How do you tell at a birthday party what your research was about and what your findings were?
“I investigated how security professionals and regular people experience security and security policy in Rotterdam and Antwerp. These two cities are interesting because there are similarities in their problems, the nature of the neighbourhoods and local policies. Rotterdam is regarded as a role model in terms of local security policy: tough penalties, clean streets. Antwerp has tried to copy aspects of that policy. But due to Rotterdam’s success, visible on the streets, underlying questions are often ignored. For instance, how do a neighbourhood’s residents view its issues? What you’ll find is that they have a much broader and more nuanced range of perspectives on security than the alarming perspective used time and again by some Rotterdam politicians.”
Which meeting with residents has stuck with you most?
“I got some first-hand experience of how stereotyping and profiling work out on the street. In Nieuwe Binnenweg, myself and some kids who were part of my study were approached by a neighbourhood policeman and an intervention officer, who said ‘We can smell that you’ve been smoking weed.’ They were very judgemental about smoking weed in the street and the fines associated with it. The neighbourhood cop said to me, ‘You have a joint hidden in your pocket.’ Of course I didn’t, and I had talked to both men before as part of my study, but they didn’t recognise me. So when I addressed the copper by his name, he got really mad. But the intervention officer suddenly realised who I was, and they ended up scurrying off with their tails between their legs, without apologising.
“These kinds of spontaneous interactions show what daily life is like for boys living in that neighbourhood. Initially, I was astounded and angry, but that’s also the interesting aspect of doing field research – spend enough time in the field and you will end up meeting your research topic as a matter of course.”
Who in your acknowledgements had you not expected to be so important for you?
“I never expected my neighbours to play such a big part. I live in Heliport, right in the middle of town, and my neighbours and I work hard to keep the neighbourhood liveable – for example, by adding more plants and trees. In a way, this is because of what I learned about neighbourhood improvement during my research in other neighbourhoods. This level of engagement shown by active residents of a neighbourhood was a very pleasant change from the solipsistic project that is writing a PhD thesis.”
What was the lowest point of the last few years?
“My father-in-law suddenly dying of lung cancer when I was nearly done with my thesis was a nasty shock. Our son had just been born and I was putting the finishing touches to my book. Suddenly, I realised that for ten years, I had expended a great deal of time on my dissertation, and not always enough time on the people around me. This is some advice I’d like to impart to supervisors and PhD students who are just embarking on their research: don’t lose sight of the proper balance between conducting your research and having a private life.”
Tell us about the cover.
“To me, the photo, which covers both the front and the back covers, symbolises how Rotterdam and Oude Westen have changed. On the back cover, you can see the small transformer building at Tiendplein, which has been there for an eternity, and on the front cover, you can see the new high-rise office block at Weena. People feared that Oude Westen would lose its socially engaged and tolerant nature if it were affected by revamping efforts and high-rise buildings. But the old things are still there, except they added a work of art to the transformer building a few years ago: a globe that says, ‘010: the world is yours’. This is obviously a quote by Scarface, who is idolised by many kids in the neighbourhood, but at the same time it says to those kids: you, too, create your own world and your own neighbourhood.”