Located across the IJ River in Amsterdam’s undiscovered north, the NDSM Wharf remained a forgotten wasteland for years, left abandoned after the decline of the ship building industry that prospered emphatically for the best part of the 20th century.
Invaded by squatters and a collective group of artists, this derelict space slowly began to change shape, replacing industry with creativity to become the striking setting of cultural prowess that exists today. My initial introduction to the city’s northern quarter was one I remember with great fondness, after agreeing to a tour from a friend who was familiar with the area due to several outings to the wharf’s humungous IJ Hallen, Europe’s largest flea market. Having lived in Amsterdam for over three years, I quite ashamedly had no idea what lay on the opposite banks of the water, ignorantly believing the site to be a waste ground for hippies and drug infused dance events.
The journey began behind Central Station on a particularly pleasant summer’s morning, as I received the first surprise of what was to be an eye opener of a day. Not only would we be enjoying a delightful, ten minute boat trip benefitting from a refreshing escape from the congestion and superb views to boot, the crossing was also absolutely free of charge! With several ferries departing regularly courtesy of the municipality of Amsterdam, the dock was packed with citizens awaiting transfer, with a notable absence of tourists pervading the crowds.
The direct line to the NDSM Wharf was running late, so we decided to take a detour eastwards to the IJplein, which leads to a rather unattractive residential suburb. After cycling past a plethora of snack bars and veering off left towards our destination, we ventured though a welcome attack of greenery and a series of idyllic hamlets, populated by relaxed, smiling faces, granting a dramatic contrast to the fast paced austerity of the city centre. We finally reached the wharf after an exhilarating hour’s ride and my immediate thoughts were unexpectedly positive. Adorned with a seemingly deserted hangar of colossal proportions and a towering, somewhat dilapidated crane, the vast quayside evoked a vivid image of a flourishing past, when the NDSM (Netherlands’ Dock and Shipbuilding Company) dominated the waters with their output of cargo vessels, bulk carriers, and battleships for the Dutch naval fleet. Such reminders of this thriving heritage are dispersed with a scattering of contemporary artworks, offering an indication of the area’s current purpose as a gravitational hub for creative talent.
However, before we could truly explore this arresting industrial landscape, we sought out much needed refreshment at the irresistible Noorderlicht Cafe. Lining the water and subsequently affording picturesque views, this charming eatery instantly impresses with its sunny grass terrace, organic menu and friendly atmosphere. The cafe was brimming with an eclectic clientele and empty seats were sparse, yet luckily we found a sharing table inside the charismatic greenhouse and sat down to enjoy an appetising meal and the most delicious cola I have ever tasted.
Fully rejuvenated, we headed out into the wilderness to investigate, with the nearby discarded trams and walls of colourful graffiti immediately drawing attention. Entrance into the gigantic warehouse just a few steps away provided an unanticipated scene resembling an indoor city, arranged with avenues of studios bustling with all manner of inspired artistry, which I discovered later is in fact the largest breeding ground for such activity within the entire country. This immense space also houses a surprisingly sophisticated skate park and is utilised for countless events, festivals and performances throughout the year. So my timely education was complete after spending another hour or so wandering along the water’s edge, past the former workers’ office turned restaurant of the IJ-Kantine, the redeveloped buildings occupied by several global media moguls, including MTV, and the astounding Kraanspoor Office, which grants a stunning example of the legendary innovation of Dutch design.
All previous opinions of this expansive dockland were replaced with an abounding affection, as I promised to return and introduce more of my friends and family to this rugged urban refuge. In fact, I have revisited the wharf on numerous occasions since and have witnessed an ongoing revival, with the neighbourhood becoming more and more popular amongst the hip and trendy crowd. Whilst regeneration has already transformed this neglected setting into the uniquely beautiful environment that exists today, I merely pray that the dock retains its endearing realism through future developments, preserving that industrial charm and authenticity that initiated this long lasting love affair. For more information regarding up and coming events and for a detailed portrayal of the NDSM phenomenon, check out the district’s comprehensive website at www.ndsm.nl/.