America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
by Dan Geddes
Like many Amsterdam residents, my family does not have a back garden, and so during warm †summer days, when we wish to be outdoors, we head to the Westerpark, only a few minutes away by bicycle.
The Westerpark is the smallest of the parks near the city centre, quite small indeed compared to the Vondelpark or even the Oosterpark. But thereís a duck pond, where you can usually see some kind soul feeding old bread to the ducks (and to the pigeons that also horn in on the easy meal). Nearby is the metal climbing frame that sprays out water on hot summer days. Thereís a tennis club, where they offer tennis lessons to children, and sometimes have barbecues. And in a wise bit of park planning, there is a separate, fenced-in area on the north side where you can walk your dog without befouling the rest of the park.
The Westerpark would be less remarkable were it not for the newly revitalized Westergasfabriek area. Fifty years ago a plant for converting coal into gas, the former industrial complex has been transformed into a year-round cultural centre, with rich mix of social and cultural events.
In summer, there is Westerpark Live, the summer concert series, this year featuring performers such as Faithless and Anouk, and in previous years the likes of Peter Gabriel, R.E.M. and Coldplay. Instead of paying to go inside, hundreds or even thousands of people bring picnics and sit outside the fence, where they can enjoy the music, barbecue, and drink wine, while the kids splash in the little kiddie bath nearby.
Amsterdam has recently been gaining prominence as a fashion centre, and the Amsterdam International Fashion Week is also held at the Westergasfabriek in middle July.
In the winter, there is roller-skating inside and ice-skating outside. In spring, there is usually a kermis (fair) with rides (including a Ferris wheel), amusements, and the usual tasty junk food (though also Dutch varieties such as poffertjes).
Year-round there is the Ketelhuis, a small theatre that shows mainly kidsí movies. There are also several cafťs, including grand cafť Pacific Park, the artisanal bakery the Bakkerswinkel, and the WestergasTerras restaurant, where they serve carefully matched wines with each course.
Just across the stream from there, you can find the Kinder Boerderij Westerpark (petting farm), which features a cow, a pig, some goats, rabbits, horses and a playground for small children.
Just past the boerderij (and not technically part of the park) are large areas devoted to community gardens (volkstuinen), where people not only grow vegetables and flowers, but also maintain small 25 square meter garden houses with running water and solar panels. We have signed up to buy a garden house, but the average waiting time is five years. Recently, we were sad to learn that there will soon be a road paved through this green oasis so close to the city centre.
The Westerpark, of course, is not pure heaven. There are too many disposable barbecues belching out smoke that the wind carries into peopleís faces. There are amateur guitarists like me, oppressing those nearby with donít-quit-your-day-job acoustic versions of Beatles songs. And as an American it remains surprising to me how many people can squeeze into an outdoor space that is not so much larger than some suburban American backyards.
Perhaps what is lost in space is gained in a sense of community. In any case, on many summer days, the Westerpark sure beats the charms of staying home, looking out on the day, longing to be outside.