“Looking After the Nighthawks: The Night Mayor of Amsterdam: Shamiro van der Geld,” topos Magazine #105 Mayors, Winter 2018
It’s the first day of ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event), the world’s biggest conference and festival devoted exclusively to electronic music. I’m waiting outside the opening event at Mary Go Wild, a small record store on Amsterdam’s Zeedijk, where a sizable crowd has gathered to catch acid house pioneer DJ Pierre, who is there to talk about the roots of house music. Joining him is Shamiro van der Geld, Amsterdam’s Night Mayor.
As the chief advocate for Amsterdam’s nightlife, the role of night mayor really comes into its own during ADE, a time when Amsterdam becomes the global centre of ever-expanding electronic music industry and a sounding board for the current state of nightlife. True to form, Shamiro is all over town throughout the weekend, hosting talks, speaking to the national media and even finding time to take on MC duties at an event for one of Amsterdam’s foremost LGBT nights “Is Burning”, which will be broadcast live on the global online music platform Boiler Room.
Mind you, generous man that he is, when I spot him walking up to the store, he still finds time for a brief chat before going in. We sit on the curb and talk about his plans for ADE, while he laments the fact that he has to move house the Monday after it’s all over. We soon head inside. But not before a few other people catch him to talk. He is, after all, a very well-known figure in Amsterdam.
Starting out organising the hip hop and R&B event Vunzige Deuntjes (Messy Tunes), Shamiro moved into acting, presenting and theatre-making, all the while MCing at various electronic music parties. By the time he was elected mayor earlier this year — by a combined vote of a professional jury and the general public — he had already spent many years trying to bridge the gaps between Amsterdam’s various music scenes, “trying to show there's the same type of activism or progressiveness in punk as there is in hip hop, as there is in electronic music”. The role of night mayor was made for him.
His experience also serves as a good example of the important role nightlife can play in a city’s economy. “For a lot of entrepreneurs,” he explained when I spoke to him earlier in the week, “organising events is their first step. You start organising events when you're 18 and then by the time you're 22 you have your first bar. Or you start taking photos at events and five years later you're doing it for National Geographic. There are so many opportunities in nightlife.”
It’s due to these opportunities that the night economy has increasingly been brought to the attention of municipal governments. Considering the fact that cities are more than ever having to compete to attract young creative talent, nightlife has evolved from, at best, a necessary evil to be contained and controlled, into something that any sensible city should seek to support. Meanwhile, amid the growing appeal of proper urban living and the rising demand for inner-city space that this has brought with it, the night-time industry has itself increasingly sought to protect itself from external economic forces by lobbying at the municipal level.
This trend began in the early 2000s in Berlin and Amsterdam, both cities with a very long history of nighttime excess. In Amsterdam, the idea came from the Green Left party, in response to the growing influx of tourists and nighttime revellers to the city centre. In 2003, they approached Anne Hemker, a sociologist working in the field of space and culture, to be the first mayor. But preferring not to go it alone, Hemker formed the Night Watch, a “collective for the emancipation of the night”. Comprising eight like-minded people who knew each other from the Amsterdam scene, the Night Watch opened their term with a memorandum stating that “Amsterdam is not hip, Amsterdam is not a host, Amsterdam is no longer the gay capital and the Amsterdammer is unkind and unfriendly. Eight experts of the night are committed to solving these problems.” Following the end of their term in 2006, one of the eight mayors, DJ Joost van Bellen stated explained in aninterview (in Dutch) with Party Scene that: “Not everything has been achieved, but the most important thing is that we have broken down walls between policy makers and initiators.” Subsequent mayors were chosen on a sporadic basis, also experiencing varying degrees of success in fulfilling their stated aims, mainly due to the fact that the role was not taken especially seriously.
