The history and character of Elandsgracht, situated in the popular shopping neighbourhood of the Jordaan proves to be a real reflection of the ups and downs experienced throughout the centuries by the city we know and love.
Built in 1613 when the whole area was developed around the new canals of the Prinsengracht, Keisergracht and Herengracht, its main purpose was to house the escalating population of the lower classes. These skilled craftsmen, tailors, carpenters, many of which were immigrants of nearby provinces and Nordic countries found a home in many of the then eleven canals, where they could provide services to the rising upper classes of the Dutch Golden Age. As time passed, the demand for homes in the street was so high that these small houses were converted (not in the contemporary sense!) into flats as families were crammed into tiny apartments in basements and attics. The necessity to house the ever growing population with little resources and little time inevitably resulted in houses built with very weak foundations. This issue is one which Amsterdam, a city built on the marshes has always had to face up to with its sinking buildings.
Don’t be confused by the reference to ‘Gracht’ (meaning canal in Dutch) in the street’s name, this was indeed two rows of houses separated by a canal up until 1891, when the canal was filled in, in order to resolve issues of sanitation and the foul stench that was therefore carried through the canal. the fate of Elandsgracht in the 18th and 19th century was one of decline due to the very position of Amsterdam, which no longer was considered the epicentre of the world. Having been stripped of its 17th century prosperity also partly due to the the Dutch Republic’s wars with England and France, the more humble areas of Amsterdam saw increasing levels of poverty. And the bad smells that come with it. It was around the 1700s that the Dutch equivalent of Robin Hood, a certain Sjako, who like his counterpart is said to have stolen from the rich to give to the poor, built a network of hallways and tunnels known as the ‘fort’ in a former building between numbers 71 and 77.
The Industrial revolution which reached Amsterdam by the 19th century was not so kind to the lower classes who still inhabited Elandsgracht, who a few generation before had prospered humbly as craftsmen and labourers, now lived in poverty in a decrepit street. Like most places in Europe with the trauma and material impact of two consecutive World Wars which brought human suffering and lack of supplies to millions, Elandsgracht was not to be reborn until the Post- War period. Unaffected by bombings, Amsterdam did not have to worry about rebuilding a city from rubble but instead it could finally invest and improve its much loved streets. Plans to redevelop the area and Elandsgracht in the 1960′s were met with anxiety by local residents, who probably feared these little charismatic buildings being replaced by the horrific modern architecture of the time. Fortunately by the next decade the newly elected council member Hans Lammers agreed with the locals, and signed up to a conservation project instead.
Today, keeping up with the rest of this trendy area, the street is a brand in itself. It even has a swish logo featuring an Elk (as Eland means Elk in Dutch), a creature that is certainly a piece of natural design in itself. Rightly so, because nowadays Elandsgracht boasts with high end, original, independent shops, where love of good design and attention to detail are a prerequisite. From antiques to quality trainers, from shirts for big boned men to delicate intricate lace, it is nearly as if those 16th century skilled craftsmen have moved back in.