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Memo From Amsterdam: On Living in an Old City

By Sharon Zukin


This winter I left my inland loft in Greenwich Village for an apartment on a canal in Amsterdam.  From my desk in the living room I look out over the cold gray water and also, with a slight swivel of gaze, over the Amstel River itself.  On this river at the beginning of December I saw Sint Niklaas, dressed less like a jolly Santa Claus and more like a stern Catholic bishop, arrive with a flotilla of small boats for the holiday season.  On New Year’s Eve, my fellow city dwellers set off amateur fireworks that lighted the sky over the river for several hours.

On the other side of the river is the famous Canal Belt, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, where small gabled houses and broad stone mansions date from the seventeenth century, the city’s golden age.  Though I live in a modernized warehouse that was built in the eighteenth century, after the major aristocratic canals were expanded to the east, most of the houses around me were built only a hundred years ago.

Yet like the Canal Belt, this district bears almost too much history for its own good, for the East side of the Amstel River is where the Jews of Amsterdam settled, built synagogues, traded diamonds and old clothes, and were rounded up and deported by the occupying Nazis and Dutch collaborators in the 1940s, to be killed in the concentration camps of Eastern Europe.  Bridges in this part of town are named for those Jews; when you cross a canal by bike or on foot and read the name on the bridge you enter the living memory of a traumatic past.

Less tragic but also somber, my office at the University of Amsterdam is in the eighteenth-century Spinhuis or Spinning House on an even older canal.  This red-brick building was a workhouse for young women of lower-class and peasant backgrounds who came to the city, found themselves penniless and turned to illegitimate activities, usually prostitution, to survive.  Every time I walk into through the big blue gates into the courtyard I think of how these women were imprisoned here for being poor.

In large part this city’s memory lives on in the body—not in the smell of sewage thrown into medieval canals but in the continuing rhyme of street names and rhythm of feet on cobblestones and brick sidewalks.  Most streets in the historic center have the same names that they had in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and they certainly are no wider than they were then.  When you cross the Amstel at night, you are enveloped by a magical quiet.  In the darkness of the river and the dimness of streetlamps the lights on old church towers glow golden like the city’s fabled golden age.

The feeling of living in memory contradicts the beautiful, harsh statement of Geert Mak, author of a well-known history of Amsterdam.  “Most of the life of a city dies in a single generation,” Mak writes.  “After that, faces, smells, sounds, and atmospheres can only be reconstructed with the help of fragmentary sketches or the occasional preserved picture.  Our collective memory, whether or not it is receptive to the written word, is as loose as dry sand; apart from the most essential facts, the rest is guesswork.”

Amsterdam’s living memory does not only depend on the preservation of the city’s physical fabric.  True, most impressions of Amsterdam are formed by the expanse of old houses along the major canals and by the quaintly winding streets of the popular, nineteenth-century working class and artisans’ districts, the Jordaan and De Pijp, which were saved from demolition in massive urban renewal schemes by sporadic popular protests from the 1970s to the 1990s, which made them useful for the infrastructure of contemporary cosmopolitan consumption: boutiques, cafés, and gentrified houses.

The ground underneath is swampy and historic preservation laws are strict, so transnational corporate offices are relegated to new, glass and steel districts to the southeast and southwest of the city.  The streets are still shaped to human scale; only one lane of cars can wedge its way between the canals, the narrow pavements and cyclists.

There is a lot here that is just old.  A store owner on Utrechtsestraat tells me he has an old well in his basement.  Though I haven’t seen any Goodwill thrift shops, there seem to be more stores that sell vintage clothing and old objects than elsewhere.  The second-hand street markets are very visible in the center of the city at Waterlooplein and Noordermarkt.  Waterlooplein is in fact part of the old Jewish district, and on the backs of some stalls you can see blown-up, black-and-white photos of scenes of the huge Jewish street market as it was in horse-and-buggy days.

Geert Mak says that in the economic decline of the nineteenth century that followed Amsterdam’s golden age, the city already felt old.  “One enters a museum,” the de Goncourt brothers wrote when they visited from Paris in 1861, “and one meets the house or the canal exactly as one has seen it in a painting by Pieter de Hoogh.”

True enough, as the UNESCO World Heritage site designation suggests.  But when we walk around Amsterdam today, do we perhaps feel the unease of all our older cities, a malaise accentuated by the rising towers of China, a cascade of New York the capital of the twentieth century, London the capital of the eighteenth century and Amsterdam the capital of the seventeenth century?

The race to modernize as well as to sustain the cities of the past is a challenge that we are not yet been able to imagine.  We think of banning tall buildings while more are built every year, of redeveloping the waterfront despite forecasts of rising ocean tides, of patching up the subway system without investing in faster and broader kinds of mobility.

Is Amsterdam, then, not a living memory but a model for how cities can survive?

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. You can read her previous posts here.

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Recent Comments

  1. P Laurence

    While Amsterdam is no longer the center of the world, it’s worth noting that it remains a major business center. While it may be weighed down by history, it is not smothered by it.

  2. [...] when I recently returned from a six-month sojourn in Amsterdam, I was shocked by the changes.  Though the storefronts look pretty much the same as before I left, [...]

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