It was only during the term of Shamiro’s predecessor Mirik Milan that the role of Night Mayor was properly formalised with the introduction of the Night Mayor Foundation, on which the mayor is one of several board members. This foundation is an independent not-for-profit which derives its funding from the Club of 100 — a group of Amsterdam’s leading creative entrepreneurs comprising DJs, musicians, club owners, festival promoters and booking and creative agencies as well — with additional support coming from the city government and other funding bodies on a project by-by-project basis. During his term, Milan was also instrumental in bringing the role to international attention by hosting the first Night Mayor’s summit in April 2016 — featuring the new night mayors of Paris and Zurich, among others.
Elected earlier this year, Shamiro is hoping to build on Milan’s work by focusing more attention on the local Amsterdam scene. The shift in focus is timely. Amsterdam is a city of 800,000 which, according to a report from ABN Amro covering 2017, hosts 80,000,000 tourists a year, many of whom are drawn to the city on account of its nightlife. As such, the historic centre of Amsterdam is currently under considerable pressure from mass tourism, with Airbnbs, hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants having hollowed-out much of the city centre — indeed, Zeedijk, where this opening event is taking place , is a very good case in point: a narrow street in the heart of the red-light district filled with houses built in the Dutch renaissance style that is predominantly occupied by tourist concessions. This tourism problem is also feeding into an already serious housing crisis, with Amsterdam recently surpassing London in a list of likely housing market bubbles. Often needing to be located in inner city locations, clubs are really bearing the brunt of this rapid change to Amsterdam’s social and economic profile.
While there is little he can do to solve these wider problems, Shamiro wants clubs to think more carefully about their own responsibility to the city, in particular, by encouraging them to reach out to the communities in which they’re situated and to ensure an inclusive atmosphere for traditionally marginalised groups. “Diversity is the new form of quality,” he says “we all make this city great, and what is great about this city is that we have all these different types of people, so I'm really looking at how we connect people that live in other districts than the centre, how can we build opportunities for them to do great things”.
I asked him what concrete measures he can introduce in support of these aims. Right now, the foundation is working on a code of conduct and a protocol for clubs to use, which will outline rules on door policy and discrimination respect, tolerance and responsibility and sexism and freedom of expression. “We try to go through different aspects that make nightlife safer and more inclusive, we put up an expert team and we talk about these subjects, with both clubs and city politicians”.
As this suggests, the success of van der Geld’s term as mayor will hang on his ability to balance his responsibility to the industry and his responsibility to clubgoers. He put it pretty well when he said to me that “while city politics are interested in the night time economy, a night mayor is much more interested in night culture. These two things, commercialism and culture, have to find a common ground where they both benefit from each other and that's when you'll have a great city.”
That this conflict even exists reveals how much has changed since dance music first emerged in Chicago, Detroit and New York in the early 1980s, from a mixture of marginalised gay, trans, Latino and African American communities. It’s a fact that is very apparent in the talk at Mary Go Wild. Addressing the crowd, DJ Pierre explains how clubbing used to be something that governments tried to shut down: “people went to jail to throw these parties so that now we can do it freely, so that means you are part of something that was fought for, just like civil rights.”
The point might seem overly grave, but the moderator pipes up with “it still is, think of Georgia”, referring to recent clashes between techno fans and nationalist radicals earlier in the year. “I also see this on a political level,” Shamiro adds, “a lot of Dutch people here also know how there's a lot of bad press that comes out when it comes to nightlife, it gets criminalised, while there's so much joy and so much beauty in electronic music…. and yes we should not take it for granted and that's what I fight for in my job daily and I'm super happy we can express it here.”
The rest of his contribution is drowned out by the applause. It’s a stirring call to arms and wholly appropriate. We’re still at a very early stage in the process of night culture being accepted. Even closer to home, while governments may no longer be opposed to nightlife, the fight continues to ensure clubbing spaces can remain inclusive amid increasing gentrification and commercialisation.
Amsterdam’s night mayor is saying the right things, but the forces at play are bigger than one man. For his aims to be fulfilled, all clubgoers and all those interested in culturally vibrant and inclusive cities need to get behind him.