is something magical about early morning sessions: the water still fresh and crisp, the sound of nature awakening. Every wave holds the promise of the day ahead.

Joe’s return instantly broke the code of silence on the water. The scattered group of old men I happened to float among started cheering and applauding. Dirty Joe was back!

It didn’t take long before Joe popped up next to me and introduced himself: “Hi gorgeous. I am Dirty Joe.” I couldn’t help but smile: “What kind of Dirty are we talking?”He laughed: “It’s just a nickname I picked up in the Navy.” “You’re not gonna tell me, are you?” Another big smile, a wink and off he went, catching another wave. “You want to know something else I picked up in the army?” He asked when he paddled back up to me. “People call me the dolphin whisperer. I can communicate with dolphins.”

Just as I threw my most sarcastic ‘uhuh’ at him, three fins popped out of the water in the distance. “Let’s go”, Joe hollered, paddling away swiftly. Out of breath I caught up. Joe sat up straight, radiating an air of calm and patience. The high whistle-like sound he created with his hands folded to his mouth, carried over the ocean. We sat in silence, gazing at the surface. On his second attempt it happened: seemingly out of nowhere and with the speed of light, they flashed by. My jaw dropped. I just looked at him in joyous disbelief. With a big wink and a twinkle in his eye Joe replied: “You better believe it, gorgeous! It’s playtime.”

Time stopped there and then. I have no idea how long we sat out there but I knew it was just Joe, me, and the dolphins. They jumped up and down alongside when we paddled, dove under our boards when we sat up. They swam off to return just as swiftly, their cheerful dolphin sounds reaching us before they did. Our soundtrack played a frolic back and forth of Joe’s sounds and the dolphin’s reply. Just as quickly as they came, they disappeared. We paddled back and parted. Joe caught up with his crew of old men and surfed like nothing had happened. I just sat on my board, mesmerized.

It was one of those magical California moments; an encounter with a random stranger and the beauty of the unexpected. Every now and then I get lucky and see the dolphins pass from my board. I never saw Joe again. But every time I’m out there and see a dolphin, I think of him and smile.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.



Under the Boardwalk - by Laila Frank


It’s a hot summer afternoon and Rob and I are walking the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Vendors display their goods while tourists stroll past, bodybuilders sculpt their torsos on Muscle Beach while musicians catch up with the sound of the ocean. It’s Hollywood at its most picture perfect: Venice Beach as it is known around the world. Like in Hollywood, though, nothing is as it seems.

We are reaching out to homeless teenagers, many of whom flock around this small strip of land by the sea. Although some of them clearly live on the streets, for the untrained eye most of them are unrecognizable as homeless people. “Shame and pride,” Rob explains. “They don’t want you to know, they just want to be like you.” One of his many lessons that day.

A little earlier Rob had sat me down. When a man like Rob speaks to you, you listen. “A bad case of hood disease,” he says. He got caught up in gang life and street culture.  That was then. He healed. Now he works to keep teenagers on the right track and off the streets he knows so well. He fires questions at me, testing his waters. Am I streetproof? I pass. “One more thing before we go out”, he says. “We are on gang turf. We are being watched. Play by the rules.”

“Wait, what?” My image of gang turf is not compatible with musicians and tourists. It turns out this little stretch by the sea belongs to not one but three gangs. Need a place to rest? Sell your stuff? Conduct business? Sure. Quid pro quo is what it means. Rob deals with the OG’s – Original Gangsters – so the kids can be safe. That afternoon, while I hand out water and information to the teenagers in need, Rob works a turf of his own. I watch the unspoken exchange of looks, fist bumps, signals. I watch him eagle-eying everything that goes unnoticed by the instagramming flock of tourists.

Last week I returned to the Boardwalk. It was the first time since that summer afternoon. The magic is there, it’s easy to tap into and forget about the worlds underneath. Strolling around it hit me, though, that California is exactly that: a fantasy on the outside – something for everyone, the place to make your dreams come true – but when you scratch the surface, you see an uncomfortable truth.

It is the capital of homelessness and income inequality. The richest state in the country also has the highest poverty rate. Middle-income families are moving out in high numbers, simply because they cannot afford the rent anymore. The cost of living is higher then anywhere else in the country, yet affordable housing is 3 to 4 million units short in California. The list goes on.

It has been almost a year since I landed in LA and California has been generous to me: there were many adventures, stories and encounters that I cherish. But at the end of the day, there is this aching feeling that something’s off. That California is broken. The state where you could once be poor and happy has become a state for the happy few. Ironically the resistance state, home of progressive Democrats has become the national symbol of income inequality. If that is not uncomfortable, I don’t know what is.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.



Up and Down the Ballot - By Iris Bos

It is almost two weeks since the U.S. Midterm Elections took place. As more and more races that were too close to call on or right after Election Day have finally been called, the new political landscape is slowly becoming clearer. Even though pundits on Election Night were sceptical at first, we did see a blue wave in the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party has already secured 231 seats, electing its most diverse class of members and improving their ability to check President Trump’s power. The Republican Party has expanded their majority in the Senate and with it the ability to continue building a conservative judiciary. However, as Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate seat in 30 years, the Republicans got the message that even reliable red seats are now in play.

On November 6th, Americans not only voted for a new Congress in Washington. The outcome of state and local elections often have a greater impact on people’s daily lives. As reading up on your national, state and local representatives can already be an afternoon’s work, voters in 37 states voted on a total of 157 ballot measures on Election Day. The measures dealt with many aspects of people’s daily lives, such as Medicaid expansion, abortion rights and voting rights.

Down the ballot, you will often find several ballot questions. In the Netherlands we have different types of referenda. Some are advisory, others are binding. This also goes for American ballot questions. Public officials can include an advisory question to ask their constitutions’ opinion on specific legislation, while ballot measures are a way for the public to directly pass or repeal a specific law – without it having to pass each chamber or requiring a signature from the governor.

The ballot measure that perhaps received most national media coverage is Florida’s Amendment 4, which would automatically restore voting rights for more 1.4 million ex-felons (about 9.2 percent of the voting-age population in Florida). The measure passed with an overwhelming majority of 65% of the vote. Even though some of the restrictions were put in place by Gov. Rick Scott (R), Amendment 4 received bipartisan endorsements. Many high-profile Americans campaigned in Florida to get the measure passed.

Other ballot measures will also have a substantial impact on people’s lives. The minimum wage of 900,000 workers will be increased in Arkansas and Missouri. The expansion of Medicaid – a program offering free or low-cost health coverage to the elderly, low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities – was passed in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah. This means that 300,000 more low-income American will receive health coverage. And Washington voted to tighten its laws on gun control, raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 years.

In 2016, transgender rights became national news when North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory (R) signed a law restricting cities from allowing transgender individuals to use public bathrooms for the sex they identify as. The people of Massachusetts decided otherwise on November 6th. They passed the nation’s first statewide vote on anti-discrimination protections for transgender people, prohibiting gender-based discrimination in public places.

The last ballot measure I want to highlight deals with abortion rights. With the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, many women around the country fear that their right to choose – protected by Roe v. Wade – might be taken from them if the Supreme Court decides to overrule. In that scenario, abortion rights will again be decided at the state level. Until then, the restrictions passed in Alabama and West Virginia two weeks ago that cease to recognize and protect a woman’s right to have an abortion, remain symbolic.


This is the sixth and final blog in our blog series about the Midterm Elections 2018. Contributions were made by Iris Bos, boardmember of Stem op een Vrouw, Kathelijne Niessen from Campagnebureau BKB and Casper Thomas from Het Financieele Dagblad and De Groene Amsterdammer.


Casper Thomas

Iris Bos

Kathelijne Niessen



Midterm Reflections - By Casper Thomas


Politics are about emotion, especially at the Midterm Elections in the U.S. that were widely seen as a referendum about the most controversial president in recent history.

Politics were also about emoticons on this Election Day. On the website of the New York Times, a ballot was shown throughout the day. You could click on it if you had voted, and express the feelings you experienced while in the booth: happy, angry, or worried. I had the card opened during the day and saw smiling, frowning or anxious faces constantly appearing.

Especially on the coasts the emotions danced across the screen, and it looked like the worried emoticons had the upper hand. It seemed to me a reflection of the nail biting of democratic voters in the cities in California and New York and other liberal strongholds. In their own states the ‘blue wave’ that was said to wash over the US was coming for sure. The question was what would happen in those races for the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Governor positions that symbolized the attempt of the Democrats to win back the country from Trump. In particular Beto O’Rourke’s attempt to defeat Ted Cruz in Republican stronghold Texas and Andrew Gillum’s candidacy, who had a chance to become the first Democratic governor in Florida in decades.



My study in Washington DC became a kind of ‘election cockpit’. MSNBC on my iPad, CNN on my computer, phone on twitter to track results. Sheets of paper to write down quick impressions and statistics.

A few examples: health care is a more important issue for voters than the economy, and that is what should help the Democrats. A quarter of the electorate thinks the violence that overshadowed these elections – mail bombs delivered to prominent Democrats, deadly attacks on a Pittsburgh synagogue and a yoga studio in Tallahassee – a determining factor in their vote, CNN reported. A question for later research: how exactly do voters think to bridge the extreme polarization with the choices they made these midterms?

The stakes were clear: The Democrats had instructed themselves to conquer the House of Representatives. That meant winning 23 seats from the Republicans. A feasible mission, with a lot of new candidates and a record number of women and minorities, who were able to harvest the unhappiness about Trump in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

For Republicans the Senate was the most important. From a favorable situation, the GOP had to retain its majority. Of the 35 seats that were contested, nine were in the hands of the Republicans, which – in short – gave little opportunity to the Democrats to steal something from the Republican Senate majority.

During the evening the predicted scenario gradually played out. The blue wave washed over the House of Representatives where the number needed of seats to win a majority was getting smaller and smaller. The ‘Red Wall’ in the Senate remained intact, and seems to have become even a little higher.

The two chambers in Congress reflected how the country is heading in two different directions. The Democratic posters boys did not make it. Around 10:00pm the press dared to declare that Beto O ‘Rourke was short of a couple of hundred thousands  votes to stop Cruz. While writing this, Gillum versus in DeSantis Florida is still ‘to close to call’ but it seems that DeSantis, a Trump epigone with the support of the president, will draw the longest straw.

The sports bar I went to to follow the results, empties out as the success of the two big Democratic promises seems unlikely. D.C. voters are in a peculiar situation; they may vote on Senators and Representatives, who do not have the right to vote in Congress. And so the political emotion was projected onto other states. But without the symbolic victory of Democrats, the blue wave feels somehow likean expected victory, without the intoxication of winning against the odds.

As soon as it becomes clear that the Democrats are going to win a majority in the House of Representatives, the conversation immediately switches to Trump. The President’s free reign made possible by the Republican majority in Congress is gone. With the House in Democratic hands, the Democrats can do what was impossible until now: force Trump to answer the many questions surrounding his presidency: about his tax return, about his business interests and ties between the Trump team and the Russians.

It is just before midnight when Nancy Pelosi appears in front of the cameras. She is the one Democrats project their partial victory upon. As the new leader of the House of Representatives, she will be the one to call Trump to account. These elections offered the Democrats momentum to rally the troops and for the Republicans to strengthen their line of defense. Both succeeded. The real battle for democracy in the U.S. starts now.


Casper Thomas is correspondent in Washington D.C. for Het Financieele Dagblad and editor of De Groene Amsterdammer.


Making it hard to vote - By Iris Bos

The United States is the oldest existing nation with a constitutional government in which the people elect their own government and representatives. However, most of its citizens do not participate in the process. Voter turnout in the U.S. is much lower than in most established democracies. In the midterm elections of 2014, only 36.7 percent of the population eligible to vote actually cast their vote. In presidential elections, about 60 percent generally cast their vote. Political parties encourage their base to go out and vote. Many companies – such as Facebook, Google and Spotify – also take action to make sure people participate in the political process. But whereas some people may simply not want to vote, others are actively discouraged.

The right to vote in the United States has been contested throughout the country’s history. Literacy tests, ‘good character’ tests and poll taxes are just three examples of mechanisms used to disadvantage minority voters. In 1920, women were guaranteed the right to vote by the 19th Amendment. However, many restrictions still hindered non-white women to vote.

Only in 1965 did the Voting Rights Act, signed into law during the height of the Civil Rights movement, give racial and ethnic minorities protection of voter registration and subsequent voting. But unfortunately, voter suppression is still present and actively discourages communities across the country from voting.

In many states, the question is whether people will be able to cast their votes at all. Ninety-nine bills were designed to diminish voter access in 31 state legislatures last year, such as tougher voter ID laws, restrictions to early voting and barriers to registration. Many Republican legislatures argue that these measures combat voter fraud, even though studies show that voter fraud is very rare.

Four cases stand out: in Florida, 1.6 million ex-felons will not be able to cast their vote this year. The state is one of four that prevents ex-felons from voting. In Kansas, the single polling station in Dodge City was moved to a location without a sidewalk or access to public transportation, discouraging the mostly Hispanic residents from voting. Secretary of State Kris Kobach has imposed many restrictive voting laws in the state.

Two other cases of voter suppression have received a lot of attention from the national media. In Georgia, Secretary of State and the Republican candidate for Governor Brian Kemp invoked an exact-match law to purge 53,000 voter registration applications from voter rolls. If the last name on your application missed even a hyphen, your voting status could be suspended. Important is the fact that nearly 70 percent of the registrations were from African-Americans, while they make-up 32 percent of the state’s population. Kemp is running against the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, who could become the first black woman governor in the United States. The measure is highly controversial, as Abrams’ campaign strategy put a lot of effort in registering 600,000 unregistered black voters. Last Friday, a U.S. District Judge ruled the state must relax restrictions that could prevent thousand of people from voting in today’s midterm elections.

In North Dakota, thousands of Native Americans are actively discouraged from voting in an important Senate race. The Supreme Court upheld a law that requires residents to show an ID when casting their vote. The law specifically disadvantages 5,000 Native Americans, as their ID has to show a residential street address. This is troublesome, as many Native Americans living on reservations only have PO boxes, not a street address.

The law could prove harmful to Senator Heidi Heitkamp. She is up for re-election and won her seat in 2012 by only 3,000 votes, many of which came from Native American voters. Maggie Astor, a reporter for the New York Times, spent three days in North Dakota reporting on the law. In a very interesting Twitter thread, she illustrates the efforts being undertaken by tribal officials to ensure everyone has an ID and an address.

During the 2016 Democratic Convention, President Obama had a simple message for the crowd in Philadelphia. Don’t Boo, Vote! But this might prove to be a serious problem for some Americans.


Iris Bos, boardmember of Stem op een Vrouw, is currently travelling across the United States. This is the third blog by Iris Bos about the Midterm Elections of November 6. “I hope to illustrate that this election is about more than President Trump and the question whether the Democrats will gain a majority in the House on November 6th. This election is about the country’s broken healthcare system and its ongoing system of voter suppression, but also about a wave of women running for office.”

Women to Watch - By Kathelijne Niessen


American politicians Stacey Abrams and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have a couple things in common. Until recently, the two women were relatively unknown on the national stage. Neither of them are ‘usual suspects’. And both of them could write history next week. On November 6, their names will be on the ballots in Georgia and New York.

It’s Time for a Political Revolution

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a candidate for the House of Representatives for the state of New York (14th district, Bronx/Queens). No one knew the 29-year-old Latina until last May, when she launched this campaign video. A month later she defeated Joe Crowley during the Democratic primary with 57.5% of the votes. Crowley has been a House Representatives for almost twenty years and was seen as a possible successor of Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House. In addition, his campaign funds were ten times those of his opponent.

Ocasio-Cortez, who actively campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016, does not accept any money from powerful and controversial Political Action Committees (PAC’s). Instead, she relies mainly on donations from donors and the efforts of volunteers.

How did she win? She gives a number of reasons:

– She actively involved the communities in the Bronx and Queens in the campaign and organized her team very effectively.

– The campaign had a very clear and successful message.

– With that same message, Ocasio-Cortez and her volunteers knocked on doors that were normally passed by. People finally felt heard, and voted for her in great numbers. With her campaign she reaches groups which – according to her – Democrats pay too little attention to: young voters, people who do not vote or are voting for the first time, minorities and the working class.

–  Since her victory last June, Ocasio-Cortez is hot news: every magazine and news channel wants to talk to the emerging political talent. The idea of ​​Ocasio-Cortez (in time) in the White House is not inconceivable for many enthusiasts. Everything indicates that she will be the winner on November 6th, which would make her the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. Yes she can!

Giving voice to those who feel voiceless

We head south, to Georgia. With her nomination alone, Stacey Abrams wrote history as the first female African-American candidate for governor. Next week she can actually become the very first female African American governor of the United States. That this is nowadays possible in the Deep South, given the history of the Civil War and the Afro-American Civil Rights Movement, makes it all the more exceptional.

Abrams receives a lot of attention for her campaign strategy. She does not focus on ‘flipping’ Trump voters. Her approach revolves around the conversation with new voters, minorities who think that their votes do not matter, and the mobilization of registered Democrats. Why? It’s simple math. The strategy is based on the statistics that there are enough people in Georgia to win these elections.

