What can an art residency in a Utrecht old folks' home teach us about intergenerational living?

Caroline Derveaux-Berté's workshop at The Sofia. Image: Jade French.

The city of Utrecht might be compact but it’s a bustling centre of student life, cycling obsessives and innovative social design. With social care in the UK in something of a crisis, perhaps this small Dutch city can offer an alternative view on how young and old can reconnect and provide each other with a better quality of life.

Earlier this year, student accommodation in the city centre reached a saturation point, with a growing number of students and early careerists finding it hard to rent in the city. So, it came as a surprise when The Sofia, an elderly care home, stepped in with a solution. It owners began to offer space in its empty spare wing out as student accommodation. The only catch? The new residents had to integrate with the elderly folk who already lived there.

Around the same time, artists and NGO workers Linda Rosink and Barbara van Beers were looking for office space for their project, Artshake. They approached The Sofia and immediately realised that they could make a difference by setting up an artist residency that would organise activities and help people meet one another.

It might sound simple, but art can be intimidating. The first residency, with Italian artist Mattias Campo Dall'Orto was an experiment. Luckily, his mix of photo-realistic portraits and a huge mural painted on the side of the building helped ease up those people who felt they were “not arty”. He also paved the way for some more abstract work from French artist Caroline Derveaux-Berté.

This distinctly European flavour is a deliberate choice. The artists can’t speak Dutch and communicating with the elderly residents about upcoming events and art projects can prove tricky. However, this communication gap also gently forces the students to help with translation and spreading information. In this simple way, the elderly and young people begin to speak on common ground.

By inserting the artist as an uncertain element between the two generations, Artshake provides a talking point for the residents, asking them to get excited – or even critical – about the art together. Beyond this, the building is becoming a social hub for the neighbourhood in general. During my stay, I saw a full-blown orchestra rehearsing with the residents, and Barbara and Linda are keen to implement more art workshops, yoga, and choirs into the space.

At the most recent art residency, Caroline Derveaux-Berté's work on childhood memories was channeled through abstract stories. On one morning, we spent time with 66-year-old Marianne, painting walls and listening to disco. Once we had finished a couple of panels, we ripped the masking tape off – an act which really felt like a collaborative effort. Marianne took us to see the portrait Mattias had drawn of her on the previous residency, explaining how she found the artist's intriguing. “It’s like we’re creating new memories as well,” says Caroline, “Sometimes you can look at the past and become sad, but actually by creating beautiful moments, in the present, you realise life doesn’t just finish at 66.”

The Sofia doesn’t feel like a typical care home. There’s an on-site hairdresser, a games room and coffee on tap by the receptionist. People are encouraged to loiter and chat. There’s a restaurant that wouldn’t look too out of place on Shoreditch High Street, with mason jar light bulbs and new geometric signs all around the buildings. With a fresh take on the care home, Artshake brings a sense of youth into the building showing how older generations can be exposed to new trends.

Now it feels like a home for everyone – but it might not have always been this way. During a transitional period over the summer, the first artist left and Linda noticed that “all the rules were gone. Some of the elderly people took advantage – sitting outside in front of the restaurant and having parties until 2am. Then you had the young people trying to sleep!” In fact, for Caroline the “older people are the young ones – always teaching me Dutch swearwords, drinking and talking through movies. The elderly seem to be getting a rebellious streak back.”

This inter-generational behaviour “swap” suggests that the social impact of a project like this isn’t always easy to measure empirically. When we tried to encourage some elderly people to help us paint, some had excuses: lunch to go to, family to see, dogs to walk. Even though that meant we were left holding our rollers, the power of choice can’t be underestimated. A lot of the original, elderly residents often felt like choices were being made for them; now, Linda notes that the power of saying ‘no I’m busy’ will “empower the elderly people, and show the younger students what it is like. Someday, we will be old. We have to ask: how would we like to live and be treated?”

 As Caroline put it: “It’s about owning the walls. They are the simplest part of where you live but they can also keep you separate.” By breaking down the generational barriers, Artshake has proven that even the smallest element of choice can have a big impact on daily life. By inserting something new, engaging and interesting into elderly care we can begin to close the gaps between the generations.

