My friend falls into silence as we sit down in the tram. She arrived from Finland an hour earlier. As we pass the Dam square she turns to me.
"People look so….how should I put it…different here." I recognise the reaction from sixteen months back. The move from Helsinki - a city with only 2,1 % of immigrants - to the centre of Amsterdam was a gigantic leap towards a multicultural society.
My friend and I are not alone with this amazement. Many of us experience confusion as the number of people who stand out from the crowd in European cities continues to grow. We are in constant negotiation as we position ourselves according to differences in ethnicity, religion and clothing to name a few. Confusion is experienced both among the majority and the minorities.
Without proper conciliation this transformation leads into dangerous political implications. An increasing number of Europeans feel that the growing diversity questions their lifestyles. A fear of falling changes multiculturalism from happy hugs in Benetton ads into a threat. As a result, more and more people volunteer to trade liberal goals of personal responsibility for tighter government protection. Populist political rhetoric speeds this up by encouraging us to reach for the eject button. “Please make this stop.”
I believe that this development threatens the essential idea of a metropolis. The biggest risk to European cities is posed by control, not immigration. It goes without saying that a spontaneous and slightly disorganised city is a challenging atmosphere to live in. I would still claim that in the end it is better for us all. The public sphere should not be a domain where actions need the approval of a security guard – even if this liberalism means that we need to accept occasional disruption and turmoil.
This is not a call for chaos but for a modern city that allows several ways of being local. I prefer a town where a bar terrace takes over the street on a warm evening or where I may bump into a friend at the market. I like seeing bikes locked or stickers glued to peculiar places. I wish to live in a city where I may need to change my cycling route because of a demonstration and where the bus driver is allowed to wear a headscarf or a piercing. Amsterdam is still flexible enough for a significant amount of personal liberation.
The more of us feel that our lifestyles are welcomed; the stronger is our will to take care of the public sphere. The current lobby for uniformity and stability works against the very idea of personal freedom and playfulness.
Our biggest challenge is creating public domains that are free from representational minority and majority roles. Immigration is an easy scapegoat when most problems are really due to socio-economic differences. It is extremely easy but irresponsible to point the finger at the people who have the most adjusting to do. We can do better than that.
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