© Facebookpage Stacey Abrams

Abrams believes that people do not vote because they are given no reason to vote. Because they do not see candidates who represent their problems and concerns. She shares her personal story about having debts, about her brother’s struggles with mental illness and drug addiction and the consequences of a poorly functioning health care system. She connects personal stories to urgent themes and policies. In her mind, voters need to feel the urgency to actually make the effort to go to the ballot box.

In the presidential election, Donald Trump won Georgia by five percent. For fifteen years, the governorship in this state has been in the hands of a Republican. The election will be more nerve-racking for Abrams than for Ocasio-Cortez. The predictions of Nate Silver are currently 0.9% in favor of her opposing candidate, Brian Kemp. Still here supporters are hopeful that Abrams will write history in the red state of Georgia next week.


Kathelijne Niessen has a history degree in American Studies and works as a campaign strategist at Campaignbureau BKB. The history and politics of the United States seized her at a young age and intrigues her ever since. It brings her to the U.S. regularly, preferably during election time. In 2016 she campaigned for Hillary Clinton in Colorado for several months.

Rewriting the Playbook: A historic number of women are running for office - By Iris Bos


More women are running for political office this year than ever before. That is remarkable, given that feminism suffered a tough blow in the United States 2016 election. Not only did the defeat of Democratic presidential nominee and former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mean that women have yet to shatter the highest political glass ceiling in the United States, but the number of women in Congress and state legislatures failed to increase as well.

The minor increase of elected women is especially striking when placed in context. While the latter three decades of the twentieth century were characterized by a steady growth and later surge in female representation, the number of women in Congress has stayed relatively constant over the last election cycles. But next week’s election might shake things up.

The 116th Congress is expected to consist of a record number of women. Currently, there are 23 women serving in the U.S. Senate and 84 women in the House of Representatives, comprising 19.3% of House members. Only six states have a woman serving as their governor. Without intervention, the United States Congress will not eliminate the gender gap until 2117. The election of Donald Trump and defeat of Hillary Clinton might prove to be such an intervention.

Almost 500 women have filed to run for a seat in the House of Representatives, an increase of nearly 60 percent compared to the previous high in 2012. Unfortunately, many of these women ran in highly competitive districts or faced an incumbent as their opponent – greatly decreasing their chances. However, 235 of women candidates won their primaries. This is a promising number, knowing that only 167 women won their House primaries in 2016.

Interestingly, these candidates are not at all evenly divided by party: 78 percent of women candidates running for the House are Democrats. For U.S. Senate races, this is 65 percent. Scholars offer several explanations. Democratic women are more likely to be recruited for office and receive encouragement from elected officials and political activists, they are better represented in ‘pipeline professions’ (professions often held prior to running for political office, such as law, business, education, and politics). And more women’s organizations – such as EMILY’s List – focus on the recruitment and financial support of pro-choice, Democratic women. Moreover, women are still perceived to hold more moderate views than men. As the most conservative candidate usually wins Republican primaries, Republican women have to combat the perception that they are less conservative than their male counterparts.

This record number of women running and the fact that gender has emerged as an important theme in the 2018 midterm, doesn’t mean that the gender gap will be closed this year. As became apparent during the Kavanaugh hearings, party identification trumps gender when it comes to voting. Even though women are more likely to identify as Democrats, both men and women rarely cross party lines. This was also the case in 2016, when polls showed that 89 percent of Republican women voted for Trump. Polls show that this percentage is even higher this year. Moreover, party, race, education and class also divide female voters. Another important factor is turnout, as the gender gap does not automatically benefit Democrats. Higher than average turnout among white women in 2016 helped Donald Trump, so Democrats are relying on higher turnout among African-American women, Latinas and college-educated this year.

More transformational is the fact that women have changed the way in which they market themselves on the campaign trail. Women no longer want or need to conform to this playbook written by white male candidates. This year, women have re-written the campaign playbook. In campaign ads, women are taking their children to work, showing their tattoos and wearing jeans and a T-shirt instead of the traditional pantsuit. MJ Hegar, a veteran and House candidate from Texas, released a powerful ad focusing on her early experiences with domestic abuse, her career as an Air Force officer and her efforts fighting discrimination towards women. This not only shows voters the incredible diversity of women candidates, it will send a clear message to women who are thinking about running for office and even young girls that they themselves can write their own playbook.


Iris Bos, boardmember of Stem op een Vrouw, is currently travelling across the United States. For the John Adams Institute she will write several blogs on the midterm elections. “I hope to illustrate that this election is about more than President Trump and the question whether the Democrats will gain a majority in the House on November 6th. This election is about the country’s broken healthcare system and its ongoing system of voter suppression, but also about a wave of women running for office.


This Election is about Health Care - By Iris Bos


“My health insurance costs me $625 every month and I still pay a lot over-the-counter.” I’m on a Greyhound bus from Knoxville, TN to Washington, D.C. and it has broken down in a small town in rural Virginia. We have been waiting over six hours for a new bus to arrive out of North Carolina, so my conversation with the busdriver has shifted from the weather to more significant issues. The essence of his remarks? “Our health care system is broken and no-one seems to want to fix it or knows how to do so.”

Millions of Americans spend up to $500 – $1,000 per month on their health insurance, putting the United States at the top of the list of high-income countries’ medical expenses. However, researchers have not found that Americans use their medical system more often. Then why does all this money not translate into healthier people? Research points to the high prices of drugs, procedures and administrative services.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law. Ever since, Republicans have attacked the law, often referred to as Obamacare, and have carried out multiple attempts to reform or repeal it. The last four elections were dominated by discussion on the law and President Trump made repealing ACA a cornerstone of his campaign. The Republican party has succeeded in dismantling many parts of the law, but they have not successfully been able to unite around new legislation.

Republicans have abstained from another attempt to repeal the ACA this year. Moreover, many Republicans up for re-election are talking back their reform-or-repeal votes. Why? The issue of health care has steered away from the ACA and has instead focused on pre-existing conditions. Many Republicans voted to repeal the law. This meant taking away health care from people whose health conditions predate someone’s insurance coverage and stripping the provision that allows a child to stay on its parents’ insurance until age 25. As these two features of the bill remain very popular since its introduction, the Democrats have put them front and center of their campaign this year.

This year, Democratic groups spent nearly half of their money on health care ads: 44 percent of Democratic House races and 50 percent of their Senate campaigns discussed the issue. The divide with Republican races is stark, as the issue does not even make it into the top five issues for Republican Senate campaigns. Democratic candidates have blanketed the airwaves with their personal health stories: Senator Claire McCaskill from Missouri talks about her fight with breast cancer, while Senator Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin describes finding her mother, who had a drug abuse problem, passed out. The opioid crisis is an issue that has received a lot of the attention of candidates talking about health care.

I met Laurie Meschke, a Professor at the Department of Public Health at the University of Tennessee, at her office in Knoxville, where she outlines how this opioid epidemic has a major impact on families across the country. “While we have made access to prescription drugs more difficult, we see a stark increase in the use of heroin and thus in overdoses.” She emphasizes the interrelatedness between health care and policy and how to improve the country’s health care system. “Policy has the greatest impact on health care and it’s driven by politicians. But I think we are on the right track. I don’t think a complete repeal is good, but revision of our federal systems is always necessary. People change and so does our economy. I think we have to look at our tax laws and make sure that uber rich people are paying their fair share.”

So while people on the news and in Washington D.C. are mostly talking about Kavanaugh or Khashoggi, my busdriver from Tennessee and voters across the country will be thinking about their health care when they cast their vote on Election Day.


Iris Bos, boardmember of Stem op een Vrouw, is currently travelling across the United States. For the John Adams Institute she will write several blogs on the midterm elections. “I hope to illustrate that this election is about more than President Trump and the question whether the Democrats will gain a majority in the House on November 6th. This election is about the country’s broken healthcare system and its ongoing system of voter suppression, but also about a wave of women running for office.




A Knock on the Door - By Lize Geurts


 “There is a knock on the door. Whether or not the belongings are packed, the kids are ready, or the new plan is put in place, no longer matters.” A few sentences written on a wall plastered with eviction notices describe what happens to a family when their landlord one day decides it has been enough; it is time to evict. Their belongings are moved to either a storage space or the curb. And because a storage unit costs money, money that evicted tenants do not have, they often choose the latter. “The movers would pile everything onto the sidewalk: mattresses; a floor-model television; a nice glass dining-table and a lace tablecloth; the meat in the freezer.”

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

Each year more than 2.3 million Americans, most of them low-income renters, face eviction. The National Building Museum in Washington D.C. is now showing a collaborative exhibition with Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, based on his Pulitzer prizewinning book Evicted. Using photographs, videos, maps, installations and statistics, the exhibition puts faces to the names of the people who figure in Desmond’s reports about evictions in Milwaukee, and places them in the broader context of evictions and its consequences for American society. Desmond has also started a follow-up project, the website Eviction Lab (https://evictionlab.org/), which makes factual information on evictions accessible to a broad public.

The museum set it up to be an “immersive experience”. Four installations that resemble houses present the most important statistics. A large map of the United States uses different sizes of boxes to illustrate the number of evictions in each state on a yearly basis. It feels like walking through an architecture studio.

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

In a video dealing with the gap between low income and ever-rising rent, Desmond speaks of an eviction epidemic in America. More than two million people receive eviction notices every year. 2.4 million were carried out in 2015, almost equivalent to the number of foreclosures at the height of the housing crisis. As a consequence, the average age of a homeless person in the United States is now nine years old.

When an eviction is issued, the case goes to court. Ninety percent of the landlords have representation, while only ten percent of the tenants do. If the tenant does not show up, the case is dubbed a default. Desmond recorded the court judgements of a few days of eviction cases. The tape sounds like a broken record: “default, default, default, default”. And ‘default’ means that the landlord can legally evict. Many tenants fail to show up, as hearings often take hours, and people cannot find a babysitter or get off work. Also, you will not be taken seriously without a lawyer, and those are too expensive.

Desmond wanted the exhibition to be free, so that the evicted could come too. And they did. Keith, an older African-American man with round glasses who works at the museum information stand, has seen homeless people from the nearby shelter come to visit. Visitors left their comments in the guestbook. Some sympathetic: “I am here because my sister was evicted.” Some seem to feel guilty: “My parents are landlords, and I hope I can change their practices.” Landlords come too, but Keith says they complain about the representation of their profession.

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

And how about Washington D.C. itself?  The capital claims to be legally “tenant-friendly”, and it is – compared to cities without any legislation on the issue. But Washington is not low-income tenant-friendly. More than 40,000 households are on a waiting list for public housing that has now been closed for several years. The city is growing increasingly more expensive, and it is gentrifying. Keith: “The government is the main employer. Roughly 70 percent of the people living in Washington are employed by the government. They are paid minimum wage, at least. How can it still happen here?”

The ‘Evicted’ exhibition in the National Building Museum runs through May 19, 2019: https://www.nbm.org/exhibition/evicted/ This is the sixth blog in our seven-part series ‘Poverty and Profit in the American City’. The last blog will be an interview by Katherine Oktober Matthews with Matthew Desmond himself.

Interview with Matthew Desmond - By Katherine Oktober Matthews


In his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond reports on the contemporary American epidemic of evictions. His warning looms large: “Without a home everything else falls apart.” Told from the perspective of eight individuals being evicted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well as their landlords, Desmond’s investigative book addresses the scope of the crisis through personal narratives. Desmond will be speaking about his work at the John Adams Institute on July 4.

What is the relationship between poverty and housing?

Today, most home-renting families in America spend at least half of their income on housing, and about one in four spend over 70 percent of their income just on rent and utilities. We’ve had flat incomes, soaring housing costs and a failure of our federal government to bridge that gap. Under those conditions, you don’t really need to make a huge mistake to get evicted.

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

The burden of paying for housing is a direct cause of poverty, but so is eviction. It causes families not only to lose their homes, but everything. You lose your school and your neighborhood, you’re pushed into worse housing and into worse neighborhoods after you get evicted, and it impacts on your mental health, too. Your likelihood of holding a job is affected by eviction. All told, eviction it is not just a condition of poverty, it’s also a cause of poverty.

What makes housing such a linchpin to stability and the ability to keep afloat?

Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart. This is an insight that the Netherlands have taken very seriously throughout their modern history and it’s one that America has lagged behind on. Whatever the issue is that you care about, the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of that issue. If you care about school and stability, and kids not reaching their full potential in the classroom, you have to care about providing them with a stable place to live. If you care about reducing healthcare costs, then you should know that the top five percent of hospital users – the users who consume fifty percent of the costs in America – are folks whose unstable housing and medical conditions feed into each other. If you care about giving communities stability and a chance to keep themselves safe and produce a civic life, then housing is a big part of that story as well.

Housing is a fundamental issue in our life, certainly for low-income Americans. When families who have been on the waiting list for years finally get subsidized housing, which allows them to spend thirty percent of their income on housing instead of sixty or seventy percent, they do one consistent thing with that money: take it to the grocery store. Many of our families and kids aren’t getting enough to eat, because the rent eats first.

Why do you suppose the U.S. has lagged so far behind, considering the mantra of being one of “the wealthiest nations on Earth”?

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

We have made priorities about how to spend public dollars when it comes to housing, which can be summed up like this: we give the most help to families that need it the least and no help to most families that need it the most. And so, we are unique among advanced democracies for the amount of money we spend on homeowner tax subsidies. We spend more than $100 billion a year on homeowner tax subsidies, but only about $40 billion a year on direct housing assistance to the needy. Most of our tax subsidies go to families with six-figure incomes, because the biggest subsidy is a deduction on your mortgage, and you can take that up to $750,000 now—the bigger the mortgage, the bigger the deduction.

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

Most white families in America own their home and are eligible for this sweet deal, this lucrative cut-out in the tax code. Most Latino and black families don’t own their home, and so are left out of this bargain, because of our history of racial discrimination. That’s our policy priority, and Americans should be honest about that, and stop repeating this canard that the richest country on the planet can’t afford to do more.

It reminds me of the Ronald Wright quote about America’s poverty-reinforcing delusion: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

I haven’t seen that quote, but I do think that it’s hard to step out of the story that the country tells about you, even if you’re on the receiving end of

that story. No one is harder on the poor than the poor themselves. They would say, “I see all my mistakes,” or, “Look how I messed up.” Part of my work is to challenge that kind of sentiment, to say, “No, millions of people are facing this every day in the country. You’re not alone, you’re part of a bigger story, and it’s not a story that’s reducible to your own missteps.” That message has resonated directly with folks in the book, which I’m pleased about. I think that’s the number one thing a sociologist can do.

There’s also a gender component to evictions.

The face of the American eviction epidemic is moms with kids. You see this at any housing court around the country: there are a ton of kids running around and their moms chasing after them. In fact, the South Bronx housing court in New York City until very recently had a daycare inside of it because there were so many kids coming in. Low-income African-American women get evicted at incredibly high rates, mothers in particular. One in five black women reports being evicted at some point in her life in Milwaukee, compared to one in fifteen white women. That is a really troubling statistic. It means that black women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the eviction crisis. So, what’s going on?

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

Kids are a big part of the story. We know that if you live with children, the chance of you getting an eviction judgment when you go to housing court actually triples, all else being equal. We’re seeing landlords line up behind the belief that they don’t want to work with children, and women are at a disadvantage as well. If I went to my landlord and said, “Hey, I know I’m behind on my rent, let me work it off,” that would mean giving me a hammer or a paintbrush, something like that. But if my wife went and said the same thing, that would have a totally different connotation. That matters, with respect to how people can negotiate to stay in their homes.

Evictions can be profitable for landlords.

We’ve now looked at profit rates for landlords across America, and we’ve asked: Do landlords who own housing in poor neighborhoods make more money? The answer is a resounding yes. That’s not true in America’s hottest markets, like D.C. or New York or San Francisco, where the pattern is reversed, but if you’re anywhere else in the country, it’s much better to be a landlord in a poor neighborhood than a well-to-do neighborhood.

The mortgage payments and the property taxes of poor neighborhoods are a lot lower than in better-off neighborhoods, but rent isn’t that much lower. Rent in many cities across America is very compressed; there’s not a lot separating the cheapest units from the most expensive ones. So, landlords in poor neighborhoods basically have lower costs, but charge the same rent, so they reap larger profits.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about eviction?

Matthew Desmond at work. Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

I want them to remember Arleen and her sons Jori and Jafaris. I want them to remember Scott and Larraine and Vanetta. For American readers, it’s important to know that somewhere in their city, someone has been evicted that day and their stuff has been piled on the sidewalk. If we don’t recognize the human costs of this wreckage, then all the other arguments won’t resonate. We really do need to get back in touch with the trauma we’re inducing by tolerating so much homelessness and the denial of home to so many Americans.

Matthew Desmond will be speaking at the John Adams Institute on July 4 at De Balie. After his talk, he will have a conversation with moderator Tracy Metz, Cody Hochstenbach, a postdoctoral researcher in urban geography at the University of Amsterdam, and Dutch journalist Arjen van Veelen, who wrote about his experiences living in the city of St Louis during the Ferguson riots and unrest.

The American and Dutch Housing Crisis Compared - By Cody Hochstenbach


The United States are confronted with a severe housing crisis. The poor struggle to find decent, affordable and secure housing. In contrast, the affluent are able to use their property as money-making machines. In his landmark book Evicted, sociologist Matthew Desmond shows that one of the most unjust features of the US housing system is the contemporary eviction crisis.