Just seeing the interaction between different generations is enough for Linda: “As long as we see young and old talking to each other in the restaurant or saying ‘hi’ in the corridors, that’s all we want. It’s very simple.”


All pictures courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

“Residents were woken by the sound of bulldozers”: in Lagos, gentrification can mean midnight demolition

A displaced family sits on make-shift structures after their home in the waterfronts was demolished last November. Image: Getty.

The ambitious plans produced by the Lagos state government to redevelop the most populous city in Africa are often lauded in Nigeria. Moving around in this buzzing yet often dysfunctional commercial capital is often tortuous, with thick traffic and poor connectivity problems across the city.

The current state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, wants to remake the city’s image, turning it from a sprawling bottleneck of a city to a better structured and more functional one. But his plans to improve infrastructure and redevelop large parts of the city have had sinister consequences for swathes of the city’s population: the urban poor, who seem to have no place in Ambode’s vision.

The last few years have seen an alarming trend of state-backed destruction of small businesses, markets and especially informal housing settlements, “regenerating” areas with new expensive housing and development. Last year a large fishing community in Lagos informally called the ‘waterfronts’, housed over 300,000 people. But in the last five months, three rounds of demolitions have ruthlessly left more than 35,000 people homeless.

In November, the homes of over 30,000 people were destroyed by bulldozers. Last week a further 4,700 people were the victims of sudden midnight demolitions. According to residents, the destruction was supervised by state officials and police. A High Court ruling the previous January had said that previous demolitions by the state were “inhumane” and against the residents’ human rights, mandating all parties to enter mediation. All the same, residents were woken up by the sound of bulldozers which destroyed their homes, with no notice to collect their belongings.

Demolitions like this have become increasingly commonplace in Lagos, where land is scarce and valuable. By some estimates, over two thirds of people in Lagos live in informal housing settlements. And not only is there a premium on expensive housing projects; many of the state’s big infrastructure plans, like the desperately needed bridge connecting the Island to the mainland, cut through areas filled with such settlements.

After demolitions, many residents simply move to the outskirts of their destroyed communities or to other informal settlements. The cost of setting up shelters to live in is far more is feasible than formal housing costs.

Too often the government prefers to evict and demolish rather than mediate. It rarely provides assistance for tenants to move, or regulates and redevlops those areas with them in mind.  After a kidnapping near the waterfronts, the governor of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode, described the communities as “the abode of miscreants/street-urchins, kidnappers, touts, street traders and hawkers”. In his vision of a modern Lagos, slums and street sellers have little place.


A closing market

Government policies have also made it increasingly hard for the urban poor to work. In many settlement areas, small markets spring up to cater to the communities that live there. Small businesses also set up in other areas that aren’t approved, or in complexes rented from landlords who aren’t transparent with tenants about ownership disputes.

On side streets, women sell items laid on fabric or stools. And on the streets of Lagos, young men and women, and sometimes children, weave dangerously between impatient motorists: the gridlocks that hurt the city present a ready market for those selling anything from drinks and snacks, to underwear or household furniture.

Officially a ban on street trading has been in place in Lagos since 2003, but in the last year, in certain key areas, it has been more keenly enforced. Millions of families rely on street trading for income, yet its dangers and problems are clear. Here too, instead of reforming a system that millions of people rely on, the government wants to end it entirely. State officials have in the last year targeted key areas, arresting street sellers and confiscating their goods.

The government claimed that, after the ban, street traders would be able to access loans to start more formal businesses. But poor capacity, access and loan requirements have made it a out-of-reach for many traders.

Gentrification is a hallmark of major cities all over the world. But in Lagos, to many of the city’s poor, it’s manner is particularly violent and cruel.

The governor is keen to be the face of a new Lagos, attracting and administering new redevelopment projects. But he is not prepared to work out how to rehouse or compensate the people whose lives are being torn apart by such plans. He wants Lagos to be more ordered, for selling on the street to move into more regulated areas. But as the space for those areas diminishes to make way for shopping malls, and the costs outstrip people’s resources, there are many reasons why people aren’t selling there in the first place.

Regenerating and reforming Lagos is not a problem in itself. But the disregard for many of the people who live there is fuelling needless suffering.

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