Rotterdam II: Meditations on the Working City

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The following are a series of notes and musings on the city of Rotterdam, adapted from my daily travelogue.


Rotterdam: dynamic city! vibrant city! Rotterdam: a busy, working-class, city; a city of ports and production; a forward-looking city, a Modern city.

When people told me of Rotterdam, I imagined an amalgam of Berlin, Warsaw, and Shanghai. In my imagination, the place was gritty and lit up at night in a way that made the old Dutch canal towns seem false and phony. I thought of a city of great contemporary architecture, of buildings that jut at odd angles and movie screens on towers playing Blade Runner on repeat.

But the Rotterdam of my imagination I never found. Instead, on a rainy day as I walked from the west of the city down an old tree-lined street, I discovered the end of Rotterdam and the beginning of an unresolved clash. There, at the bomb line, I always turned back, looking for some other center and never finding it.

The city with a hollow center

Rotterdam is a city with a hollow center. Leveled by the Nazis in World War II, the city’s center has since played host to the half-realized dreams of a dozen architects. Modern skyscrapers tower over older, less gleaming skyscrapers, and the effect is something like a modern Chinese boomtown that is neither crumbling nor fascinating. Dutch cities are sometimes grand and sometimes charming, but Rotterdam, the modern city, is neither. It leads from one irresolution to another, and the result is a cold, windswept place that feels dead and empty after dark.

Every so often, at one of the city’s less lustrous modern buildings, there is a photograph of old Rotterdam posted on the wall. These show busy black and white street scenes from the 1930s- a Rotterdam of grand civic architecture, old trams, train stations, and smokestacks. I wonder if the citizens here do not like from time to time imagine a history of that Rotterdam. Would they still be proud?

Cycling Rotterdam

The cities of the Netherlands with the highest rates of cycling are not always the cities with the best infrastructure. I offer Rotterdam as a case in point. I had not expected much of Rotterdam’s cycling infrastructure. I expected to come into the city’s downtown and be thrown in a frenzy of cars and trams and buses and lights. That did not happen.

Instead, at the grand dull fountain at the Hofplein, an orderly series of lights led me from one separated path to another, and right out of the center again. Rotterdam, in fact, has an excellent cycling infrastructure, if not one of the Netherlands’ best. With its wide streets and sparsely built center, cyclists have the luxury of space and time and order. It has none of the frenzy of Amsterdam or Utrecht. Yet Rotterdam is not a cycling city.

A cycling city is not only a matter of infrastructure, but one of energy as well- bicyclists merging and flowing into one another like the simulation of some strange viscous fluid. There are bicyclists in Rotterdam- lots of them- but their routes are inconspicuous and their travels too far and spread out to seem interesting or alive.

Under the Maas

In the Maas Tunnel, built in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a separate tunnel for bicyclists runs deep below the river. An escalator leads into a tube of warm lights and I spot an old fashioned blue and white sign: Pedestrians Below- the silhouette of a man wearing a top hat walking his little girl to school. The tunnel feels like a descent into baggage claim. In Berlin, they might throw raves down here, but in Rotterdam, it is a thoroughfare from no place to nonplace, a connector to the disconnected.

Infrastructure, I have learned in Rotterdam, does not make a cycling city. A city can have a tremendous network of cycling paths, safe and efficiently constructed, but inspire neither fascination nor glee.

Schiedam’s Way

I head from Rotterdam to the city of Schiedam 5 km to the west. The road is windswept and characterless skyscrapers soon become unadorned boxes draped in bank logos. At the end of the road, I come upon a second crossroads, that of Schiedam. I turn into old Schieam and cycle along a quaint canal. No one is in Schiedam, as it has been raining, but the old city has a timeless quality that reminds me of the colonial towns of New England in the fall.

Schiedam feels like a stage set for a Dutch city. It is empty because the actors and actresses have gone home, or are off at some other pub drinking away the evening. People from Rotterdam are disenchanted in Schiedam, I would imagine, because it is a pleasant and quaint, and though it is ordinary and uninteresting, they tire from time to time of being the anomaly- a modern Dutch city- or a city without a heart.

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