In 1969, a student could rent a room in the brand-new Asserpark for less than 60 guilders (30 euros) a month. The emergence of the star-shaped blocks of flats had a decisive influence on student culture in Wageningen. Former caretaker Martin Ruijs can tell you all about it after 40 years in the job. ‘They used to throw all kinds of stuff out of the window. Tables, chairs, TVs. Even a car tyre once.’
text Linda van der Nat photos Guy Ackermans, archive Martijn Ruijs and Idealis
‘It’s so clean,’ notes Martin Ruijs in surprise as he walks into Annie’s Kroeg. The cafe belongs to Asserpark, the star-shaped block of flats that was the home for many years of the caretaker for student accommodation provider SSH-Wageningen (now Idealis). ‘Is it always this clean here or did you tidy up for me?’ he asks one of the students on the bar committee. They laugh – it is always this clean. Ruijs: ‘I have seen a layer of muck that thick’ — thumb and index finger ten centimetres apart — ‘on the floor on a Friday morning. Beer, glass, beer mats. Quite disgusting.’
It has been a while since Ruijs was at Asserpark; he retired more than eight years ago after having been a caretaker for nearly 40 years. He spent the first while at Nobelweg, where Wageningen’s first block of student flats was erected in 1959. Three years later, he moved to Asserpark.
First star-shaped flats
The number of students at Wageningen had shot up in the preceding years. At the same time, private individuals were becoming less keen on renting out rooms. So measures had to be taken. The mayor at the time decided to build star-shaped blocks of flats for students like the star-shaped flats for families in the west of Wageningen. Asserpark was the first in 1969. It was followed by Hoevestein, Bornsesteeg, Dijkgraaf and Rijnsteeg. The last of these has since been demolished and replaced by Rijnveste.
Asserpark has 17 stories. It initially had 387 rooms, with an average of 12m2 each, spread over 48 corridors. Each corridor had eight rooms, a communal kitchen, shower and washing area. There was a launderette and supermarket on the ground floor. The very first tenants paid 59.50 guilders (about 27 euros) in rent and 30.50 guilders (about 14 euros) in service charges per month.
Ruijs started work there as a maintenance employee. He was not much older than the students. ‘I came from a different background and wasn’t used to student life. It was the hippie era, of course, and Asserpark was too bourgeois for the students. For example, the kitchens had a big steel bar table with bar stools, which they hated. They wanted to get rid of it and have cushions on the floor. It was only later that I realized what that weird smell was in all the corridors.’
In the first few years, the five top storeys were reserved for girls. Ruijs: ‘The ladies were on storeys 12 through to 16, and going up from 11 to 12 was like entering a different world. The ladies really were much better. It might sound stigmatizing but women are more used to taking care of things from a young age than men. Men are just that bit more boorish in how they treat things.’
The segregation of the sexes in the star-shaped flats ended in 1970. From that time on, corridors could be ‘mixed’. This idea did not take off immediately and there were still 18 single-sex corridors in 1976. Ruijs: ‘A lot of governors and parents didn’t like the idea. They said flatly: we don’t want this. Of course it was a different era, more protective. There was a lot of discussion about this internally. But the students themselves wanted it.’ It was a strange setup initially, says Ruijs. ‘In the first few years you mainly saw couples who’d move in together. Then a women who was dating a male student would say: come and live with me because that’s allowed now. So at first you had really skew distributions with women and the occasional man, or the other way round.’
Ruijs and his family lived in a corner house at the foot of the block of flats. That sometimes meant he was called out in the middle of the night. ‘Before the flats had a cafe, there would be a party on one or more of the corridors every week. The place would get a complete make-over. All the matrasses in front of the windows, a serious sound system and a bar in the corner. Local residents would then be knocking on my door in the middle of the night because it was going on and on. There’ve been times when I turned up at the corridor and no one was capable of communication anymore. Everyone stoned or dead drunk. So I’d pull the plug on the sound system, close all the windows and doors and come back the next day for a proper chat.’
This illustrates the understanding Ruijs developed over the years with the tenants. ‘I never wanted to play the police officer. You can chase after everything like a bull in a china shop but you need to keep things liveable. Compromising, a bit of give and take, talking to people, appealing to their sense of reason.’ But there were two areas where Ruijs always took students to task: cleaning and theft. ‘Dirty pans were their own business. But a layer of dirt in the shower or toilet was just not on, of course. You can’t have the bathrooms making people sick.’
Students who brought traffic signs back to their corridor could also count on a reprimand from Ruijs. ‘Traffic barricades with flashing lights, For Sale signs with the pole still attached ‑ incredible what they’d bring back. I would collect up all the signs, then call the municipality and tell them they could come and get another batch. I never just left them — those things are really expensive. Sometimes I had 1000 euros worth of signs.’
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See here a photo series of Asserpark in the seventies:
Asserpark was renovated in 1988. The communal kitchens were modernized, the corridors got more showers and the supermarket and launderette went. The flats also got their own cafe, Annie’s Kroeg. That solved a lot of problems, says Ruijs. ‘It pretty much meant an end to the noise nuisance.’ The pub was named after the cleaner Annie van Brakel, who kept the stairwell and office clean. ‘A super lady,’ says Ruijs. ‘She was really a mother to those lads and lasses. She knew everyone, heard all the news, got called on for all sorts of stuff.’ He stands up and goes over to the bar. ‘There always used to be a photo here above the door to the pantry. Let’s see, yes, there she is. A really nice person.’
