We went on a harboursafari yesterday evening. The safari is now running for the third year. It’s an idea that I had a few years ago to bring the city and the port back together. Yesterdays safari was almost the final one this year, next week we will have the last one. The weather is getting worse and it starts to get dark early. On yesterdays boat we had a young singer from Amsterdam, singing songs of Jaques Brel and Ramses Shaffy.
There are two stories on why Jaques Brel wrote his song ‘The port of Amsterdam’. The first one is that he was sitting in his apartment in Antibes overlooking the Mediterranean and wrote this song. He only choose Amsterdam because it was the best word to sing. It could have been Marseille or Antwerp as well. But that didn’t sound as nice.
The other story is that he came to Amsterdam to meet Liesbeth List the Dutch singer who sang many of Brel’s songs. In a cafe in the Jordaan, run by Manke Nelis, he wrote his song on the backside of a beer carton. It is a fantastic song. We Amsterdammers of course hope the last story is true.
The song gives the exact reason why I wanted to do the harboursafari. In the song Jaques Brel mentions the sailors that come to the city and drink in the bars and meet the prostitutes and dance. That was what happened in Amsterdam from the first days of the city (around 1200) to let’s say 30 years ago. Amsterdam has always been a harbour city. The harbour and the city were the same thing. The water and the warehouses were everywhere. The harbour activities defined the citys layout. But that changed dramatically in the last decades. Because of safety, rules, efficiency, the harbour moved to the west and left the city behind. In a city like Antwerp or Hamburg you can still see and feel the harbour. In Amsterdam it is invisible. Everything that once was harbour is now regenerated into something new. And I think that is a very sad and bad thing. For the harbour and for the city.
In Brel’s song the sailors went from their ship directly into the red light district. Today you will find a Russian sailor waiting for a bus in the rain somewhere on a twenty kilometre distance from the city. Not a bar, not a bus, not even a taxi. He can hum Brel’s song inside his head but he will never get there. The harbour and the city are completely disconnected. And it is even worse. The harbour and the city are in a conflict. The city needs houses and is constantly looking for new land. The planners make plans to move the harbour even further west. But they forget that the Amsterdam harbour is the fifth harbour of Europe and an enormous economic asset. Together with Schiphol it is the economic lifeline of the metropole Amsterdam. But if you don’t see it and if you don’t know it, it’s impossible to like it. This is why we started to take people in. Not only on the Noordzee kanaal but really into the harbour. To see the ships that bring the cars and the cacao and the coal. To smell the soja and the potassium. To see all the derelict land that is polluted and will never be regenerated because the rules do not allow other economic activities.
So what is the objective: the best thing would be to get a harbour like Hamburg or Kaohsiung (in Taiwan, it is in the top ten of harbours in the world): a mix of economic activities, housing, working, recreation and harbour all together in a nice patchwork. Lets start with other economic activities and see if housing can get there later. Lets make the harbour attractive. Lets put the harbour back on our mental map.