Amsterdam is a wonderful city for many reasons. Its history, culture, spirit and beauty all contribute to what makes it so great. Of course, according to that most famous of Dutch sayings, whilst God created the Earth, it was the Dutch that created Amsterdam and the Netherlands. It is the streets which have been built out of a swamp and fashioned together to make this wondrous city.
Here at AmsterDO, we feel it’s time to do tribute to some of these streets, which have seen so much throughout the years. So begins this series: The Streets of Our City, in which we will take the time to look, each month, at one of the many different streets in Amsterdam; its history, stories and, in many cases, purpose.
For a first-time visitor, there is a certain uniformity to Amsterdam’s appearance which leads one to think that every street, canal and alley-way look exactly the same. The truth is that Amsterdam is incredibly diverse. The old city is an assembly of distinct and different neighbourhoods, each one easily distinguishable by its own culture, vibe and communal identity. In fact, so diverse is Amsterdam that a linguistic study in the early 20th century identified 19 different dialects of Dutch in the city.
The Haarlemmerdijk & straat form one of these truly distinct areas. It has gone from being a protective wall, to a run-down and “no-go” part of town. Fortunately today it is recognised and celebrated for its diversity, uniquenessand sense of community. And yes, there was even a Haarlemmerdijk dialect!
The biggest threat to every Dutch citizen has always been that of flooding. In any Dutch city or town, when you see a street name ending in ‘dijk’, it is a reference to a time when flooding threatened the area and the locals had to resort to big engineering projects to protect themselves. Haarlemmerdijk is no exception, and has been called by local historian, Geert Mak, ‘visible remains’ of such a project, from between the years 1000-1300
In the beginning of the 17th century, Amsterdam’s wealthy merchant class began having their own part of town built. This would become the famous Canal-Belt area. When construction of the canals began around 1613, it all started from the Haarlemmerdijk and Haarlemmerstraat, which run from East to West, at the northern most point of the canals. While the wealthy moved into the Canal-Belt, the poorer artists and artisans moved into the space all around them. Haarlemmerdijk & straat became a point where the two worlds met. It remains this way today – the wealthy and the not so wealthy joining to form one community.
One of the driving forces of Dutch trade was the West Indies company (WIC), which operated out of the Westindisch Huis – their headquarters , the Westindisch Huis, on the Herenmarkt; a small square between Brouwersgracht and Haarlemmerstraat. This is still standing today and has municipal monument status. Here you’ll also find a statue of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director- General of the colony New Amsterdam, today’s New York.
Amsterdam, by the mid- 17th century, had gained a reputation abroad as a place of debauchery and loose morals. Haarlemmerstraat, according to one Englishman, was one of those places where the ladies greeted him ‘as if they were old friends.’
Haarlemmerdijk & straat also tell a story of urban passion and resurgence. By the 1970s, the area was a mess. Local shop-keeper and city-council member Rogier Noyons has been active in these parts for over 30 years. He remembers a street which was dangerous, seedy, abundant in drug use and in which over half the houses were destroyed and empty. Today nothing of this dark past remains. In fact, so big has the transformation been, between then and now, that Haarlemmerdijk & straat have just won the 2011 award for ‘the nicest shopping street in the Netherlands’ – Leukste Winkelstraat 2012. This immense development owes a lot to the love and commitment of people who live in and care for this area.
Noyons says that community action towards preservation, from the late 70s onwards, was a “reappreciation of city life”. Post – WWII neglect of the city had led to a big surge of people moving out of the big smoke, and city government policy persistently encouraged this. The local government’s intent was to turn Amsterdam’s inner-city buildings into office space. The Haarlemmerdijk & street area was seen as having not enough economic power to sustain a viable residential area. Locals disagreed. In fact, across the city Amsterdammers had begun to stand up and say “no” to this governmental intent. Some of the riots in the 70s, such as those in the New-Market, became the stuff of local legend, with battles flaring up between the police and the public.
In the Haarlemmerdijk & straat, however, the solution was found in an up-surge of communal solidarity; the kind which can only truly flourish in neighbourhoods with a stable sense of local identity. Small investors and housing associations began to work with locals, slowly building up and stimulating a commercial and residential existence which could fuel and sustain the street. Today, as mentioned above, it is considered the country’s premier shopping street, an irony not lost on Noyons as he remembers how the government “had given up” on the commercial viability of the street before the citizens took hold of the situation and turned it around. He calls the transformation “a miracle”.
So what does the future hold for this little gem of a street? Well, it has something which many of the big shopping streets don’t – character. Of the big, corporate chain stores, you will find only two. Also, people live here, above their shops, and they shop on the street as well. You don’t find that on the other major shopping streets such as Kalverstraat and the Nieuwendijk. It is a tight-knit little community which provides solidarity and support to itself, for the general interest of everyone.
This street truly is unique and wonderful, and is an embodiment of the diversity and sense of community which blesses this wonderful city.