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Amsterdam: Glimpses of the Jordaan


When I first visited Amsterdam as a teenager, around 1960, we were told by friends that we shouldn't go "over there," into the area known as The Jordaan; it was unsafe at night, they said, full of rough people, and with nothing of interest to see.


I can't answer for the first parts, although it has the tinge of disdain and fear of the poor and hard-working people who lived there, but the last is certainly untrue, even now when it has become one of the most expensive and gentrified parts of the city.


Many people go there now for chi-chi eating places and boutique shopping, but hints of its history are just below—and in some cases on—the surface, making it a much more interesting walkabout than otherwise. But you have to look carefully, and sometimes ask.


The Jordaan (and no, I don't know why it always has a 'the' any more than I know why 'the Ukraine' has lost its) had its roots in a marshy area at the western edge of Amsterdam's canal belt; its borders are the two western-most canals, the Singel- and Prinsengrachts.

Aside from 'the,' the area has another mystery. There is no clear record of how it got its name. One of the two most popular theories are that it's from the French 'Jardin,' or garden. Support: most of the streets are named for trees and flowers. Con: no one has suggested why the Dutch would choose a French name. 

The other is that it's a reference to the River Jordan, and that at one time Amsterdamers referred to the Prinsengracht as Jordaan, and the name stuck to the neighborhood across the canal. Pro: sounds more likely. Con: there's no contemporary evidence for the nickname. 


Before it began to be developed, around 1612, it was largely open fields, some of which were used to bleach linen in the sun. The yellowish cloth was dampened with chemicals, bleached in the sun, stretched and rolled before sale. In Tichelstraat you can see a reminder of that past. A woman who had made money in that trade had five houses built there in 1664, and one of them still bears the 'trade mark' below, showing a coil of bleached fabric in a basket.


The sign is one of the few remaining; city law required these when too much of the street was taken up with hanging signs. The sign was lost for years under paint and grime, and was restored in the 1970s, when the area was being emptied of the poor to make way for the better-off—all for their own good, of course.


One of the characteristics of the area is a kind of residence called a 'hofje,' a communal courtyard surrounded by small living spaces. Built starting in medieval times, they served as almshouses, especially for older women. Many originated as parts of convents, but by the 17th century, they were usually built by the wealthy as charity. Quite a few still remain in use, not necessarily for the original purpose.


This one, whose antique Dutch name translates roughly to 'Here the widows are to reside" is usually called the Karthuizerhofje, or Carthusian courtyard because the land it was built on by the city in 1649 had once belonged to an ancient Carthusian monastery. The city appointed 'house-sitting masters,' usually wealthy merchants, to be responsible for these homes.


Today, its pleasant courtyard, with its pumphouse and spigots is mostly open to visitors, but the houses themselves are still occupied, not by elderly widows but by younger people, and the 104 rooms have been reconfigured as 65 apartments. They are still owned by a non-profit, and are still social housing.


Above the internal entrances are two sets of symbols of the city, the cog ship and the XXX that is still in use. George G recognized the ship in our One-Clue Mystery this week.


A less savory aspect of the Jordaan's past is marked by signs that show scenes from some of the overcrowded and often unhealthy narrow alleys that marked part of the area. The historical sign below tells of life in one of those alleys, Willemstraat; a less-detailed sign tells the story of another, Wijde Gang, whose name means 'Wide Corridor' but was anything but. 


Also known as 'Crooked Palm Street,' it was built in 1644 and was torn down in 1926. The plaque explains that in September 1912 15 of the 20 buildings, containing about 277 residents in 54 apartments with 28 toilets, was declared unfit for living. Despite that, the last residents were not relocated until 14 years later.


On a cheerier note, the 1860s saw the arrival of Tot Heil Des Volks, a Memmonite group that evangelized among the poor in Amsterdam, and backed it up with schools, day care, health care and more. The group, whose name means 'To the Salvation of the People' is still in existence, with a number of programs. During World War II, employees hid Jews and resistance fighters and found ways to provide them with food and supplies. The building above is on Willemsstraat.

In one locally-famous incident, THDV's director stood in the door as German soldiers appeared searching for Jews, some of whom had run into the building and escaped through a rear door. When asked if any were inside, he gave a Nazi salute and pointed to the name above the door. Seeing 'Heil' and 'Volk' above the door, the soldiers returned the salute and left, thinking they had found a pro-Nazi organization.


Two more history bits before a little stroll around the neighborhood as it looks today. Above, a 1728 canal-side merchant's house with the gable and hook that was used to hoist good into the attic storerooms behind the wooden doors: With shallow and narrow lots, no room for big stairs inside. The lower floors were for office or shop, and above that, the family's rooms. Nearby, the recently repainted head may have marked a business dealing in goods from the Middle East. Or not; our guide was uncertain.


Our visit was on Saturday, when several small local street markets operate; the area also has a large number of gourmet stores selling cheese, meats, bread and more; if you have money, you won't starve in the Jordaan. Below, some more available morsels; the first is a long-established hole-in-the-wall serving, we were told, some of the best food from the now-long-ago Dutch empire.


It's Amsterdam, of course, and the Jordaan, like the rest of the city, has a full share of bicycles and boats of all kinds.


And even some that require modern adaptations: the electric motorcycle and the household extension cord!


And an antique (read 'junk' in this case) store that wants no attitude.P1030470

And a really nice floral fixture at a really nice and likely unaffordable house along one of the canals.P1030492P1030493


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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An absolutely fascinating City. Amsterdam is unlike anywhere you have been or anywhere you will go. Steeped in History with so many Museums. It's fascinating to walk around. Delightful friendly people who have a lot of respect for the people who have kept it a free country. 

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