Evictions have become regular events. They occur on a massive scale across the US, as many poor citizens are forced out of their homes. Evictions are not isolated, one-off events. They scar the lives of many families already struggling to make ends meet. Evictions therefore play an important role in reproducing and aggravating poverty and precarity.

By telling the often heartbreaking life stories of the poor, Desmond’s Evicted has raised awareness of, and sparked discussion about, the American housing crisis.

Source: Tom Greuter (Flickr, Creative Commons)

The Dutch housing situation appears favorable in comparison, and in his book Desmond cites it as a shining example. Evictions are much less common, for example, although they definitely do occur. About one-third of the Dutch housing stock is low- and middle-income rental housing, with rent controls and tenant protection. Nevertheless, we are currently witnessing a deepening Dutch housing crisis – especially in popular and increasingly unaffordable cities like Amsterdam.

The Dutch context is marked not so much by displacement, but rather by increasing housing exclusion. Poor households have to stay put, because moving generally means having to pay a higher rent. This translates into an inability to move, even if the current home becomes too small or too expensive after life events like having children or job loss.

Successive Dutch governments have pushed people to buy a house. They do so by framing homeownership as superior, but also through excessive mortgage lending and fiscal subsidies (mortgage interest tax deduction). Homes have become investment objects. Conversely, government policies have reduced the size of the social-rental stock and restricted access to it.

As a consequence, social rent is increasingly becoming a last resort, only for those with no other options. Over one million Dutch people live in poverty, most of whom are renters. Social renters spend an increasing share of their income on housing, and in 2015 18 per cent of all social tenants (some 500.000 households) struggled to meet the monthly rent.

Furthermore, it is estimated that the number of homeless people in the Netherlands has increased by over 70 per cent between 2009 and 2016. Recent policy reforms have weakened tenant rights and introduced short-term rental contracts.

Current developments thus point to declining housing affordability, and increasing insecurity. All in all this amounts to a deepening of the Dutch housing crisis, one which produces social marginality and economic precarity. Should current trends continue, the Dutch housing situation may become more similar to the housing crisis and systemic injustices Desmond describes in Evicted.


Vacation for White People - By Arjen van Veelen


Branson, Missouri has a reputation for being a Christian version of Las Vegas. The conservative tourist town is situated in the Ozark Mountains, near the Arkansas state border. Despite its remote location, the town attracts millions of visitors every year. They come for country music and Christian theater shows; for the Silver Dollar City amusement park, the Titanic Museum, and for Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction.

I spent the night there last fall; I was there to see the soul of the USA. To understand the American heartland, you have to have seen Branson, or so I’d been told. But I had also received fair warning: you might encounter old-school racism here. Branson is a town for white people. I stayed in a hotel shaped like a giant Dutch windmill. There was a chicken restaurant right beside my hotel shaped like a huge barn; it had a giant chicken out front. I was perfectly positioned there, wedged between entertainment and bad taste.

I took a stroll along the strip. There were amusement parks and diners; there was a full-scale replica of the Titanic, a giant Ferris wheel, and the God and Country Theater. I was amazed to see that the crowds on the street weren’t just white people. And then I saw the Dixie Outfitters. I’d been warned about this store, too: it only sells products that display the controversial Confederate flag. I entered the store, walking past racks filled with key chains, T-shirts, toy cars and bikinis. As expected, almost all the products carried the notorious flag… except for the many T-shirts emblazoned with Donald Trump’s face. Some people argue that the Confederate flag is the unofficial logo for racists, while others believe it’s simply cultural heritage. That’s what the lady behind the cash register said to me. I only read later that the woman who owns the store is the daughter of KKK leader Thomas Robb, who lived half an hour away, just across the Arkansas border. He’s famous for paying to have billboards posted here with texts like: ‘Diversity is code for #whitegenocide’.

That evening, I checked out the Branson Belle showboat, moored by the shores of an artificial lake, beside a replica of a wooden plantation manor. Standing by the water, I got to chatting with a slightly older couple, retirees from southern California, who had ended up here in Missouri. Mainly because you didn’t have to be ashamed of your faith here, they told me. And this place had ‘wholesome entertainment’, like Christian country music, and dinner shows that didn’t involving any cursing. I definitely had to see one of those shows, they said. Instead, I decided to spontaneously drop by the ranch owned by Robb, the KKK leader whose daughter owned that store.  Just across the border in Arkansas, his ‘Christian revival center’ offered a place for people to be racist under the guise of studying the Bible. The ranch was tucked away in the rolling hills; I drove over sandy, unpaved roads and felt stones pinging off the chassis of my car. Unfortunately, the ranch was closed and Robb wasn’t home. I drove back to Branson, making a pit stop in the small town of Blue Eye, home to the television studio of Jim Bakker, a TV minister who had been convicted of fraud. He was now running an apocalypse-oriented TV show advertising his survival foods. Jim Bakker wasn’t home either, although the store was open, selling buckets of survival foods at cut-rate prices.

Kitsch, commerce, religion, racism: it all blended together in this region as if it had always been meant to be that way, as if Branson and the surrounding area had a special magnetic field that attracted all these forces. This was not the real face of America, but it was the ‘pure’ America that some people envision, people like Donald Trump. And this America is a success: Branson brought in nine million visitors last year, a record for the town. In fact, I read in the Washington Post that Branson is attracting so many visitors that they’re bringing in workers from Puerto Rico to do the jobs that the locals don’t feel like doing. That might explain why I saw such a rainbow of different ethnicities in this white Valhalla.

This is part 4 of our blog series ‘Poverty and profit in the American city’. Upcoming: an interview by Katherine Oktober Matthews with speaker Matthew Desmond, a review by Lize Geurts of the exhibition based on Desmond’s book ‘Evicted’ in the National Building Museum in Washington DC, and a column by UvA-postdoc researcher Cody Hochstenbach who will join the conversation with Desmond at our event at De Balie on July 4th.

An Elvis Presley on the Extreme Right - By Arjen van Veelen


If you want to pay Elvis Presley a visit, you could just go to Graceland; that’s where he’s buried. Better yet, head off to Wright City, Missouri, where the singer’s spirit is still alive and kicking. The small country town is about an hour’s drive from St. Louis. Even before you hit town, you can see the wooden sign from the highway: a cut-out of Elvis, five meters tall. He’s carrying a cross like Jesus. This faded Elvis is all that remains of the Elvis Is Alive museum.

I discovered the former museum a few years back by sheer accident. I was picking up a second-hand canoe that I had bought off the internet, and the route I took brought me near Wright City. Enticed by that Elvis sign, I detoured to take a peek. When I stepped inside, I was greeted by an older man who introduced himself as Bill Beeny, “the one and only”. Mr. Beeny told me that the museum had been closed since 2007. The collection once boasted newspaper clippings and a white Cadillac that Elvis had ridden in once. But the prize exhibit was the results of a DNA test that allegedly proved that Elvis was still alive. He had sold off the collection for more than $8000. The former museum’s building now housed a food bank for the needy of Wright City.

Back at home, I googled the man and his museum to find more information. Bill Beeny was a Christian minister who once hosted a conservative Christian radio program called Mighty Stream Radio, as I read in the archives of the St. Louis Dispatch. By now, he was nearly ninety years old. I also read that he had a history of extreme-right activism. As early as the 1960s, he was organizing ‘anti-Communist’ youth meetings. He trained young people to use weapons so they could fight the emerging civil rights movement. He was a proponent of segregation and supported the segregation policies proposed by George Wallace. He seemed to me like a relic of a far distant past. In 1992, this extreme right-wing minister launched his Elvis Presley museum. He dressed up as an Elvis lookalike, and he published two books with near-identical titles: Elvis’ DNA Proves He’s Alive! and DNA Proves That Elvis Is Alive!. His scientific approach made him stand out from the people who made unsubstantiated claims that they had seen Elvis just recently at a gas station or in their local Wal-Mart, Beeny once said to the New York Times: “Our approach is more factual. We have DNA.”

Those stories gave me the impression that Beeny was a charlatan, and possibly also a racist. His claim that Elvis was still alive, however, did hold some merit, as far as I could tell. I don’t mean that the rock legend himself still lives and breathes. But there are an awful lot of men who look like him, especially in small towns like Wright City. Elvis was a tragic middle-aged white man with a serious weight problem who was addicted to pills and led a self-destructive life. Many people in rural areas fit that profile.

The songs Elvis sang are about despair. Like Heartbreak Hotel, about a man who committed suicide. And they testify to a man who felt that his manhood, his honor, was threatened. Just listen to Don’t Be Cruel and (You’re The) Devil in Disguise. Those indignant, desperate men: there are lots of those in the rural Midwest. ‘Middle-Aged White Americans Are Dying of Despair’, a newspaper headline proclaims. Less well-educated white Americans are sicker and die younger. They are more likely to be addicted to pills and heroin. They are more likely to be obese. In short: they’re desperate.

Suicide has been on the rise for some time now. Nearly 84% of suicide victims are white, and 77% are male, the New York Times tells me. Poor white men run the highest risk, as I read in the Economist. Despair and self-destructive tendencies: you could call it the Elvis syndrome. It’s not just a dusty relic from the past, though. There are thousands of these Elvises in the crumbling, broken Missouri countryside. These are the men that are served by Wright City’s three (!) food banks. The indignant men who are attracted to right-wing ideas, drawn in by people promising redemption and by authoritarian charlatans.

Elvis isn’t dead; he’s been carbon-copied.

This is part 3 of our blog series ‘Poverty and profit in the American city’. Upcoming: part 4 by Arjen van Veelen, an interview by Katherine Oktober Matthews with speaker Matthew Desmond, a review by Lize Geurts of the exhibition based on Desmond’s book ‘Evicted’ in the National Building Museum in Washington DC, and a column by UvA-postdoc researcher Cody Hochstenbach who will join the conversation with Desmond at our event at De Balie on July 4th.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any associated organization.

The Gateway Arch: a Statue of Unliberty? - By Arjen van Veelen

Is the Statue of Liberty still an appropriate icon for the USA? To an international audience, the massive monument is undoubtedly the country’s most famous and cherished landmark.  Lady Liberty still welcomes crowds of tourists, just like she used to welcome immigrants with her arms wide open. But does she tell an honest tale? Is the USA as friendly and free as she implies? In actual fact, the country is closing itself off. They now have a president in office who wants to build a wall to keep immigrants out, instead of welcoming them in. A president who closes the borders, who says ‘America First’. It may be time for the US to embrace a different icon: a logo that would serve as a warning to the world.

I would like to suggest an alternative monument to take its place. No need to build a new one, either, since my proposed alternative already exists: the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, a gleaming catenary arch of stainless steel, 192 meters high and 192 meters wide. This landmark is not situated in a cosmopolitan coastal city, but in flyover country, USA. It may be less famous internationally, but its colossal stature fits the bill. I hadn’t seen it myself until I coincidentally ended up living in St. Louis for a while. By now, I’ve reached the point that I think everyone should know about the Gateway Arch. The story that the Arch tells about the USA is much more honest.

In 1967, the monument was dedicated ‘to the American people’ as a ‘memorial to the westward territorial expansion of the United States’. In other words, construction was completed just a few years before the first man was put on the moon, as a tribute to the country’s pioneering spirit. That makes the Arch a true monument to the ‘height of American power’, according to historian Tracy Campbell, who wrote a ‘biography’ of the Arch.

But the Arch also has its darker sides, as I gathered from his book (Tracy Campbell, The Gateway Arch: A Biography, Yale University Press, 2014). Its construction was used as a clever excuse to demolish forty square blocks of ‘blighted’ residential property – which just so happened to be home to many African Americans. Moreover, it was an underhanded way to bring federal funding to the city. The official reason for building the memorial was not all roses and sunshine, either: that ‘westward territorial expansion’ was soon followed by driving out and killing off the indigenous population. Some St. Louis residents therefore view the Arch as a monument to inequality. And it’s not restricted to the history books, either. Viewed from the Arch, you can almost see Ferguson: the suburb where its citizens revolted against modern-day injustice just a few years ago. Finnish sculptor and architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the Arch, had envisioned both a gateway to the city and a Romanesque triumphal arch. Incidentally, the artist was later criticized by a fascist architect from Italy, who claimed that Saarinen had stolen his design. The Arch was literally built in a place where minorities were driven from their land, to commemorate a genocide, based on a design which is marred by the taint of fascism.

The Arch is a Statue of Unliberty. The monument teaches us that freedom has always gone hand in hand with a lack of freedom, long before Trump came along. At the same time, it also embodies that wonderful bravado, that optimism, that attempt to reach up and touch the sky.  The Arch is not just any archway, it is a sweeping curve in the shape of a completely suspended necklace. The steel changes color depending on the light. Simply gorgeous. The Arch is as megalomaniac as it is elegant. All that is good and evil in America is united here. Its two pillars keep a polarized land trapped together, held in an immovable vice. The good news: the monument was renovated recently, for a mere 380 million dollars. This year’s 4th of July festivities will include an opening ceremony. It would be an excellent time to declare the Arch the new logo of the USA.

This is part 2 in our series of blogs leading up to our event on July 4th with Matthew Desmond, author of the book ‘Evicted’

Translated by Joy Phillips

Interview Arjen van Veelen - By Katherine Oktober Matthews


Dutch journalist Arjen van Veelen didn’t plan on moving to the U.S.—but after his wife accepted a job in St. Louis in the summer of 2014, he found himself coincidentally in the backyard of the Ferguson riots. With that, he began to research and write about his American experience, reporting back to a fascinated Dutch audience on life in the heartland. These experiences are now brought together in his book Americanen Lopen Niet (Americans Don’t Walk), published by the online news platform De Correspondent.

By Katherine Oktober Matthews

Photo: Lizzy Ann / De Correspondent

The America that you witnessed firsthand was not at all what you expected.

The first day we drove to the university where my wife worked, we were shocked by the racial and economic divide of the city. We were driving through St. Louis, and when we crossed from one street to the next, both the cityscape and the people we saw walking there completely changed: from almost entirely black to almost entirely white, from completely deteriorating buildings to big mansions with shiny cars.

It was a shock, maybe because I was quite naïve. My view of the United States was based on what I saw on Dutch television which, like American television, tends to focus on the big coastal cities and tourist places. It was also quite shocking to see young children begging in the streets. That was new for me, I thought it was something from the past.

The media left after the protests, but I was still fascinated by this strange city that I had never heard of before moving there. I began to explore St. Louis and found that the root causes of the protests were more shocking than the riots themselves.

What did you find shocking?

In the book there are basically two storylines: one is me trying to understand what I saw during the protests, with the people out on the streets and the teargas, which I didn’t understand at all at the time. Then, a year or so later, the presidential election started, and Trump comes into the picture and there’s another kind of uprising. Not street protests, but voters are angry, and I try to understand why. And it’s also from this quite naïve point of view, that I’m shocked by what I see in the country as well, all the small towns and all the main streets that are no longer flourishing. In the end, I’m asking the question which is still being asked in the Netherlands: is it the identity or is it the economy?

St. Louis is a perfect case study for this question, because it’s both. It’s two forces that work together. If you want to understand the United States, you shouldn’t go to New York City or L.A., but St. Louis. I think of it as the capital of the Heartland. In the 19th century there was even a movement to make St. Louis the capital of the United States, instead of Washington D.C., which made sense at that time, right after the Louisiana Purchase.

But to be clear, this is a personal book, it’s not investigative journalism. I literally walk through this strange city and write about what I see, what shocks me, and then I try to understand what I have seen through research.

How do you think being Dutch affects your perspective?

Growing up in the Netherlands, you’re immersed in American culture. We watch American television and follow American news very closely. We probably even watch the presidential elections with more attention than Americans themselves! On the one hand we follow every step of the U.S. very closely, but on the other hand our view is very limited because we are focused on the big coastal cities like New York and L.A., and on tourist things like Route 66. We ignore a lot of the country. That’s one of the reasons why I was shocked: there was so much difference between what I thought I knew and what I saw.

What do you think was the harshest lesson for your naïveté?

At first, during the protests in Ferguson, there were things like shootings and teargas, which were new for me, I’d never been in that kind of situation before. But the most shocking thing was rather how normal the divide was. During the protests, everybody was talking about when the “normal” situation will return, but the normal situation was quite extreme for a lot of people. What was shocking to me was how quickly you accept a situation.

When I returned to the Netherlands, I saw the same trends, though maybe less extreme. The Netherlands is still a welfare state in many ways, there’s a much stronger safety net, but seeing the same trends worried me. I don’t want this to be a book about how terrible everything is in the United States, because in  Europe we have the same trends. We have our own share of populism, for example. Trump is not the root of all evil, he’s just a symptom. The lesson I learned is to readjust the issue from Trump to structural issues.

Did you see anything to make you optimistic?

The inspiring thing about living in St. Louis is that people know how to protest. They were already protesting under Obama, not against Obama but against the system. I find those people to be very inspiring, they show how to confront fundamental and structural issues. That’s also a take-home message of my book: if you’re worried about the current situation and want to do something, then look at the people who were protesting already. You don’t have to accept the situation as normal.

Another inspiring thing I saw is that, wherever you go, the most rundown places are also where you find people who are the most resilient; they know how to survive. They are strong and creative, and they’re optimistic. I don’t know if it’s an American trait, but it can be a very beautiful thing to see all those rundown places in Missouri and in the country, and you always meet people who are very proud and strong and optimistic. At first I thought it was just a façade, just a way to cope, but it’s not.

