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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.