Ruijs was no longer living in the caretaker’s house by then. In 1985, he and his family moved to Rhenen. ‘It was time to move on. The downside to that house is that you always have a third of the tenants looking down on you. A student would say: Wow, Mr Ruijs, have you washed your car again? You could never sit outside either. We didn’t have much sun and it was really windy around the flats.’ Ruijs also regularly had to go out to the garden and clear various household objects off the lawn. ‘They used to throw all kinds of stuff out of the window. Tables, chairs, TVs, lids, forks, knives. Even a car tyre once. I’ve also had to scrape cats off the roof that had fallen off a balcony.’
Couldn't give a shit
Asserpark always remained Ruijs’ base. ‘I had my office here, my cubbyhole. I spent twenty years working at Droevendaal too. That was completely different. Not my thing at all. Permissive, no restrictions. They were growing pot and smoking it on a massive scale. It was completely anarchic there, they couldn’t give a shit — excuse my language. I take good care of my things but there they would break everything up in no time. You really had a different class of people here in Asserpark.’
Not that he didn’t experience some tumultuous years in the star-shaped flats. For example, Ruijs recalls a to-do with ‘the bikers on 8b’. ‘They would take those ancient things leaking oil upstairs in the lift and then tinker with them in their rooms. Sometimes the place would be blue with smoke. It was a huge mess and they never did any cleaning. But if I took them to task about this, the message didn’t really get through.’ The arguments ended in a squatting campaign in 1978. ‘At the time, we were unfortunate in that there were a lot of vacancies. I believe we had about 100 empty rooms in the block of flats. They were all occupied by squatters with the help of the tenants on 8b. A very regrettable situation. When I was personally threatened at one point, I said to our director: if you lot don’t do something about it, I’m going to throw in the towel.’
He didn’t ‘shed any tears’ when he retired, says Ruijs: ‘I’m too realistic for that; you have to go in the end. But I did like covering for a sick colleague now and then. I worked at Bornsesteeg for a while, for instance. That’s different again because of all the international students. I loved that, dealing with students in all shapes and sizes. The stuff they leave behind when they return home, vast amounts. Shoes, pots, pans, bedding, rice cookers. I’ve got a nice green Chinese poncho in my bike bag that I still use a lot.’
The stories keep on coming. For example the fear that would grip Ruijs and his wife on fine summer days. ‘Students would stretch the springs of their matrass between the window and the edge of the balcony and put their matrass on top to sunbathe. Not just on the first floor, further up too.’
Like normal people
Ruijs takes another look round the neat and tidy cafe. ‘I’ve worked behind the bar myself. Thursday evening is pub evening, right, and they’d sometimes ask me whether I wanted to spend an evening serving beer. It would always be packed because they would have hung up posters: The caretaker will be serving the beers tonight. Lots of fun but you were very busy. When it got to about one o’clock, I’d say: You carry on lads, but I’m calling it a day. And when I went to work Friday morning, I’d see the light still on.’
Ruijs has seen the students change in his 40 years as caretaker. ‘In the early years you sometimes had eternal students aged 35 or more who were being subsidized by their parents. They mainly did the fun stuff and a little bit of studying.’ That changed after the Bachelor’s and Master’s phases were introduced. ‘There was much more pressure on students to finish their degree quickly. They became more serious, spent more time on their studies and started earning money with part-time jobs. Not that they all became paragons of virtue. They just became more like normal people.’
|1958||Student complex on Nobelweg opens|
|1969||Asserpark star-shaped flats open|
|1969||Martin Ruijs becomes caretaker for SSH-Wageningen in Nobelweg complex|
|1970||Hoevestein star-shaped flats open|
|1972||Martin Ruijs becomes caretaker at Asserpark|
|1973||Bornsesteeg star-shaped flats open|
|1977||Dijkgraaf star-shaped flats open|
|1978||Rijnsteeg star-shaped flats open|
|1988||Asserpark renovated, Annie's Kroeg opens|
|2009||Martin Ruijs retires|
|2012||Rijnveste built on site of Rijnsteeg|
‘Desintegration of the student community’
In the 1950s, resistance arose in student circles to the introduction of ‘mass student housing’. The fraternities were particularly afraid that student society life would be snuffed out if students got accommodation with kitchens. At that time, most students rented a room from a landlady and ate their meals in the student society canteen. As early as 1955, Ceres was protesting against the ‘rabbit hutches’ that were planned for Nobelweg. In a letter sent to the university’s directors, they predicted ‘complete disintegration’ of Wageningen’s student community.
Why that starshape?
The star-shaped flats with their distinctive form have been part of Wageningen’s silhouette for years. This shape was chosen because the municipality wanted a slim-look building. The contractor was also able to save a lot on construction costs and hours because of the ‘rigid core’. People, gas, water and electricity were all transported via the heart of the building.