What do you most hope your Dutch audience will get out of your book?

That they stop focusing so much on the current president and try to understand the more abstract economic and social forces that created this situation. But also that they understand that those same forces—whatever labels you want to give them, like neo-Nazi, neoliberalism or whatever—are also happening in Europe. So, the book is set in the U.S., but it’s not only about the States.

Tell us about the title, ‘Americans Don’t Walk’.

When I first arrived, I didn’t walk, because people warned me that it wasn’t safe. My legs started to feel funny because I wasn’t walking at all. After a few weeks though, I realized I had to walk to explore and get to know my surroundings, so I walked.

There is the big cliché here that Americans don’t walk anywhere because they’re all car lovers or just lazy. But one of the things I learned is that a lot of Americans do walk. In St. Louis, I think 1/4 of the population doesn’t have access to a car. This is not because they want to live car free, but mostly because they can’t afford one. And this is a city where the public transportation isn’t very developed: only about 1/3 of the jobs in the metro area are accessible by public transport. So a lot of them walk—very long distances every day, along busy streets without sidewalks, crossing highways, facing all kinds of hazards—to get to work.

And, they walk to protest. There’s a joke that if you see an American walking, he’s either protesting or walking to his car. During the Ferguson protests, there were a lot of people walking in St. Louis, just marching and marching. So, for many reasons, walking is political.

On July 4th, Arjen van Veelen will contribute a column to the evening the John Adams Institute is organizing with Princeton sociologist Matt Desmond about his book ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’: https://www.john-adams.nl/matthew-desmond/ In the coming weeks, the John Adams will post an interview with Desmond, three blogs from Van Veelen’s book and a blog by Lize Geurts about the exhibition on ‘Evicted’ which is currently on view in the National Building Museum in Washington DC.


The War We Would Forget

All blog posts in our series “The War We would Forget” on the Vietnam War have now been assembled in a wonderful digital publication for your enjoyment.


A Nation Torn

All six blog posts in our series “A Nation Torn” on the 2014 midterm elections have now been assembled in a wonderful digital publication for your enjoyment.

When Home Feels Like a Battlefield

Three months in Amsterdam, over and done with. It’s impossible for me to believe how quickly the time has gone by. I love this city, and I’ll miss so many things about it.

I’m very excited to be headed home, but I can’t help but feel a sense of dread about the political situation that awaits me there. These past three months have made me realize how psychologically comforting, politically cathartic, even morally clarifying it is to live in a country with policies that so strongly resonate with my personal sense of fairness and justice.

Almost all of the progressive political battles that seem so stuck in the mud in the United States have been fought and won in the Netherlands. And the system they’ve created here works! Taxes are high, but the country as a whole is extremely prosperous. Certain sectors are heavily regulated, but there’s plenty of market-based competition. Individuals and families have extensive freedoms and protections, quality of life is high, inequality is low, and even the least fortunate enjoy a decent standard of living.

In the Netherlands, there’s broad agreement that the state should play an active role in society. This frames public policy debates in constructive and often creative terms. This simply isn’t the case in United States, where one of our two political parties is almost entirely devoted to cutting taxes for the wealthy, deregulating the private sector, and dismantling the ability of government to do things for the common good. Even as corporate profits go through the roof, income inequality rises to all-time highs, and social mobility sinks to new lows, efforts to promote slightly greater redistribution, modest expansions of the safety net, better protections for workers, etc. are smeared as somehow un-American, or worse—socialism (gasp!).

As a highly political creature, I can’t escape the feeling that when I step back onto American soil, I’ll be returning to a bloodbath. The country has never been more divided, at least in my lifetime. And it’s not just about policy anymore. Democratic values that I thought were ironclad are under constant attack. The dignity that I’ve come to expect from the White House is being defiled on a near-hourly basis. Politics often feels completely detached from reality. It’s still hard for me to believe, but I’ll be returning to a nation where 63 million people felt that Donald Trump would be an acceptable choice as President of the United States. That people were so blinded by resentment of some undeserving “other” that they were willing to vote for him…it’s still very difficult for me to comprehend.

As I prepare to leave Europe, I can’t help but wonder—why is it that the United States has been so resistant to adopting the kinds of policies that have existed for decades in the Netherlands and many other European countries? What is it about us that makes us willing to stomach such intense inequality? What is it that led nearly half our country to feel angry and alienated enough to vote for someone like Donald Trump?

It’s a line of questioning that I was often subject to while I was here. I don’t know the answer. Is it our racial and cultural diversity? The way that wealth has concentrated in cities, home to the reviled ‘cosmopolitan elite’? Our evidence-immune devotion to the supposed moral superiority of unregulated markets and the farce that is trickle-down economics? Our mythic elevation of the pioneer’s spirit, the worship of the individual over society? Has our tolerance for inequality itself exacerbated the distance we feel from others, thus diminishing our level of empathy for people unlike ourselves?

Whatever it is, the place we’re in now clearly demonstrates that what we have isn’t working. Healing our divisions; creating a kinder, fairer, more trusting society; restoring some sense of shared purpose—these will be huge battles that play out on a generational scale. It sure would have been nice if our postwar generations could have figured this out like their Dutch or European counterparts, or at least made a bit of progress. Instead, they gave us Donald Trump. But such is life—with the Dutch spin on social democracy as my political compass, time to jump back in.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

What Makes Amsterdam Unique?

London— what a city. I just visited for the first time and absolutely loved it. The place has an unbelievable energy running through it, so much variety in its neighborhoods, such an invigorating landscape of diversity. Rich contrasts abound—it is sprawling yet walkable, obscenely opulent and deeply gritty, frenetic with pockets of incredible tranquility. It left quite an impression.

Several days of romping through London was great for putting life in Amsterdam in perspective. In some ways, I think I’d lost track of how utterly unique the city is. A few reflections on the most distinctive elements of urban life in Amsterdam.

First is the fact that nearly everything in the city is built and designed at the human scale. Very few buildings are over six stories tall. Only a handful of roads have more than two lanes. Open spaces are relatively compact.  The built environment almost never leaves you feeling dwarfed, overpowered, or anonymous. Things feel approachable, comfortable, even cozy—you are inevitably a participant in the environment around you, unable to fade into the background. The vibe is worlds away from, say, standing in the shadow of the 95-story Shard building, where you can’t help but feel like an insignificant speck relative to the scale of what’s around you.

Second is the unusual degree of aesthetic and atmospheric consistency throughout Amsterdam. There’s plenty of variety from neighborhood to neighborhood, but its subtler than in most other major metropolises. This creates a kind of cohesiveness to the experience of travelling through the city. Much of this has to do with the steady scale of the built environment, but the presence of the canals, the ways that streets are laid out, and the general framework used in building design also contribute significantly to this feeling. The ways that more contemporary architecture incorporates elements of older styles adds to this sense of seamlessness. Also, because the city lacks a real skyline, you seldom have any kind of visual reference point on the horizon—other than the occasional church spire, there is rarely anything to draw your attention away from the streetscape in front of you.

London, on the other hand, is shockingly jumbled. Architectural styles vary dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood, and a single street can be home to a huge range of buildings. I was particularly struck by the mix in the formerly-industrial eastern part of town, where old, soot-stained factories and working-class apartments stand alongside gleaming, hyper-modern office buildings and condominiums. The geographic distribution of high-rises also adds to the visual complexity. Unlike, say, Chicago, where skyscrapers are confined to a specific part of town, towering buildings are scattered throughout London. It’s a dynamic that is only accelerating—cranes are absolutely everywhere.

Third is the relative lack of monumentalism in Amsterdam. Sure, there are several large, magnificent buildings—the Rijksmuseum, the Royal Palace, the Westerkerk, and others. But for a city that was once the wealthiest place on the planet, things are pretty understated. Perhaps this stems from the fact that Amsterdam’s wealth was largely private, derived from the prowess of monopolistic corporations like the Dutch East India Company, which dominated the global spice trade for almost a century. Obviously, with businesses and individuals wielding such power relative to the state during the city’s Golden Age, grand civic (or monarchic) displays were less of a priority. This isn’t to say that Amsterdam’s wealthy individuals didn’t have a public impact—they financed an enormous amount of public improvements, including massive expansions of the canal ring. But history clearly played out differently in London, with its palaces, enormous cathedrals, cavernous neo-classical museums, etc., all prominently adorned with plaques commemorating the monarch responsible for their construction.

Obviously, I’m comparing apples and oranges here. London’s population is literally ten times the size of Amsterdam’s. And the fact that the Golden Age of the Victorian era largely coincided with the industrial revolution massively influenced the trajectory of the city’s built environment. I also don’t mean to come to any value judgment—it’s often exhilarating to feel overpowered by a city’s urban intensity, stimulated by its unfathomable variety, and surrounded by extravagant public works. But being in this kind of environment for several days brought Amsterdam’s exceptionalism–it’s near-otherworldliness—into stark relief. When I head back to the United States next week, I’ll miss it very, very much.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

Counterculture and Public Life - Diametrically Opposed or a Perfect Match?

People always talk about the ways that company culture affects organizational performance. But for some reason, these discussions rarely extend to the public sector. It’s strange—contrary to common belief, governments are composed of human beings, and these individuals powerfully influence what government actually does. I’m a strong believer in the innovative potential of cities, but the fact of the matter is that if you want cities to do experimental, boundary-pushing things, you need to somehow get experimental, boundary-pushing people to work in public life.

Amsterdam has somehow accomplished this. In my time here, I’ve been struck by the number of individuals in the public and civic sphere who are looking to push the envelope. A sizeable contingent of people working for the greater good come from alternative, experimental, or countercultural backgrounds, and it shows. Public and civic life in Amsterdam is marked by a desire to be radically inclusive, to empower individual citizens, and to use the city as a testbed for innovation in many forms. This unorthodox orientation isn’t an accident—it’s a manifestation of the attitudes of people working in public and civic life.

A few examples.

Last week, I wrote about the Bureau Broedplaatsen. The way that this agency was formed is a great illustration of the openness of the policymaking atmosphere here. The idea was largely conceived of by the squatting community, who worked with partners in government to make the agency a reality. In 2000, the official proposal to create the Bureau was titled “No Culture Without Subculture.” Can you imagine a city council in the United States working hand in hand with squatters and signing legislation with a title like this?

Jaap Schoufour, who has led the Bureau since 2004, is not your stereotypical civil servant. He is a passionate advocate for this city’s artistic community, and sees creativity and experimentation as being essential to the spirit of Amsterdam. I’ve spent a bit of time with Jaap over the past few months, and it’s been very interesting to see him in action. The creative community may not agree with everything he does, but there is a recognition that he is deeply committed to their cause, and that working with him (and thus, government) will help advance their interests. This dynamic between creative, countercultural people and city government is much more intimate than anything I’m familiar with in the United States.

Another example is Martin Berendse, the director of the city’s public library system. Berendse has spent most of his career in artistic and cultural spheres—first, as a director and manager for several arts festivals and theater production companies, then as a leader in national cultural policy in The Hague. His tenure with the library system has been marked by bold new thinking on the role of libraries in the 21st century. I’m particularly impressed by the Maakplaats (Maker Space) initiative that he has helped implement. Within the next three years, ten libraries in various parts of the city will have dedicated maker spaces with a range of high-tech machinery. Library employees are being trained as instructors in “maker education” and digital fabrication, and soon, the general public will be able to enroll in courses, learn to use these machines, and access this technology at any time. It’s a radical re-envisioning of the role that libraries play in their neighborhoods and communities.

As I’ve noted before, the civic community in Amsterdam is extremely influential, and it is full of alternative, do-it-yourself types. Marleen Stikker, the president and co-founder of the Waag Society, comes from a squatting background. She was a pioneer in the early days of the internet, having created the first virtual community with public access to the web in 1994. Egbert Fransen, founder and director of Pakhuis de Zwijger, led a consulting company for cultural industries, organized a range of music and arts festivals, and has consistently been involved in providing a platform for creative individuals. Both of these organizations are key players in bottom-up initiatives around the city and are regular provocateurs in the city’s public discourse.

These are just a few examples of forward-thinking, culturally or counterculturally-inclined individuals working in Amsterdam’s public and civic spheres. There are many more.

Watching this ecosystem in action, I can’t help but see it as a kind of virtuous cycle. High-performing, off-beat, creative people join local government or civic groups to help drive innovative new approaches to social issues. Residents see the local public and civic sector as effective, bold, and inclusive, bolstering their trust in these organizations. Talented, creative people from a wide range of backgrounds see local government and civic groups as an effective outlet for their skills and ideas, making them more inclined to work in these places. There is a real sense of dynamism in public action, a strong feeling of social solidarity, and an intense public commitment to improving life in this city.

How can we jumpstart a cycle like this in cities in the United States?

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

What Makes a City Cool?

What makes a city cool? A certain threshold of restaurants and bars with exposed brick walls? Pairs of Doc Martens boots per capita? The percentage of residents who subscribe to the “Hipster Chill” playlist on Spotify?

I’d like to think the answer is a bit more profound. Here’s a theory: the coolness of a city is largely determined by the vibrancy of its creative, cultural, and countercultural scenes. Artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other alternative types make a place culturally dynamic, and the more innovative, free-thinking, boundary-pushing individuals hanging around, the better.

What draws these people to a specific place? The two most important factors: proximity to other creative people, and affordable space for living, working, collaborating, and congregating.

Coolness, of course, is closely related to demand, and demand usually spells trouble for affordability. We all know how the situation plays out. Alternative types rent apartments and create studios in a low-income neighborhood. The area gains notoriety as the new hip spot. Prices rise. Soon, the people who sparked the action are pushed out, along with many of their neighbors. The edge that made the place enticing is smoothed over, commodified, commercialized, and made palatable to more bourgeois tastes. The displaced creatives move to another neighborhood, and the cycle begins again. Lather, rinse, and repeat until vast swaths of the city are unaffordable and culturally depleted.

Are creative people destined to be pawns in the economic development game, alternating between roles as bleeding-edge gentrifiers and victims of displacement? Are off-beat, alternative neighborhoods doomed to become sanitized, faux-bohemian versions of themselves? Or is there a way to disrupt this market cycle and inject a measure of security and stability into a city’s creative landscape?

For those concerned with these kinds of issues, Amsterdam has a strategy worthy of your attention. Since 2000, the city has administered a robust set of policies aimed at supporting artist studio spaces and creative incubators. A municipal government agency known as the Bureau Broedplaatsen helps groups of artists transform abandoned or underutilized spaces into places for creative work. The agency provides subsidies, credit guarantees, project management expertise, and legal assistance to get the incubators off the ground, and then the spaces are run as independent organizations. With a fifteen-year budget of only €48 million, the city has created over 60 incubators housing over 170,000 square meters of highly affordable creative space. Thousands upon thousands of artists have benefitted.

Owing to the bottom-up design of the policy, every broedplaats is different. Some are exclusively working spaces. Others include housing for artists. Many have a community-oriented element, like restaurants, bars, or event venues. Others even offer public goods like community gardens and high-capacity kitchens. The end result—a city with an extraordinarily rich and diverse cultural fabric, with individual nodes of creativity scattered across its many neighborhoods.

It’s interesting to note the ways that the Bureau Broedplaatsen has changed over its nearly two-decade existence. Like many other cities, the real estate market in Amsterdam in 2000 was struggling. The broedplaats policy was initially a kind of concession to the city’s squatting community, which was very strong in the 80s and 90s. Creating broedplaats was a way for the city to semi-institutionalize its abundant countercultural energy and leverage it to facilitate economic development and neighborhood revitalization. Now, as the housing market has caught fire and available space has plummeted, the agency has adopted more of a defensive stance, working to preserve the spaces it has already created and developing new strategies to bring about additional ones. High demand for studio spaces among artists themselves has also led the Bureau to implement policies to increase turnover, a move that has been controversial to some in the creative community.

If you’re intrigued by the broedplaats idea, stay tuned—I hope to write significantly more about this topic over the coming weeks. For now, suffice it to say that it’s inspiring to see a city so committed to public intervention in support of its creative community. Though the contributions of individual artists and creative people are not always discernable in the broader cultural fabric of a city, there’s no doubt that their collective presence has been tremendously enriching here. Amsterdam became a global hotspot of countercultural cool because of the vibrancy of its free-thinking creative scene, and the broedplaats policy is a forceful statement from local government that it intends to keep things that way.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

City as Facilitator: Problem Solving from the Bottom Up

Every city faces similar social problems. No matter where you go, certain groups or neighborhoods struggle with intergenerational poverty, low educational attainment, poor health, crime, and other issues. National and local policies may reduce the severity of these problems, but there’s a growing recognition that top-down, technocratic approaches to these challenges aren’t doing enough for those that are affected.

Might social problems be better addressed from the bottom up, by individuals and community-based groups that have a better sense of what their neighborhoods and fellow citizens need? Perhaps. The issue is that community leaders and organizations often lack the resources, relationships, and platforms necessary to operate at a meaningful scale.  How can governments most effectively galvanize citizen action and leverage residents’ expertise, energy, and creativity in tackling tough social problems?

