'Stewards' put nightlife on Nobelstraat in order

‘Time to go home, folks’

Horeca-stewards Foto: Koen van den Helder
Photos: Koen van den Helder

No one who lives in Utrecht will be surprised if you tell them there is a lot of noise on Nobelstraat. After all, it is a popular nightlife street with heavy car and bus traffic. It is hard to combine with the surrounding residential areas. In a letter sent to the municipality in April 2022, 39 area residents complained about the nuisance caused by partygoers. The municipality adopted a series of short-term measures to mitigate this while working towards a long-term project. The "nightlife stewards" are part of this set of measures. 

It’s Friday night, a little after 3:00 am. Even though it's cold and rainy, the streets are quite busy. Cafés De Kneus and Jaloezie have just closed and the customers are slowly making their way home. Drunk students wander around the bicycle paths. They are laughing and chatting, but it’s not excessively loud. Most of the crowd is concentrated around De Vrienden café, which will remain open for another hour. Men in blue coats quickly stand out in the crowd. They call themselves nightlife stewards. They arrive at 10:00 pm and stay until 4:30 am on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, taking shifts in two pairs of people. Youp (37) and Hasan (22) are two of them. 

“If the police don’t have to come, then we’re doing our job right” is the first thing Youp says about his job. Youp and Hasan are standing opposite De Vrienden café, while the other pair of stewards is doing a loop around the neighbourhood. They are approaching everyone whose behaviour is considered inappropriate. “Nuisance can mean different things for different people,” says Hasan. The nightlife stewards focus on deescalating brawls, and addressing people too loud, about to cause mischief, or are urinating in public. 

Horeca-stewards Foto: Koen van den Helder

Human touch
The ambience on the street is pleasant enough, and there isn’t much work for the stewards to do just yet. Until a woman falls off their bicycle. Some partying students help her out and the stewards quickly take over. They help her up and everything turns out to be all right. A little confused, she exclaims: “How embarrassing! Did I drop any of my things?” The gentlemen carefully look around and help her check if any of her belongings are on the floor. They reassure her that she didn't lose anything and tell her that it isn't that bad to fall. A friendly scene. “We keep things nice,” says Hasan.

The stewards don’t carry batons or any other defensive tools. They try to solve every situation with words instead. To Youp, it’s important to be proactive and “truly listen” to people in order to establish a connection with the clubbers. They have already gotten acquainted with the regulars: some faces can be spotted in the area every week. “We asked them how their exams went because they mentioned that last week,” Hasan says. Their approach is the same when they encounter aggressive or nasty people. “Sometimes, people just want someone to listen to them." Hasan sometimes tries to make annoying people understand the consequences of their actions. “I’ll explain that it’s not worth it to eat a cheese sandwich at the police station.”

Although the stewards were hired to combat nuisance, they also contribute to a safer nightlife. They see men bothering women often, for example. “You can often tell from a woman's body language whether or not she’s interested in him,” Hasan says. Sometimes they also get closer to couples to listen in their conversation for a bit and ask them whether both partners are consenting.

Costly measure
The municipality is happy that the nightlife stewards are contributing to a safer nightlife. Even so, this temporary measure won’t be replicated in other parts of the city. “This street is dealing with numerous forms of nuisance, which are linked to risks for the safety of the traffic,” states a spokesperson for the municipality. “These issues are less prevalent in other party districts.” That explains why the municipality will not be using this costly measure elsewhere. 

The police view the stewards as an extra set of eyes. “As an organisation, we are greatly interested in initiatives that contribute to nightlife being fun, happy and safe,” says the spokesperson for the police. It avoids extra work, too. De-escalating a fight in its early stages “prevents things from getting worse and helps to ensure that police efforts aren't necessary for small-scale disturbances.” The police would be happy to see stewards deployed more structurally, although they acknowledge that the costs would be high. But the police find that nightlife establishments could help cover those costs as well.

The stewards are in contact with the police and the municipality. Every week, they send a report to the municipality, in which they also suggest measures to improve things like traffic safety. As for the police, they strive to stay in close contact. Police officers often stop by for a chat at the start of their shifts. But even if they’re not near, the stewards can easily get in touch with the police. Youp shows us an app on his phone that he can use to call the police’s duty officer. But if things really go wrong, they just call 112. “That is, if the police haven't spotted the problem themselves yet, with all the cameras on Nobelstraat,” Youp explains. 

Horeca-stewards Foto: Koen van den Helder

Sweeping the streets
Youp and Hasan are familiar with the bouncers and pub owners as well. They spend their breaks in the snack bars and assist the bouncers if anything happens outside of the bars. Youp and Hassan never enter the bars themselves.

Then, it’s time for action. A girl throws up right outside the exit of De Vrienden café, her legs giving out. They approach her fast. The student in front of her is removed by another student, who says: “Let them handle it”. Hasan kneels down next to the girl and asks her if she’s okay. “Yes but I threw up, I'm sorry.” Hasan: “That’s all right! It happens to the best of us. Isn’t it about time to go home? Can you stand up?” He helps the girl get up. She kindly thanks him and goes inside to grab her coat.

At the end of the night, there’s one thing left for the stewards to do. When De Vrienden closes at 4:00 am and everyone’s walking out, many customers stay on the street, hanging out outside the bar. The stewards then approach them to break the group up. When asked if that actually works, Hasan replies: “You only have to say one thing: ‘Time to go home, folks’.”

In between all the people heading home, Youp gives some recommendations to a guy asking if there is anything still open while Hasan chats with a few students who just tumbled out of the bar. Peace and quiet take over the street again.