Walking the Neighborhoods of Heerlen Noord

ACORN International Housing Poverty

             Heerlen           Walking the neighborhoods to plot out the early organizing drives to build ACORN Netherlands beginning in Heerlen Noord never gets old.  We started near the city center and then worked our way farther and farther north towards the castle.  We had to drive from one patch to another at one point, because this area constitutes two-thirds of the city, but has still been depressed since the abrupt closing of the coal mines in the 1970s throwing tens of thousands out of work.  The whole community is built on top of these mines dating to the times when workers lived walking distances from the shafts.

The housing patterns were a patchwork of sorts.  Only 40% of the city residents are homeowners.  The rest are either in public housing or private rentals, and the public housing, like most of the rentals, has been privatized during the periods when the Netherlands embraced neoliberalism with a bear hug.   All the public housing is managed by private companies, some of which are nonprofit and some for profit.  That’s not all.  These are not simple management contracts secured under municipal or other public bidding.  These are housing developments that were built by the private companies, which they then manage and are responsible for maintaining from soup to nuts.  It was unclear to me what the terms of the contracts between these companies and the public authorities might have been?   What would constitute breach or malfeasance?  Was there a trigger that would allow the authorities to assume control and ownership of the developments, and, if so, how would these companies be compensated.  For everything we saw, the list of what we needed to research became longer.

Some of the projects were older, dated to the 1950s in all likelihood.  They showed their age, but weren’t shabby particularly, though suffered in contrast to newer more modern complexes or higher rise affairs.  The back alleys revealed more issues, with public spaces sparser and more unkempt and piles of debris and trash here and there.  In newer areas, the city had constructed a novel approach to handling trash and various recycling.  The receptacle was above ground, while the rest was buried underneath.  Three hooks rose from the back which a truck used to hoist the whole affair, dump it, return, and drive away.

Social services were dotted here and there throughout Heerlen Noord.  We briefly visited one center in a senior high rise and stopped by another where there was a panel speaking to more than 50 social workers about poverty.  These workers were also provided by public bidding and tender to private, often, but not always nonprofit, companies for youth, senior, maternal, and welfare services.  Several walked us through their neighborhoods, which they seemed to know intimately within the scope of their duties.  One carried a third phone dedicated to mediating domestic abuse.  Still often, despite the depth of their knowledge within their responsibilities, which was invaluable to us, they were pieces in a larger puzzle and often unable any more than we were to understand how the whole thing fit together, who was driving the program, and what it might take to change the whole situation.

I can remember 50 years ago walking through a neighborhood in Honolulu, which the daily papers had reported as a devastating and dangerous slum, and finding that these low-slung units with gardens bursting with blooming flowers, birds of paradise, and old men playing checkers under the trees, seemed heavenly compared to where I had been in Springfield, Boston, New Orleans, or Little Rock.  Being only a week removed from Delhi and people living in shacks and on the streets, walking through these areas was equally deceptive.

Organizing always reminds you that it is impossible to judge by appearances, especially where issues are often embedded and internal.  Heerlen Noord and its neighborhoods will once again teach us all new lessons as well.