Amsterdam—a city with an extraordinary tradition of bottom-up action—has recently taken an interesting approach to this question. Here, the “triple helix” model of public action—the notion that government, the private sector, and academia should work together to solve problems—is old news. Instead, it’s all about achieving the “quadruple helix,” which seeks to activate citizens themselves as critical elements of the larger problem-solving equation.

This approach was intriguing enough for the European Union to name Amsterdam the “Innovation Capital of Europe” in 2016. The distinction also came with a prize of €1,000,000. What did the city do with its winnings? It created a social innovation competition where citizens and community-based groups working on issues like education, workforce development, and public health were invited to apply for funding and a spot in what is essentially a social innovation accelerator program. City government handed off the competition design, selection, and administration process to a consortium of heavy-hitting civic institutions, including the Amsterdam Economic Board (my employer), the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Studies, Kennisland, the Waag Society, and Pakhuis de Zwijger.

The initiative, “Maak je Stad!” (Make Your City!), has made quite the splash. It just recently announced its winners and kicked its accelerator program into gear. 37 groups were selected out of 475 applicants, each being awarded between €5,000 and €20,000 to help expand operations and capacity. The initiatives are wide ranging—there’s “School Makandra,” a peer-to-peer weekend learning program in the southeastern part of the city. There’s “The Power of Unity,” an initiative that helps prepare young people for the construction trades while renovating rundown buildings. There’s “Bloom and Grow,” an organization that provides environmental and agricultural education to vulnerable women. The list goes on.

A few reflections on this approach to stimulating bottom-up action and leveraging communities themselves to address social problems.

First, this process demonstrates the tremendous value of having a strong network of civic institutions in your city. An unconventional initiative like this could never be run from within municipal government, if only to prevent the appearance of political conflicts of interest. Cities with locally-focused, boundary-pushing civic organizations have a huge advantage in bringing residents into the problem solving fold.

Second, this effort shows the importance of building bridges between people and government. Local government may be closest to the people, for communities themselves, City Hall can feel as remote as a national legislature. To create change, citizens need to feel comfortable with “the system,” and it really helps to have relationships with folks who control the levers of power. A significant chunk of the Maak je Stad! accelerator program is devoted to fostering relationships between the winning organizations and the relevant departments and individuals in municipal government.

Third, Maak je Stad is a good reminder of the incentivizing power of public recognition. Considering its very modest size, it’s pretty incredible that nearly 500 individuals and organizations applied for this program. Clearly there’s a lot of latent demand among community groups for more funding and support, but in some ways, it seems like the opportunity for public distinction was equally motivating. By making this a high-profile, well-publicized competition, the city was able to generate serious enthusiasm and participation.

On both sides of the Atlantic, many people seem to have lost faith in the ability of national institutions to solve social problems. Maybe it’s time to think on a smaller scale. With Maak je Stad, Amsterdam has shown what is possible when the city takes seriously its role as a facilitator of bottom-up problem solving.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

Thriving, Affordable, and Inclusive: Can a City Have it All?

A challenging side of human nature—we tend to distrust people from other groups. Because of this, diversity and social tension are often interlinked. We don’t need to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but as American and European societies become increasingly diverse, we’ve got to learn to live with one another. How do we make that happen?

Practice, basically. Regularly interacting with different groups may feel uncomfortable at first, but eventually, we grow accustomed to the presence of others. With the right amount of exposure, our “us versus them” inclinations start to diminish.

The way we experience diversity is largely shaped by national and local housing policy. It’s been eye-opening to see how Dutch national policy and Amsterdam’s local approach to housing has influenced the ways that different groups interact in this city.

The central government in the Netherlands plays a huge role in regulating housing markets—it’s a level of involvement that would be unthinkable in the United States. Housing affordability and stability for low- and middle-income people is guaranteed by a robust set of national laws, and tenants enjoy strong protections from rent increases and evictions.

Some of the key elements of the national system: The Dutch government caps rents via a nationally-administered points system. The points that a specific unit receives are determined by things like size, the number of windows and bathrooms, and location, so it’s difficult for property owners to increase prices year over year. Properties with points under a certain threshold are considered “social housing,” and they are available only to low- and moderate-income individuals (and are made more affordable through government subsidies). Central government enforces strict quotas on the quantity of social housing in cities, and housing operators are subject to a level of scrutiny that surpasses anything I’m aware of in the United States.

Amsterdam builds on this foundation of affordable and stable housing with a remarkable dedication to mixed-income neighborhoods. The amount of social housing in Amsterdam is stunning—nearly 50% of the city’s housing stock falls into this category. While there are some pockets of concentrated wealth or poverty, most neighborhoods are extremely diverse. Throughout the city, affluent people, poor people, Dutch natives, Muslim immigrants, students, and the elderly all live alongside one another.

On the ground, you can feel the combined effects of these national and local policies. With so many different kinds of people around, there’s a richness to neighborhood life. This is enhanced by the way that neighborhoods and public spaces are designed. Despite the massive cultural differences between Dutch natives and Muslim immigrants, tension between the groups feels relatively low. People may not be close, but they are clearly accustomed to being around each other. And though many traditionally low-income neighborhoods are experiencing huge influxes of newcomers, the hostility that so often accompanies gentrification feels less pronounced. Perhaps because lower-income renters are so protected, they are less likely to see newcomers as a threat.

The system isn’t perfect. In Amsterdam, there’s a fairly acute middle-class housing crisis, as the non-social housing stock is relatively limited. People who make too much money to qualify for social housing but not enough to afford non-subsidized rents are often forced to live elsewhere in the region. And the mixed-income neighborhood approach hasn’t created a classless, post-racial utopia. But there does seem to be a comfort with coexistence that exceeds most of what I’ve seen in the United States.

What’s preventing the United States from guaranteeing greater housing affordability and stability to lower- and middle-income people, and what’s stopping our cities from demanding mixed-income neighborhoods? After all, the benefits of such an approach go far beyond greater social solidarity—creating mixed-income neighborhoods generates greater social mobility, reduces crime, and promotes better public health outcomes.

Two of the major culprits—timid and toothless regulations at both the national and local level, and a never-to-be-underestimated resistance toward creating greater housing density. Until we’re able to advocate for a stronger government role in housing markets and change attitudes about the socioeconomic composition of our neighborhoods, the segregation, inequality and social division that plagues American cities will continue.

Skeptical that a city can simultaneously ensure affordable housing, promote mixed-income neighborhoods, preside over a thriving economy, and remain a nice place to live? Maybe a trip to Amsterdam is in order.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Zef Hemel is a man with a plan.

A former urban planner for the city of Amsterdam and my colleague at the Amsterdam Economic Board, he has been a vocal proponent of dramatically increasing the population of this city. He envisions a future where Amsterdam is home to 2 million people, more than double the population that currently lives here now.

Unsurprisingly, Hemel’s proposal has made him a bit of a controversial figure around town. Amsterdammers are fiercely protective of their city, and many fear that an influx at the scale that Hemel proposes would diminish the quality of life that they currently enjoy.

Are their fears legitimate? Amsterdam offers a truly unique way of life, and it makes sense that a massive population increase would be perceived as a threat. But greater population density and a high quality of life are not mutually exclusive things. It all comes back to planning and design.

Paris, generally seen as one of the most beautiful and liveable cities in the world, has almost twice the population density of New York City. It packs in over 54,000 people per square mile to New York’s 28,000. Barcelona, another one of the world’s great cities, is also nearly 50 percent more densely populated than New York. For comparison, Amsterdam is currently home to 12,710 people per square mile, a bit less than Boston and a bit more than Philadelphia. Twice as many residents would put Amsterdam’s population density in the company of Bilbao, Bucharest, and Lyon—hardly a group of overcrowded urban dystopias.

Since hearing of Hemel’s plans, I’ve kept an eye out for where this city might create greater density. The most obvious target is the southern bank of Amsterdam-Noord, just across the river IJ. This area will soon be made tremendously more accessible by a pedestrian and cyclist bridge. As of now, you need to take a ferry to cross the water.

Many neighborhoods outside the city center also have significant amounts of underutilized space. The area near me in the Oost, for example, seems to present some solid, relatively straightforward opportunities. Just around the corner from me (near the INIT building, for you locals) is a large parking lot, a significant amount of vacant land, and a big, underutilized former warehouse. A few blocks further in Kattenburg, there is an even larger stretch of underutilized space owned by the Dutch Navy.

Of course, achieving greater population density would mostly come from building slightly higher residential buildings in various neighborhoods around the city. Newer parts of the city (where the iconic row houses give way to late nineteenth or early twentieth century apartment blocks) would likely be the target here. Neighborhood redevelopment is always logistically complex and politically contentious, but it seems reasonable to assume that creating more units in these “garden city” neighborhoods could contribute significantly to housing supply and leave residents’ quality of life intact.

Taking a step back, why should Amsterdam grow? What would be the point of accommodating twice as many people? For that matter, why should any city seek to increase its population?

From an economic standpoint, accommodating more skilled workers helps boost local economic productivity and growth. In a global economy where cities compete with each other for skilled workers, housing availability and affordability is a critical distinguishing factor—inherent to Hemel’s vision is the notion that Amsterdam would be able to attract significantly more talented workers with cheaper housing. And given the size of the Netherlands, maintaining Amsterdam’s globally-competitive edge isn’t just a local imperative—the Dutch national economy will largely rise and fall with Amsterdam’s fate.

From a cultural standpoint, Amsterdam has long defined itself as a place that welcomes young, creative, freethinking individuals. This atmosphere is a huge part of the city’s overall attractiveness. But with demand for housing so dramatically exceeding supply, many of these kinds of people can no longer afford to live here. If more housing is not built, the city risks losing this core advantage and source of identity, instead becoming a less dynamic place that caters increasingly to the wealthy.

In my mind, it seems clear that Amsterdam would do well to increase its housing supply. The question is: by how much? Thanks to Zef Hemel, the conversation is well underway.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

Competition, Supercharged: - Cities, Economic Development and Globalization

Talent, investment, and a high quality of life.

No pressure, local leaders, but if your city falls short on any of the above, your economy is doomed. Good luck juggling all three things simultaneously—talented people won’t move to your city unless it offers them good employment prospects. Companies won’t invest in your city unless it provides them with access to new markets and skilled workers. Nobody will stick around if you don’t have the money to make the city a nice place to live.

Managing? Meet globalization. Individuals and capital are more mobile than ever before. As soon as people or firms see a new advantage on the horizon, they can get up and leave. Cities across the world are breathing down your neck, competing for the same talent and resources as you.

OK, I’m being a little hyperbolic. But it’s true—urban economic development is incredibly difficult to pull off, and competition between cities has never been more intense. How do cities deal with this?

At the Amsterdam Economic Board, I’ve gotten a glimpse into how this city interacts with competitiveness and its position in the global economy. It’s been fascinating comparing things here to what I’m familiar with in the United States.

The first major difference that I’ve noticed: domestic competition between cities feels less vicious in the Netherlands than it does in the United States. Public leaders in Amsterdam don’t seem to worry much about losing their edge to another Dutch city.

This might be partially explained by specialization—the major cities of this country have come to focus on very different industries. Amsterdam is the undisputed cultural, financial, and media hub; Rotterdam dominates the manufacturing, engineering, and logistics trades; Eindhoven is the technology powerhouse. Because they naturally attract different kinds of workers and firms, there is less reason for Dutch cities to go after each other. Most American cities are less specialized, so they more frequently compete over the same territory.

Another potential explanation for this lower intensity—Dutch cities are limited in their ability to influence private sector behavior. Cities here depend on the national government for most of their funding, and their discretion over financial decisions is restricted. Compare this to the United States, where local governments rely heavily on local taxes and have substantial fiscal power. Desperate for the revenue that economic growth brings, cities often try to lure companies with enormous tax breaks, land deals, or other forms of favorable treatment. Large companies are quick to exploit this dynamic, leveraging offers from one city to gain additional concessions from others.

Another major difference: Amsterdam is much more focused on attracting international talent than any city I’ve seen in the United States. It’s a testament to the success of the Dutch private sector that there is a fairly serious high-skill labor shortage here.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the fact that only 17 million people live in the Netherlands. Still, it’s striking to see the extent to which Amsterdam has built an entire infrastructure around attracting and accommodating high-skill foreigners. It’s an approach that builds upon a huge societal advantage—Amsterdammers tend to speak English extremely well, so for the international set, it’s easy to come here and conduct business immediately.

In the United States, companies often speak of the importance of foreign talent, but as far as I know, municipalities themselves are less involved in the recruitment and accommodation process. Rather it is universities who seem to be the primary entry point and launch pad for internationals.

A third major difference: the politics of economic development and gentrification have an interesting international twist to them here. Amsterdam has long balanced a deep international cosmopolitanism with an unusually strong sense of local identity. But many locals are now concerned that the push for talent from abroad—driven by pressure from the business community—has gone overboard. This fear of an internationally-driven cultural sanitization is exacerbated by the fact that property values have skyrocketed in recent years.

Obviously, there are many other differences in the ways that Amsterdam and American cities experience global competition and economic development. But one thing is clear—for cities to survive in this hyper-connected era, they’d better have a plan.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

Who Owns the City?

Amsterdam and Venice. Both famous for their picturesque canals and waterways. Both compact, easily walkable, and densely populated. Both overflowing with culture, filled with beautiful architecture, and renowned for offering a high quality of life.

There’s only one problem—many parts of both cities are bursting at the seams with tourists.

Last weekend, I visited Venice for the first time. I had a spectacular trip—I wandered the beautiful, mysterious Venetian streets, visited the one-of-a-kind Biennale, and quickly developed a taste for Aperol Spritz. But wow, so much of the place is devoted to visitors.

Obviously, tourism can be a great thing for cities. An influx of cash from outsiders can boost the local economy and create jobs. It can enrich local culture and add to the vibrancy of the local “scene.” But once tourism reaches a certain threshold, it begins to cut into residents’ quality of life. Streets and sidewalks are clogged. Businesses cater to visitors’ tastes rather than selling things that locals want and need. Weekenders often cause trouble. The constant presence of outsiders can diminish a neighborhood’s sense of community and local ownership.

How can cities maximize the economic and cultural benefits of tourism while minimizing the impact on residents’ quality of life? It’s an increasingly tricky balance to strike, and as Venice shows, the stakes are incredibly high.

Over 20 million people visit Venice every year. Despite the constant inflow, the city’s population has fallen by half in the past thirty years, down to below 60,000 residents. The crush of visitors has distorted the local economy, marginalizing nearly every industry except hospitality and retail. Housing costs have skyrocketed. Most of the city’s workers live elsewhere. The few who can still afford to live in the city often feel like their neighborhoods no longer belong to them.

Just look at the city’s politics. The current mayor ran on a platform largely focused on reducing tourism’s impact. A range of measures along these lines have since passed. Local support for cracking down on cruise ships is robust. There is talk of creating a city-wide entrance fee. Outside of the restaurants, shops, and museums, the mood is one of resistance—anti-tourist posters are commonplace. I even encountered a public demonstration against cruise ships.

Despite being commonly referred to as the “Venice of the North,” Amsterdam is a very different city than its Italian counterpart. The municipality’s population is more than ten times larger. Its economy is diverse and built on a strong foundation of high-skill labor. The center of the city is often mobbed with tourists, but most neighborhoods do not feel overrun.

Still, the impact of tourism has been substantial enough to generate pushback. The city council recently passed a moratorium on new hotels in most parts of the city. The municipality struck a landmark agreement with AirBnB, limiting the number of days that property owners can rent out their homes. The budget of the city’s marketing operation was recently cut by more than 20 percent.

Ultimately, issues with tourism are heavily influenced by the trademark urban scarcity—the availability of space. It seems like compact cities with little geographic separation between major attractions and residential areas or central business districts suffer more from tourist overload than larger, more diffuse places. A bigger, more dispersed city can contain tourists in specific areas where they’ll be less disruptive to the regular rhythms of urban life. Or they can spread them out across many areas of the city so the oversaturation point is harder to reach.

It’s also no secret that areas popular with tourists quickly become more expensive. As affordability becomes one of the defining issues in cities across the world, local governments need to think long and hard about the tradeoffs between accommodating visitors and keeping things affordable for residents.

Unfortunately, managing tourism will only become more complex over the coming years—the “democratization” of the hospitality industry by services like AirBnB has made regulation more difficult, and the global middle class is growing exponentially. Many more tourists are coming. Soon.

Given the local/visitor, insider/outsider dynamic inherent with tourism, this issue forces cities to take a good, hard look in the mirror. Who gets to experience the city? How far are we willing to go to keep it that way?

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

A Tale of Two Commutes

Scenario 1: Biking to work in Washington, D.C.

I leave the house, heading west. Soon I encounter Georgia Avenue, one of the highest-capacity roads in Washington D.C. As I wait for the light to change, as many as a hundred cars thunder past me—they’re bumper to bumper, flying by at nearly 40 miles per hour. Once my light turns green, I pedal southwest to 11th street, where I can enjoy a “separate lane,” a strip of white paint that suggests where drivers should yield to cyclists.  The street is also a bus route, so bikers are forced to merge into heavy traffic as buses pick up and drop off their passengers. After continuing southwest for some time, I turn onto the commercial strip of 17th street. Here, I dodge and weave through trucks and deliverymen as they unload their wares into the restaurants nearby. My ride ends with a few hundred meters on the chaos that is Massachusetts Avenue, another one of D.C.’s busiest thoroughfares.

The overall experience: Enjoyable, in an adrenaline-fueled, hectic sort of way. Not particularly safe. Worth it, but it’s clearly not for everyone.

Scenario 2: Biking to work in Amsterdam.

My ride starts with a few hundred meters on a pedestrian- and cyclist-only path bordering a park. I soon turn right onto Czar Peterstraat, a route that has one lane for cars going north, two lanes for electric trams, and two wide bike lanes. Every transportation grade is separated by a hefty concrete barrier. After crossing one mid-sized intersection, I’m cruising down Sarphatistraat, wheel-to-wheel and handlebar-to-handlebar with dozens of other bike commuters. The ride is almost eerily quiet—other than the low rumble of the electric trams and the occasional car or motorcycle, the only noises are the gentle ringing of bicycle bells and commuters talking to one another. I cut west on Plantage Middenlaan. It’s a higher capacity road but bikers still enjoy a separate transportation grade, along with a view of the flamingos at the Royal Zoo. I cut through a small park—no cars allowed, obviously—push myself over another canal, and eventually I’ve arrived at my office.

The overall experience: Serene. Totally safe, as long as you keep an eye out for your fellow cyclists. Perhaps most notably, everyone takes part—the people riding alongside me are schoolchildren, businessmen in suits, hippies wearing tie-dye, Muslim women in headscarves, young couples holding hands, etc.

We seldom think about it, but the way we get around profoundly influences how we experience cities. To get into a car is to enter a sort of bubble—you close the door, turn on the stereo, and are separated from the rest of the world by a thick windshield and about 1,000 kilograms of metal. Using public transportation also has a way of sealing you off. On a bus or a tram, sit down, put on your headphones, and watch the city go by. On a subway, you go underground in one part of town and pop out in another, experiencing none of the urban landscape in between.

Biking, on the other hand, allows you to interact with the city as a seamless whole. Nothing separates you from your environment. You experience the weather head-on. You can hear the conversations people are having on the sidewalk. You can speak to other bikers at the traffic light. You develop an intimate knowledge of the streets—you find yourself subconsciously avoiding familiar potholes, recognizing slight changes in slope, and speeding up to catch a quick light.

Finally, biking is fun. There is something innately enjoyable about pushing yourself around on two wheels, going wherever you want at whatever speed you feel like. It’s nothing short of liberating. Drivers and mass transit commuters during rush hour—are you feeling liberated?

Obviously, it’s not really fair to compare any American city’s cycling infrastructure to Amsterdam’s. By American standards, D.C. has actually done quite well for its cyclists. But living in Amsterdam is a constant and tantalizing reminder of the possibilities that exist when you reduce the role that cars play in the planning equation.

Here’s hoping that my generation of urban dwellers will drop the “from my cold, dead hands” attitude about cars in cities, and give bicycles the priority they deserve.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.

Howdy, Neighbor: - Happiness, Public Space, and Community Design


Hello again, readers! Thanks to those of you who are back for Round 2. Newcomers—welcome. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve now been living in Amsterdam for a month.

Everyone needs a bit of personal space from time to time. But ultimately, we’re social creatures—we thrive when we engage regularly with others, and we’re gloomy when we feel isolated.

The design of our neighborhoods exerts a powerful influence on our ability to connect with the people around us. Some approaches facilitate contact and encourage relationships. Others set the stage for separation, anonymity, and even hostility.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot recently, as my neighborhood in Amsterdam has a totally different social dynamic than my former neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. The main difference? The balance between public and private space.

Most of the housing in my Amsterdam neighborhood (Oost) consists of multi-unit, walk-up apartment buildings. Individual units are pretty small—if you need some extra room, you simply have to leave the house. Fortunately, there is a large, spectacular park immediately adjacent to my building, which functions as the entire neighborhood’s gathering place. And thanks to a consistent mixed-use approach to zoning, there are plenty of “third spaces”—cafes, restaurants, and bars—within a few blocks of my front door.

Washington’s residential landscape is changing rapidly, but for the most part, it is still dominated by single-unit row homes. These houses offer large living and dining spaces and a significant amount of semi-private outdoor space, in the form of patios or backyards. With so much room, it’s easy to feel like you never need to leave. If you do decide to venture out in public, cafes and restaurants are generally confined to specific commercial strips. It practically goes without saying that public space is hard to come by.

These different housing and neighborhood dynamics manifest themselves powerfully in community life. In Amsterdam, the people in my building seem to know each other much better than my neighbors did in Washington, D.C. Here, whether you like it or not, you see each other all the time—in the stairwell, in the park, at the café across the street, at the grocery store down the block, etc. Nearby businesses are frequented almost entirely by people who live in the surrounding area, creating a distinct feeling of neighborhood ownership. This encourages a certain level of familiarity with the people around you, and perhaps even a degree of trust. The result is palpable.

In Washington, there are drastically fewer opportunities for this kind of consistent, casual interaction. Sure, you say hello to your neighbors if they are sitting out on their front patio, but for the most part, people stay within the bounds of their private space. If you want to interact with your neighbors, you have to make a conscious effort. And because commercial strips are more condensed and public parks are rare, these spaces often feel less intimate, catering to an ever-changing cast of strangers rather than a relatively consistent group of neighbors.

Thinking about these differences, I’m struck by the extent to which the United States has built itself up to maximize private space. The suburbs are of course the most dramatic example of this, but housing and neighborhood design in our cities often reflects similar values—namely, that public space takes a back seat to private space, and that residential areas should mostly be separated from commercial activity. The end result? An atmosphere that creates distance between neighbors, inhibits spontaneity, and makes mutual trust more difficult to achieve.

Obviously, having regular and pleasant interactions with your neighbors is not enough to guarantee happiness. But I’d argue that a key component of happiness is having a rich social network, and that casual interactions between neighbors can set the stage for more satisfying interpersonal connection.

If we recognize that certain approaches to housing and community design can encourage positive social bonds, what’s stopping us from building more neighborhoods with these qualities? Of course, making radical changes to the built environment is no easy task. But in theory, if the demand is there, it will happen. Ultimately, the question for American city dwellers will be this—how much privacy are you willing to leave behind?

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his first blog here.


Amsterdam Then, Amsterdam Now

Hello, readers! Welcome to my blog. It’s great to have you here.

Seeing as this is my inaugural piece, I figure that an introduction is in order. I am a 28-year-old American, born and raised in the Washington D.C. area. Up until a few months ago, I worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank, where I focused on urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. Before that, I studied political science and history at Lafayette College, a small liberal arts school in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Beyond the resume, I’m a pretty curious guy, and I really love cities. What’s not to love? Urban areas are the engines of our global economy. They are the physical manifestations of the market’s interaction with government and society. They are ever-evolving monuments to our social and technological progress. They are the demographic melting pots of our society; our most intimate public venues for political and cultural expression, critical components of how we construct our identities…I could go on, but you get the idea.

How did I find myself in Amsterdam, writing this blog?

When I was 20 years old, I spent about five months here as a student at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA). That semester was incredible—I made amazing friends, broadened my horizons immensely, and fell in love with Amsterdam. For years, I’d been itching to return, not just as a tourist for a few days, but in some kind of productive, longer-term capacity. After some long-distance networking, I was able to secure temporary positions with the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research at UvA and the Amsterdam Economic Board. I’ve now been here for about 3 weeks.

It was perhaps inevitable that my return to Amsterdam would put me in a reflective state of mind. In many ways, it felt like coming home after a long absence—a feeling that was magnified by the fact that my current apartment is literally across the street from where I was living as a student. Of course, the context around my being here has changed completely. Where I was once a carefree student, flannel-clad and in serious need of a haircut, now I am a working professional, donning professional attire and…well, probably still in need of a haircut. When in 2010 I arrived as a wide-eyed 20 year-old, still in the process of figuring out what I was interested in, now I carry with me several years of work experience and a relatively firm sense of professional and intellectual direction.

Thanks to several years of working on urban policy issues, the way that I find myself interacting with Amsterdam today feels very different than it did in 2010. When I was here as a student, I was not thinking about the functioning of the city in a particularly sophisticated way. Sure, I was blown away by the cultural vibrancy of the city, the effortless cosmopolitanism of the place, the cycling infrastructure, the canals, the gabled row houses, etc., but my comprehension of what was actually driving these things was very limited.

Now, I feel like I can understand what’s going on “under the hood.” Everywhere I look, I’m seeing political decisions, zoning laws, urban planning choices, infrastructure investments, neighborhood development efforts, creative uses of public space, and other forces shaping the contours of city life. While I’m just beginning to understand the specifics of local laws, regulations, and funding flows, I’m already feeling well-attuned to the general undercurrent of public strategies, private investments, and civic initiatives that have shaped (and continue to shape) the city. This greater sensitivity to my surroundings has made the experience of being here—and enjoying this beautiful, highly-functioning place—much more profound.

Going forward, this blog will largely serve as the place for me to articulate my observations on how things work here, and how city life in Amsterdam compares to my experiences back in the United States. I hope to cover a wide range of topics, including urban quality of life, neighborhood design, cycling (of course), diversity and gentrification, the role of creative industries in urban life, and many more.

Thanks again for reading, and hope to see you next week!

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. 

New Amsterdam Stories: Part Three - By Veronica Baas

For this final installment of a three part blog series, The John Adams Institute talked with Ellen Fleurbaay, head of Presentation and Participation at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, to hear about the Amsterdam side of this project. 

New Amsterdam Stories is a project carried out by three different partners: the New York City Municipal Archives, the New Netherland Institute and the Stadsarchief Amsterdam.  It came about when Jan Kennis, cultural attaché at the Dutch consulate in New York, realised that both the New York Municipal Archives and the Stadsarchief were unlocking their archives, and recording what is inside the documents they have filed away. Nowadays, this also means that the contents of these documents are digitized. The Stadsarchief has a variety of archives, from personal ones bestowed to the Stadsarchief to civil registration. One of these archives is particularly interesting to the New Amsterdam Stories: the Notarial Archives, which the Stadsarchief is currently unlocking.  People would go to a notary to sell their house or to make a will: anything that needs official approval. Because these documents have always been legally binding, almost all of them have been saved. This means that the amount of documents we are talking about is huge. The exact number is not yet known as they have yet to be unlocked, but our estimation is that the Notarial Archives contain at least 20 million notarial deeds.

This project is challenging not just because of its sheer size, but also because of the difficulty of researching these archives. The problem is that all the deeds have been stored away in chronological order. There is no system based on the content of the documents, so a sales contract can be stored away next to a will. For centuries, notaries were filing away their records on a day-to-day basis, unfortunately without keeping in mind future archivists.

In the 1950s and 1960s, archivists were put to the task and made an effort to structure the documents. Groups of up to thirty archivists have worked on this for almost three decades. Even after all those years, they still had done only seven percent of the archives. This means that as of now, 93% of the contents of the Notarial Records is still unknown. The good news for the New Amsterdam Stories is, however, that there has always been a strong focus on New Amsterdam. As the archivists were trying to order the documents they were going through, they had to make choices in their categorization. New Netherland has always been labelled, and now 6,000 documents are known to be related to the settlement. That is a lot for only seven percent, and it shows how keen the archivists have always been on the topic.

In the process of making a Story, the archivists of the New York Municipal Archives pick which individual they want to focus on, in consultation with Dennis Maika, the guiding historian from the New Netherland Institute. They will then send all the details they have to the Stadsarchief, such as the name – or names – of people closely associated with them, dates of birth, dates of arrival in America, dates of death. At the Stadsarchief, the old card system will be used to go through those seven percent of known documents, hoping to find a match.

Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Stadsarchief Amsterdam

In the meantime, the Stadsarchief continues to unlock the rest of those 97% of Notarial Archives. Luckily, the process goes much faster now due to digitization, which has so many advantages: it becomes much easier to research the documents, and in turn people can access these documents online. But before the records are presented to the general public, we ask those very same people to support the project: the majority of the funding is expected to come from crowdsourcing.

For the first step, professionals are definitely needed. The Stadsarchief hires a scanning company that can scan up to 3,000 documents a day. Together with experts from the Stadsarchief, they know how to handle these very old documents. After the documents are scanned, they are uploaded on a platform. This platform, attached to the website velehanden.nl, is an independent platform developed by the Stadsarchief a couple of years ago. The Stadsarchief does not have the capacity to host such a platform, and furthermore, many other archives in the Netherlands can now make use of it. So, after the documents have been uploaded on this platform, they are handled by a group consisting mainly of volunteers, who are the main engine of the project. As of now, 15.000 records have been indexed.

The volunteers often wonder if they deliver sufficient quality work, and the answer is that they actually do. Some of these volunteers are unbelievably dedicated. Once, on a different project, the Stadsarchief was identifying photographs from the 19th century. A volunteer cycled around the Amsterdam canals for weeks until he could locate a detail on a staircase. Even the most dedicated professional would seldom go to such lengths to acquire information.

nasssOnce the documents have been uploaded, the volunteers sort them by topic and type them out. With birth and death registrars, there are two volunteers who type out the same names, as 16th and 17th century handwriting can be tricky. Then, a computer compares the results and, if any differences are found, a professional will take a look at it. Since this project encompasses some 20 million documents, the project is happy with all the manpower it can get.  Not all the volunteers who sign up actually are up to the task: of the few hundred people who participate in a project, about twenty percent gets the job done. This is a dedicated core group who make sure that the quality of the end result is at least as high as it would be if professionals had done the job. All the documents that are typed out and sorted become accessible online. On the website of the Stadsarchief, popular topics have their own heading. New Amsterdam is definitely one of these topics, so all newly-digitized documents can be viewed there (in Dutch). Of course, these documents can also provide content for the New Amsterdam Stories.

These Stories will paint a more complete picture of New Amsterdam. The aim is to make the archives accessible for people who would otherwise not so easily delve into it. The Stories will be successful if they help people, for example by getting them to enjoy history. This is the case for archives in general: there are many people for whom archives can play a vital role in their lives, ranging from those who are able to identify their parents, or who can trace their lineage much further into history, as is evident for those with ancestors from New Amsterdam. Archives tend to have a stuffy image, but actually they are simply about information and people’s life stories: about making information available to the public. The entire Internet is about information, and the Stadsarchief has millions of documents full of information. Think of all the stories it contains! I truly believe that archives are one of the most interesting branches of the cultural sector.

Read the first part here, and the second part here


New Amsterdam Stories: Part Two - By Veronica Baas

For this second installment of a three part blog series, The John Adams Institute talked with Dennis J. Maika, Senior Historian with the New Netherland Institute, who is one of the scholars who guides the project.

New Amsterdam Stories’ is a collaboration between the New Netherland Institute, the New York City Municipal Archives and the City Archives of Amsterdam. Records from these archives are disclosed on the website, telling stories about individuals that dwelled in New Amsterdam. In those early days the ties with the colonists’ homeland, the Dutch Republic, were still very strong. This means that documents about single individuals are often found in both archives. The project tries to tell a (more) complete story by combining information from both archives in one place.

The project tries to reconstruct the lives of individuals in New Amsterdam by showing snapshots of their lives. While the story of someone’s life can never be completely traced through an archive, putting the pieces of the puzzle together might give us a glimpse into that life. For the first phase of the project, all three institutions decided to focus on residents whose records were definitely available in both archives. After selecting the individuals, the archives dug up the relevant records about these early city dwellers. This process was guided by dr. Maika, who works as a historian for the New Netherland Institute, a non-governmental organization that ‘aims to cast light on America’s Dutch roots’. This project is one of the efforts to reach that goal, and also attempts to answer the question that preoccupies all archives: how can we offer this information to the general public?

Public participation and engagement has changed over the last few years, as the wind of digitization is blowing even through stuffy archives all over the world:  the New York City Municipal Archives and the Stadsarchief Amsterdam are both digitizing. Thanks to this process, documents that had been put away somewhere in the endless rows of filing cabinets are now just one click away.

Surragate' Court, where NYCMA's records are held

The New York records are held in Surrogate’s Court

The archives want to share this information with the world, and the New Amsterdam Stories are an answer to this huge task. Archive visitors need to be guided in order to wade through the wealth of information available. At the start of this project, it was clear that putting individuals in the spotlight would be the key to achieve this. Individuals are an easy entrance for the public, but they are also an easy entrance for the archivists. Individuals can be traced. They show up in court records; they leave records with their notary.

The Amsterdam notaries, held at the Stadsarchief, are the core of this project. Before there were lawyers, people needed notaries to draw up any record that they would want to hold up in court, such as wills, marriages, sales contracts, business contracts, indentured servitude contracts, debt obligations. All these records have been kept by these notaries, and ended up in the archives. The collection is incredibly rich and representative of that time, because almost everybody used a notary (you did not have to have a lot of money to still want to take good care of your business and life affairs). In combination with the New Amsterdam court records, which are held at the New York City Municipal Archives, so much can be discovered about the early residents. These records are truly a treasure trove, filled with known and unknown stories.

One of the most well-known individuals of New Amsterdam was Petrus Stuyvesant. Of course, a Story had to be written about him, but it should not be the obvious story of him as the last director-general of New Netherland, or about how he lost his leg: this project should tell the story that is in the records. The records contained his will – not his final will, but one that he had drawn up when he was only 29 years old. He was about to leave for the Caribbean, where he would serve the Dutch West India Company. He bequeathed all his belongings to his sisters Anna and Margriete, and in case they would die, to their children. While this might not appear as the most exiting story, it does tell something about him as one reads between the lines. It tells us that he might have been afraid to die; he was most definitely aware of the dangers involved in a voyage across the ocean. In those days, many did not return from these long missions, but not everybody was ready to face that. Petrus Stuyvesant was. The will is not especially interesting because of its contents, but because he made it when he did: at such a young age, and about to travel across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, not everybody in the Stories is as famous as Stuyvesant. For this first phase, the project tried to select a limited cross-section of the population. This is why the Story of Anna and Wolfert Webber is included. Although they are not famous historical figures, they are still of historical significance. They represent typical settlers, whose lives are little known, yet nonetheless important to the city. They seemed to be average people living an average life. However, records with information about the couple can, and were found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The earlier records are located in Amsterdam, like their Prenuptial Agreement, and their Notice of Marriage, in 1630. There is also their Authorization to leave for New Netherland, which they received in 1649, so quite a few years after their wedding. Then, in the New York City Municipal Archives, there is a record of a court case on August 9, 1655. Anna is testifying in court against Jan Willmsen Iselsteyn van Leyden, claiming that he called her a whore and beat her with his gun and a crowbar. A year later, Anna had to appear in court again, because there was a dispute over two bibles. She states they are hers, because they were given to her daughter by Indians who captured her in the 1655 ‘Peach War’. The daughter had carried them throughout her captivity, which lasted for several months. The original owner stated that the Indians had no right to give them away, because they had stolen the bibles from her when she had just arrived in Manhattan; now she wanted them back from Anna. The court’s decision is revealed in these records. Together these two archives bring Anna and Wolfert Webber alive: living a life on two continents.

Genealogy is very important to many people, and this is one of the reasons individuals are such a good entrance point into archives. So many people are interested in their heritage, but the threshold is high. By digitizing the records, it becomes possible to search them, but it is still difficult. As of now, the project does not allow individuals to search for family records yet- but it is definitely a long-term goal.

One of the reasons it is so difficult to access the records is that you have to read Seventeenth Century calligraphy, written in Seventeenth Century Dutch. After the digitization, the document is typed out, but even then it requires skill to fully comprehend it. In a later phase, full transcriptions of the original documents will be provided, as well as complete translations into English. But for now, the format of the Stories should make these documents more accessible. A summary of a document’s content is provided, so visitors can look at the document and understand it, even if they cannot literally read it.


A map of New Amsterdam, where its wall can be seen.

The Stories can open up history for a bigger audience, and their potential should be maximized. Potentially, this project will also expand beyond focusing on individuals. For example, telling the stories of major events that happened in New Amsterdam, such as the wall that was built to shield the settlement. This wall was built on what would be called Wall Street – which is obviously still there.

Hopefully, these Stories are only the beginning of a larger and long-term project. However, there is always the question of funding.  During the first phase, three organizations have funded the project: Amsterdam-based Dutch Culture, which gets its funding from the Dutch government, the National Archives in The Hague, and Dutch Culture USA, which is basically the Dutch Consulate in New York. The Dutch Consulate, and in particular cultural attaché Jan Kennis, was instrumental in this project. Mr. Kennis was familiar with the New Netherland Institute, and when he heard that both the Stadsarchief Amsterdam and the New York City Municipal Archives were digitizing their archives, he immediately saw the potential. It took about two years, but now the Stories are actually published on the website. Partial funding for the second phase has just been received from Dutch Culture USA, but funding for the long-term future needs to be secured.

It would be great if this collaboration continued. This compelling project demonstrates the importance and significance of a shared cultural history between the Netherlands and New York. Or New Amsterdam, as it was called then. And if there is one thing that this project teaches us, it is that it is full of stories.

The next installment of this blog series will be published on December 19. You can read the first part, written by Russell Shorto here

New Amsterdam Stories: Part One - By Russell Shorto

In this first installment of a three part blog series, Russell Shorto writes about his experience with the New Netherland archives.

Since the Dutch founded one of the original European colonies in America, and since its capital was none other than a little island called Manhattan, it might be reasonable to suppose that Americans would be brought up with the idea that “Dutch” is as much a part of their heritage as “Pilgrim.” But of course that isn’t true. People may have some inkling that the Dutch once fiddled around in New York. They might even know that it was originally called New Amsterdam. But they tend not to put the Netherlands alongside Britain as one of America’s cultural forebears.

One reason for that is contained in the truism that history is written by the winners. An English invasion force took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1664. The English and the Dutch were at the time bitter rivals. The English, not to put too fine a point on it, hated everything Dutch. All the derogatory sayings in the English language involving the word Dutch-Dutch treat, Dutch courage, double Dutch–date to this period. One of my favorites of the many anti-Dutch pamphlets published in England in the seventeenth century has this for a title: The Dutch-mens Pedigree, Or, A Relation Shewing How They Were First Bred and Descended from a Horse-Turd Which Was Enclosed in a Butter-Box.

islandSo the English, once they took over Manhattan Island, weren’t about to give the Dutch credit for anything they had done there before. Nevertheless, they did take possession of the thousands of pages of official records of New Netherland, and they kept them. All conquerors do this, because it allows for continuity. Still, those records had a fitful existence. In 1685, after King James ordered a reorganization of the American colonies, the volumes were tossed onto a stagecoach bound for Boston; three years later they made the same rough trip back to New York when the new monarchs, William and Mary, reversed the ruling. Some volumes were lost on these journeys. In 1741, the fort where the records were housed was torched in what was held to be a slave conspiracy. The gatehouse burned, but the records were saved by a diligent secretary tossing them out the window. It was a blustery day, and many pages blew away, but the bulk of the records remained intact.

During the American Revolution the records spent a good deal of time on a ship in New York Harbor. Mold set in. Then they were shipped to England and spent the last portion of the war in the Tower of London. When they were returned, the secretary of New York State reported that they were “much mill-dewed and greatly injured.” But he tried to stop the damage, using state-of-the-art methods: he directed, he said, “my best endeavors to preserve them, having frequently exposed them to the sun and air, and several times had them brushed through every leaf.”

Then in 1818 the state decided that it ought to have a full English translation.  The man selected for this work—Francis Adrian van der Kemp, an elderly Dutch minister and former soldier who had emigrated to New York—translated all 12,000 pages, within four years, and despite the fact that he was going blind, and that his English was not very good. The result was a translation that was in a sense worse than worthless, for it was riddled with errors and yet it became the standard way for historians to learn about the colony. Eventually, mercifully, this translation itself burned up in a fire.

Then in 1974 a true and proper translation and publication effort got underway. The archives were now housed in the New York State Archives and Library, in Albany. Charles Gehring, a young American with a doctorate in Germanic linguistics with a specialization in 17th century Dutch, was hired for one year. Then another. Then another. In late 2016, he is still at it. He and Janny Venema, a Dutch historian who has been his transcriber for the past 30 years, have worked their way through more than half of the material. A community of historians and researchers have built up around the translation and publication effort of the New Netherland Institute. In 1999, the 12,000 pages of manuscript records of the Dutch colony were declared a national treasure by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Besides giving the moldy pages a belated dignity, the designation also came with funds to help preserve them.

dockI began my interaction with these materials in the year 2000. I had thought to write a magazine piece about the Dutch founding of New York; someone put me in touch with Charles Gehring. He suggested I come up to Albany the following month, when he would host his annual seminar on the Dutch colony. I did. After meeting with several of the people working on the material, I decided to write a book on the colony. Charles Gehring and Janny Venema cleared a corner of their office for me. They gave me access to the records, and help in deciphering them. I needed a lot of help, since the documents were written in 17th century Dutch (which is quite different from modern Dutch) and in handwriting that to the untutored eye looks something like a cross between Arabic and chicken scratch. I spent hours and hours in that corner of the office, occasionally looking out on downtown Albany but otherwise staring at the antique pages.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to rely on my own abilities to decipher them. Gehring and Venema had published at that time 18 volumes of translations. Plus, the two people who knew more about this material than anyone else on earth were right there, ready to answer questions. This was before Google, but it was better than Google. I was able to interact with these actual pieces of 300 year old rag paper, to get to know the various writers through their handwriting, and at the same time I had guides to it all.

What came through–what comes through for anyone who sits with this material and has the patience to work with it–is the human reality of this corner of the past. Up from the pages rise Peter Stuyvesant, Adriaen Van der Donck, Pieter Minuit, Catalina Trico, Joris Rapalje, and hundreds of other people who settled New York before it was New York. You come to know them. You know their secrets, their longings, their schemes. It dawns on you, over time, that the seething atmosphere they created–in which everyone is doing business, everyone is buying or selling beavers, everyone has a piece of the next voyage, everyone wants a piece of the action–has never left the island. The Manhattan they created is still there on paper. And it’s still there in the world’s most magnetic city.


Russell Shorto is an American historian, journalist and author. In 2004, he published The Island at the Center of the World: the Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, for which he spent many hours in the New Netherland archives. Between 2008 and 2013, he lived in Amsterdam, where he was the director of the John Adams Institute.

The next two installments of this series will be published on December 12 and December 19.



The BKB campaign trip – in quotes

“ Before bed at night, think about why you get up the next morning. And think about what you eventually want it to say on your tombstone. Nobody says at a funeral: that guy had such a great flatscreen tv. Material possessions are not important. All that matters is how you affect the lives of others. ”

—    Advice for young people from Ted Cruz, campaigning at Pedraza’s Mexican restaurant, Keene, NH

ted cruz

“ Churches haven’t done a good job figuring out how to be relevant. Churches provide not only Sunday services, but human services. ”

—    Reverend Tim Crellin tijdens de zondagsdienst in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church


“ The Republicans have adopted a suicide strategy and that is to be a party of whites. ”

—    Professor Richard Parker van de Harvard Kennedy School

bernie sanders featured 2

“ In New Hampshire, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a state representative. ”

—    Roger Carroll van de Nashua Telegraph over de absurd grote hoeveelheid state representatives


“ ‘I’m gonna get the job done’ doesn’t resonate well, because people want to throw off the shackles and blow up the system. ”

—    Ruy Teixeira van The Center for American Progress over Hillary Clinton’s campagneboodschap


“ The Republicans are reaping what they have sown, and that is Donald Trump. ”

—    Roger Simon van Politico


Deze week stond op de website van De Volkskrant een opiniestuk van Haro Kraak, getiteld: Waarom schrijven jullie hier nou nooit over? “Van complotdenkers en bezorgde burgers tot rechtse commentatoren en dwarse mediamakers – haast iedereen houdt ervan om te zeggen dat de media iets negeren. Maar waarom eigenlijk?” Volgens Kraak besteden de mainstream media wel zeker ruimschoots aandacht aan al die zogenaamd genegeerde onderwerpen. Ook ik denk dat we ons niet per se zorgen hoeven te maken om de hoeveelheid aandacht. Maar wel om iets anders.

De opwarming van de aarde bestaat niet

In New Hampshire sprak ik, in het hoofdkwartier van Ted Cruz, een eloquente, opgewekte vrouw die me met volle overtuiging zei dat de opwarming van de aarde een fabeltje is en dat ik er goed aan doe niet meer naar de mainstream media te luisteren. Dat was haar conclusie na zes maanden eigenhandig onderzoek. Waar ze haar informatie vandaan haalde? “Van het internet.” Ze liet me wat obscure websites zien die zeiden dat ze gelijk had, en beloofde me een of andere documentaire door te sturen die het haarfijn uitlegde. (Nog niet gebeurd.)

In plaats van druk te maken over te weinig aandacht voor een onderwerp, zoals het Volkskrantartikel, wegen mensen soms niet goed (genoeg) de waarde (of: waarheid) van de aandacht die er wél is. Journalistiek is mensenwerk en bijna elk medium een doorgeefluik: een bron van een bron van een bron.

Oranje is groen

Om zelf ook een bron van een bron te zijn: in San Francisco, op de bovenverdieping van boekhandel City Lights, vond vorige week een literaire avond plaats met schrijver Jarett Kobek, die het boek ’I Hate The Internet’ schreef. Na een verhitte en enigszins komische woordenstrijd tussen Kobek en een Bernie Sanders-fan (“Twitter makes revolutions possible, meeeehn!”), kwam het gesprek uit op Googles algoritme en ‘de waarheid’.

Een onthutste man zei: “Het mag gewoon niet zo zijn dat iemand ergens beweert dat oranje eigenlijk groen is, en dat genoeg mensen erop klikken of het liken, en dat het dan boven aan in de zoekresultaten van Google komt. Wat is dan nog de waarheid?”

Waarop een andere man antwoordde: “What is truth anyway? Orange is orange because enough people once agreed that it was. If the majority feels that orange needs the definition of green, then maybe it should be.”

Hillary Clinton is een crimineel

In het Volkskrantartikel: “Nu kun je voor elk verhaal duizenden bronnen vinden en als je goed genoeg zoekt, vind je jouw waarheid altijd terug.” Het eerste wat je leert bij een journalistieke of mediagerelateerde studie, is dat (en hoe) je elke bron moet toetsen op betrouwbaarheid. Vandaar dat het fijn is dat bijvoorbeeld De Correspondent in een aantal artikelen doorlinkt naar aangehaalde bronnen – al werken daar net zo goed geen robots.


De mensen die ik op de straten van New Hampshire sprak, of tijdens rally’s en het campaignen, zeiden allen dat hun voorkeurskandidaat als enige de waarheid verkondigt. De anderen zijn leugenaars. Bij een rally van Bernie Sanders was een Republikein aanwezig die zogezegd polshoogte kwam nemen. Toen het gesprek op Clinton kwam, liep hij een beetje rood aan en je mag er best rondvliegend speeksel bij fantaseren toen hij zei: “Hillary is a liar, a fraud, she should be in jail!” Vooralsnog is het onderzoek rondom haar e-mailserver nog gaande.

Dat komt niet uit de lucht vallen, want de presidentskandidaten zelf liegen misschien ook wel meer dan ooit. Politico constateerde dat dit the dirtiest Presidential race since ‘72 is. De New York Times heeft een factchecker in dienst die een handig overzicht bijhoudt waarin statements van kandidaten tegen het licht worden gehouden. Zijn het leugens, waarheden, of, ook een optie: ‘it depends on how you measure it’. Dan lijkt deze vraag nog niet eens zo gek: what is truth anyway?


Op 6 februari arriveerde ik met de BKB-academie in de Verenigde Staten. We hadden het toetje nog nauwelijks verteerd, of we werden al in de verkiezingsgekte meegesleurd omdat het grote GOP-televisiedebat in New Hampshire begon.

Wie teveel last van jetlag had om het debat te kunnen volgen, kon zich gelukkig laten informeren door de vele analyses die de volgende ochtend op het web en in de krant verschenen. Het grootste nieuws: Marco Rubio – vanaf dat moment ‘Robot Rubio’ – was erin geslaagd zichzelf een paar keer te herhalen. Ophef alom.


“All the press corps cares about is process”

Het bleek niet gemakkelijk een analyse te vinden waarin de presidentskandidaten werden beoordeeld op wat ze daadwerkelijk te melden hadden, of hoe hun opmerkingen zich verhielden tot hun eerder ingenomen standpunten. ‘Pundits’ schrijven liever over hoe Clinton verbitterd kijkt, Kasich stottert of Rubio in de repetitiemodus zit. Of neem de duiding van Bob Woodward, een van de meest gezaghebbende journalisten van de VS: zijn commentaar op Hillary Clinton ging over haar ongemakkelijke communicatie, die volgens hem wees op een gebrek aan zelfacceptatie. Is dit het soort analyse dat we van onze journalisten verwachten?

“All the press corps cares about is process”, zei Politico-columnist Roger Simon hierover toen hij met ons sprak in Washington D.C. De pers schrijft liever over het spel en de prestaties van kandidaten, dan over wat ze van plan zijn als ze eenmaal aan de knoppen zitten. Mijn mede-academicus Thomas Smolders vatte het goed samen in zijn blog voor De Morgen“Amerikaanse presidentsverkiezingen verglijden steeds meer tot een politieke versie van The Hunger Games waarbij de vorm primeert op de inhoud.” Nick Bryant van de BBC vergeleek het eveneens treffend met een spel, hij noemt het “horse race journalism”, waarbij niet de geschiktheid voor het ambt centraal staat maar waarbij men vooral geïnteresseerd is in “who should stay on the island, rather than who should become the most powerful person on earth”.

May the best man win

Maar in zekere zin raakt het laatste deel van dat citaat precies de kern van waar het hier over gaat: wie moet straks de machtigste persoon ter wereld worden? Als dat inderdaad is waar deze verkiezing over zou moeten gaan, dan zullen we ons moeten afvragen of al die debatjes die vraag wel beantwoorden. Debatten scheppen namelijk geen enkele helderheid over wat een president zou moeten kunnen en of de kandidaten in kwestie daartoe in staat zijn. De machtigste man of vrouw ter wereld moet vooral behendig zijn in het bij elkaar brengen van partijen, oplossen van geschillen en het opereren onder grote druk. En dat geldt des te meer in een tijd waarin niet alleen Washington, maar ook de internationale gemeenschap, tot op het bot verdeeld is.

Wie daadwerkelijk geïnteresseerd is in het vinden van de meest geschikte kandidaat voor dit ambt doet er dan ook goed aan de overblijvers op een andere manier te testen. Vergeet die stomme vragen die zo makkelijk met een ingestudeerde oneliner kunnen worden beantwoord. Stuk voor stuk beproevingen die ons niet vertellen wie de beste leider van het machtigste land ter wereld zal zijn. Nee, stel de kandidaten liever bloot aan een crisissimulatie van een crisismanagementbureau. Sluit de kandidaten 24 uur op in een ruimte en laat ze Model United Nations spelen. Of Risk, als dat beter is voor de kijkcijfers (ik ben benieuwd wie zichzelf dan nog een geschikte commander-in-chief durft te noemen). Alle campagneslogans kunnen dan plaatsmaken voor een gezamenlijke, die elke cheesy campagneslogan overbodig maakt: may the best man win.



Denktanks spelen een grote rol in het Amerikaanse politieke spel. En zoals zoveel in de Amerikaanse politiek, zijn ook die gelieerd aan een van de twee partijen. Een bezoekje aan de American Enterprise Institute.


Het American Enterprise Institute is de schrik van links Amerika. De Conservatieve denktank publiceert aan de lopende band onderzoeken die de denkbeelden van de Republikeinse partij ondersteunen en die van de Democratische partij volledig affakkelen. Al is het onderzoeksinstituut officieel niet gelieerd aan de Republikeinen, waren veel van de medewerkers actief in de regering-Bush.

De meeste Nederlanders zullen geen groot fan zijn van de meeste Republikeinse idealen. Toch hebben Nederlanders wel degelijk een stempel gedrukt op de denktank. Voormalig VVD-politica Ayaan Hirsi Ali sloot zich aan bij de denktank en ook econoom Stan Veuger. We spraken Veuger en zijn collega Michael Strain op het hoofdkantoor van het instituut.

De heren vormden een bijzonder duo. Niet alleen omdat ze in staat waren om binnen een recordtijd blikjes cola naar binnen te werken of elke vraag uit de groep met een vileine vorm van humor te beantwoorden, maar ook omdat ze gewoon een redelijk verhaal hebben. En Republikeinen die in de ogen van een Nederlander een redelijk verhaal hebben, dat is bijzonder. Zo beschreven de sprekers hoe ze het socialezekerheidsysteem willen hervormen. Die hervorming komt neer op een systeem van “iedereen dekt z’n eigen kosten en God voor ons allen”, maar dan wel onderbouwd op een manier die hout snijdt.

Veel medewerkers van het instituut waren actief in de regering-Bush en daarom is het niet verwonderlijk dat de sprekers een afkeer hebben van de Democratische kandidaten Clinton en Sanders. Zo zou Sanders totaal vervreemd zijn van de werkelijkheid en geloven in complottheorieën. Ook voor Trump en Cruz hadden ze geen goed woord over. De hoop (en verwachting) van de denktank is dan ook dat een gematigde Republikeinse kandidaat de nominatie binnen zal slepen.

Twee heren die Republikeins beleid geloofwaardig weten te onderbouwen, die hebben wel een blikje cola verdiend.


Fysiek uitgeput, maar mentaal energieker dan ooit blik ik terug op de onvergetelijke academiereis naar Amerika – Boston, Nashua, Washington.

Wat hebben wij veel gedaan, gezien en gehoord. Geïnspireerd, opgetogen en verward schrijf ik deze blog. Waar moet ik beginnen? Wat heeft deze reis met mij gedaan? In wat voor wereld leven we eigenlijk? Welke rol speelt politiek hierin? Wat is de invloed van campagnes, big data en de media?

De korte antwoorden op deze vijf vragen:

Geen idee. Van alles. Geen idee. Een grote. Heel veel.

Wat wordt er besproken, geregeld en gedaan voorafgaand aan een verkiezingscampagne voor de New President of the United States of America?

Het korte antwoord: Alles.

Aan alle manieren van invloed uitoefenen op de campagne en de verkiezingsuitslag wordt gedacht. De spelers van de Amerikaanse politiek worden opgesteld door de uitkomst van Facebookposts, Instagramfoto’s, Think Tank adviezen, Google-zoekopdrachten, scripts voor ‘persoonlijke’ campagnemails en campagnebureaus voor de campagneteams van de campagne voor vrouwen, Latino’s, African Americans en andere minorities die helemaal niet in de minderheid zijn in veel Amerikaanse staten, die allemaal voor een overheidsfunctie gaan.

Als de sponsoren, zwakten en sterkten, troeven en beelden van de verschillende presidentskandidaten in kaart zijn gebracht gaan ze het veld op met een heel team van vrijwilligers en coaches achter zich. Op het veld wordt duidelijk wie de tegenstanders zijn. De spelers gaan zich profileren aan de hand van speeches, filmpjes, foto’s, quotes en andere acties. Ondertussen worden de vrijwilligers voorzien van bijpassend promotiemateriaal in beeld en tekst, aangepast aan de te overwinnen kiezer. Als de vrijwilligers hun vakantiedagen hebben opgenomen kan de strijd langs de deuren, achter de telefoon en bij de stembureaus beginnen.

Dat de campagnebureaus in Amerika veel wisten over de kiezer, is algemeen bekend, maar dat ze er zoveel mee kunnen én doen – voor- en tijdens de verkiezingsstrijd – is bizar. Wat dit met me doet?

Het zet me aan het denken en maakt me enthousiast. We kunnen hiervan in Nederland nog heel veel leren. Door alle informatie die beschikbaar is over de kiezers worden ze beter bereikt. Hiervan kan je zeggen dat hun privacy geschonden wordt. Ik interpreteer het liever positief: de informatie over de presidentskandidaten wordt in aanspreekbare taal overgebracht op de kiezer. Dit biedt hen de mogelijkheid zelf na te denken over de issues die worden aangekaart. Je creëert hierdoor een bewuste, betrokken kiezer. Kijk maar naar alle vrijwilligers die de presidentskandidaten opnemen in hun campagneteam, dat zijn er ongekend veel. De Nederlandse politici en burgers kunnen hiervan nog een hele hoop leren in plaats van dat de Amerikaanse verkiezingen alleen maar als overdreven en privacyschendend worden bekritiseerd. Laten we afstappen van het idee ‘Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg.’ en laten we de politiek en haar betrokken burgers nog een kans geven het bewustzijn van ons allemaal te vergroten.


“It’s time we recognize that our state and federal prisons, where 65 percent of inmates meet medical criteria for substance use disorders, are no substitute for proper treatment — and reform our criminal justice system.” – Hillary Clinton


ISIS, veiligheid, wapens, economische ongelijkheid en immigratie zijn leidende thema’s tijdens de debatten en rally’s van de presidentskandidaten. Maar in New Hampshire voerde ook een andere kwestie de boventoon: ‘the heroin apocalypse’. Elke dag sterft minstens één persoon in de kleine noordoostelijke staat aan een overdosis heroïne, fentanyl of een ander opiaat.

Bijna een halve eeuw nadat Nixon de ‘War on Drugs’ uitriep, lijken zowel de Democratische als een deel van de Republikeinse kandidaten zich te bewegen richting een beleid wat zich richt op rehabilitatie in plaats van straffen. Maar het land, waar de gevangenissen vol zitten met plegers van niet-gewelddadige drugsdelicten, staat nog ver af van destigmatisering en decriminalisering.

Voorgeschreven pijnstillers, zoals oxycodon, vormen een groot deel van het probleem. Patiënten raken verslaafd en switchen dan naar heroïne, gezien dit goedkoper en makkelijker te verkrijgen is. Voor sommige kandidaten staat het onderwerp heel dichtbij: zo stierven een vriend van Chris Christie en de halfzus van Ted Cruz aan een overdosis. De dochter van Jeb Bush was verslaafd aan voorgeschreven pijnstillers en zat gevangen voor drugsbezit.

Hillary Clinton ging in gesprek over drugsgebruik met burgers in New Hampshire, waar ze pleitte voor betere behandelprogramma’s en de politie opriep zich te richten op afkickmogelijkheden in plaats van opsluiting. Als president wil ze hier tien miljard voor uitrekken. Tijdens een rally van Hillary zag ik Bill spreken over het belang van betere toegang tot naloxone, een middel dat de potentiele fatale effecten van een overdosis opioïden kan tegengaan. Cruz ziet de oplossing in God en het sluiten van de grens met Mexico. Trump pleit soms voor de legalisering van marihuana, maar gelooft vooral dat een muur op de grens met Mexico alle problemen doet verdwijnen.

“And so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover because every life is precious.” Chris Christie

De groeiende ‘opioïden epidemie’ benadrukt op pijnlijke wijze dat het drugsbeleid in de VS inadequaat is. Het verstrekken van schone injectienaalden en substitutie middelen zijn evidence based interventies, die de overdracht van hiv en hepatitis C tegengaan en het afkicken ondersteunen. Maar het grootste deel van de drugsgebruikers in de VS heeft geen toegang tot deze middelen en programma’s.

Maar wat leveren die interventies dan op? Het National Institute on Drug Abuse schat dat elke dollar die geïnvesteerd wordt in behandelprogramma’s tussen de $4 en $7 bespaart aan drugs gerelateerde misdaad en strafrechtelijke kosten. Wanneer gezondheidszorgkosten hierin worden meegenomen, kan de besparing oplopen tot twaalf maal de investering. De evidence is er. Nu de president die de policies maakt nog.


“Hoeveel procent van jullie volksvertegenwoordigers is een vrouw?” met deze vraag begon Denise Feriozzi, Deputy Executive Director van Emily’s List, het gesprek. Het exacte antwoord moesten wij haar op dat moment verschuldigd blijven, al maakte haar dat niet veel uit. Het punt dat ze wilde maken is dat vrouwelijke vertegenwoordiging in andere landen nog altijd beter is geregeld dan in haar eigen land. “Ik zeg dan vaak tegen andere groepen: jullie doen het veel beter! Hoe doen jullie dat?” Met deze opmerking probeerde Feriozzi het succes van haar organisatie te relativeren. Al toont het meer de wilskracht van Feriozzi om het veel beter te willen doen. Want er is wel degelijk reden om onder de indruk te zijn van de prestaties van Emily’s List. Tot de oprichting van deze organisatie was het nog geen enkele vrouw gelukt om een gekozen functie te vervullen door verkiezingen te winnen. In een kleine 30 jaar is het Emily’s List gelukt om 100 vrouwen in het Parlement, 19 in de Senaat en 11 vrouwelijke gouverneurs te laten verkiezen.


Financiële obstakels
Het is echter niet makkelijk geweest om dit voor elkaar te krijgen. In het begin had de organisatie te maken met financiële obstakels. Volgens Feriozzi hebben “kandidaten veel geld nodig om een verkiezing te winnen. Het wilde vrouwen echter niet lukken om destijds voldoende geld op te halen. Dat kwam omdat mensen die in staat waren om geld te doneren dachten dat vrouwen niet zouden kunnen winnen. Ze weigerden dus ook om geld te doneren, waardoor vrouwen inderdaad niet konden winnen.” Emily’s List wist het verschil te maken om toch voldoende geld op te halen voor vrouwelijke kandidaten, wat uiteindelijk ervoor zorgde dat vrouwen verkiezingen konden winnen, om zo deze vicieuze cirkel te doorbreken. Ook vandaag de dag ondervindt de organisatie nog altijd financiële moeilijkheden. Dat heeft te maken met het gemak waarop de republikeinen groot geld weten binnen te halen via grote bedrijven. Volgens Feriozzi maakt dat de verkiezingsstrijd weer moeilijker voor progressieve vrouwen.

Seksistische bril
Naast financiële obstakels ondervindt de organisatie ook culturele moeilijkheden. Dat werd het meest duidelijk wanneer Feriozzi het over Hillary Clinton had. “Hillary is misschien wel de beste presidentskandidaat die we ooit gehad hebben. Maar wanneer vrouwen voor een hoge functie gaan moeten ze kunnen balanceren tussen ‘being strong’ en ‘likeable’. Voor velen mag er geen twijfel over bestaan dat Hillary Clinton ‘strong’ is, maar tegelijkertijd is het duidelijk dat ze moeite heeft met ‘being likeable’. Dat komt deels omdat kiezers kijken of ze graag een biertje zouden drinken met een kandidaat. Als we eerlijk zijn is dat ook gewoon een seksistische bril.” Volgens Feriozzi kan deze bril pas aangepast worden wanneer we meer vrouwen in gekozen functies hebben “want dan zien we dat een vrouw net zo goed president kan zijn”.

Ondersteuning Emily’s List
De ondersteuning die Emily’s List biedt aan vrouwen is alomvattend. “We gaan soms letterlijk met vrouwen om de keukentafel zitten vanaf het moment dat ze overwegen om voor een politieke functie te gaan. Vanaf dat moment adviseren wij vrouwelijke kandidaten met alle belangrijke strategische beslissingen die ze moeten nemen.” Bij Hillary Clinton is dat echter niet nodig. Hillary heeft al een omvangrijk netwerk en een eigen campagneteam. Toch ziet Feriozzi nog een rol voor Emily’s List om Hillary te ondersteunen. De ondersteuning die ze bieden is in dit geval, vooral in de vorm van kiezersmobilisatie. Dat doen ze op allerlei verschillende manieren. Door middel van politieke advertenties maar ook door het verlenen van ‘credibility’ voor Hillary. Oftewel in het openbaar te verklaren dat Hillary wel degelijk progressief is.

Waarom zou je op een vrouw moeten stemmen?
Kiezers overtuigen om op een vrouwelijke kandidaat te stemmen is ook iets waar Emily’s List constant mee bezig is. “Voor mij is het reden genoeg om te zeggen, vrouwelijke vertegenwoordiging is veel te laag. Alleen voor kiezers is dat in het algemeen niet voldoende. Je moet concreet duidelijk maken wat de meerwaarde is van een vrouwelijke kandidaat. Dat kan je doen door duidelijk te maken wat op het spel staat. Onderzoek heeft aangetoond dat vrouwen in het algemeen ook aantoonbaar progressiever stemmen.”



Een van onze laatste sessies tijdens de Amerikareis, gistermiddag, vond plaats bij Google in Washington D.C. We bezochten het internetbedrijf vanwege zijn hart voor democratie. Google probeert sinds enkele jaren om informatie over verkiezingen en verkiezingskandidaten te verspreiden en resultaten inzichtelijk te maken, in landen als India, Duitsland en de VS. De search tools van het bedrijf bieden hiervoor een perfect platform. De vraag die bij mij speelde: is het ontsluiten van informatie het enige doel dat Google dient met zijn democratiseringsprojecten?

Google wall

Het kantoor van Google in Washington D.C.

Google is al langer bij de (Amerikaanse) politiek betrokken. Topman Eric Schmidt maakte deel uit van het campagneteam van Barack Obama in 2012 en het bedrijf heeft een sterke lobby in Washington. Maar Google heeft ook onderhuidse invloed. Volgens deze studie van Robert Epstein en Ronald Robertson kunnen zoekresultaten de voorkeur van zwevende kiezers tussen 20 en 80 procent doen verschuiven. De invloed van zwevende kiezers is bij een close race groot, en dus zou Google de uitslag van de Amerikaanse presidentsverkiezingen best eens kunnen beslissen.

Dit is natuurlijk geen verrassing. Informatiebronnen hebben nu eenmaal een enorme invloed op kiesgedrag. Dat weten moderne kandidaten: de politieke macht van de mainstreammedia is in de presidentiële race van 2016 een belangrijk onderwerp van discussie. Maar ook vroeger was men zich van de rol van informatie bewust. Een academiegenoot vertelde me over de telegraafbaas die in de negentiende eeuw presidentskandidaat was en structureel voorkwam dat negatief nieuws over hem werd doorgeseind naar krantenredacties.

Op het kantoor van Google hoorden we uiteraard niets over het beïnvloeden van verkiezingen. Nou ja, één ding dan: de belofte dat het bedrijf geen enkele controle uitoefent over kiesgedrag. Verder ging de presentatie puur over de projecten waarmee Google informatie over stembureaus en kandidaten verspreidt. Dat zijn nobele bezigheden. Maar het probleem is niet dat Google zoekresultaten over presidentskandidaten zou kleuren – zo expliciet is dat hun nooit ten laste gelegd. Het probleem is de macht die Google zou kúnnen uitoefenen. In een gezonde democratie wordt niet invloed, maar de mogelijkheid tot invloed aan banden gelegd. Het was gaaf geweest om bij Google over deze elephant in the room in discussie te gaan.

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Het is net na achten wanneer de langverwachte verkiezingsresultaten van de presidentiële voorverkiezing binnendruppelen. Nieuwsstation ABC roept Bernie Sanders uit tot winnaar van The Granite State, ongewoon vroeg omdat pas twintig procent van de stemmen is geteld. Mijn hart gaat sneller bonzen en ik weet dat ik maar op één plek wil zijn als de resultaten bekend worden; de partijbijeenkomst waar Bernie Sanders zijn overwinningsspeech houdt en zijn voorsprong van de afgelopen tijd in de peilingen verzilvert.

Met een groep mede-academici racen we naar onze auto met het idee dat we zo’n kans niet mogen missen. Er is me eerder op de dag door een Sanders-medewerker verteld dat de bijeenkomst besloten is en erg druk is, zelf heeft ze geen hoop om te gaan. Het deert ons nie