Written and Photography by Frake Schermer
The early 1930s were shaped by economic crises and austerity policy1. In Amsterdam at that time lived many unemployed people and budget cuts by the national government would push them into an even harsher poverty2. In the early days of July 1934, it came to the “jordaanoproer", the riots in the Jordaan, a neighbourhood in Amsterdam. The riots lasted four days in which five or six people were killed and saw two hundred wounded. There is debate about the exact numbers of people killed (Mak 2001 writes of five, Wielinga 2012 of six)
According to Peter Jan Knegtmans in Amsterdam Een Geschiedenis, the riots were instigated by a woman that ‘begon te schreeuwen dat haar steunuitkering met zeven gulden was verlaagd [started screaming that her social welfare was lowered with seven guilders]’ (Knegtman 2011: 355) during a communist meeting of the unemployed. They had called for protest against the cuts in social welfare.3
In 1984 Dutch TV channel de Vara broadcasts a documentary called Jordaners op de Barrikaden: de onderste steen4, which is set up around oral histories of witnesses. The documentary not only makes a link with its contemporary plans for austerity in 1984 but also shows the emotional impact on these witnesses. Now, in 2016, not much seems left of the riots except a statue near the entrance of the “noorderkerk”, the Northern Church. I want to go back to the places that were significant for the riot and look for traces in the landscape. My ethnography will take the shape of a stroll through this historical moment.
The above is exempt from my fieldwork proposal. It is meant as a brief introduction to the events of 1934, as well as its significance in 1984, fifty years later. What now follows is my fieldwork.
To less to live, too much to die
My grandma was born in 1918 in “De Reestraat" in de Jordaan. She lived there until 1936 after which she moved out of the city to live with my grandfather in Beverwijk. De Reestraat is part of the so-called 9 streets, a collection of streets bordering the Jordaan. My grandma’s house is where I will begin my ethnographic fieldwork, what I call my “vignette" of the Jordaan oproer. It will lead me past various places that, coincidentally, are places of significance for both my personal life history in Amsterdam and places of significance for the Jordaanoproer almost 82 years ago. While preparing my fieldwork and inquiring into the significant sites for the riots I came to feel somehow emotionally connected to the jordaanoproer. I somehow feel like being part of this “tradition of revolt" that was once characteristic of the Jordaan. This emotional connection is a fact that I cannot quite ignore and will be incorporated. Luckily, as anthropologists, we happen to have a word for this aspect of researcher incorporation: reflexivity. It certainly has a meaning for me in this instance. At the same time, because of doing some preparatory work for this fieldwork, I know that it is highly unlikely that I will find much of a remnant of the Jordaanoproer.
As I park my bike against the wall in the Reestraat, I take a look around. Much must have changed here since my grandma was born. I remember her stories only vaguely, and much through my mother’s words, who somehow keeps calling this the Van Reestraat, adding the “Van", as she seems to do with many streets in Amsterdam. I realize that I feel unfortunate not having asked more about her youth when I was a kid. Luckily, however, Suzanne Jansen has written a novel called het pauperparadijs (pover paradise) about this period in history, dealing with a family history that partly plays in the Jordaan. This part of town, including my grandmother's place of residence, was overcrowded and could easily be called a slum during the 1930s. It was a place where the working class resided. Although, working class is to positive a word, for there were a lot of unemployment people amongst them. Nowadays however, this area is one of the more expensive areas in the city. The 9 streets have been turned into a hip shopping area. The contrast with its past could not be bigger. Those that take a deeper look at this part of town can still spot traces of its history.
I look up, from the first floor all the way to the top the house has been painted black. The windows have not been cleaned for years and it looks desolated and unmaintained. I wonder if the house has a resident? It does not look like it. It is dark inside the house. Not much daylight comes inside with these narrow streets. In 1934, when this was still a working-class area, electricity had been frequently cut off, turning it into a somewhat sinister area for outsiders at night.
Picture 1. The house where my grandmother was born and raised by Frake Schermer
From the Reestraat, I walk south down the Prinsengracht towards the Passeerdersgracht. Many of the jobless from the area must have walked this part. In the Passeerdersgracht was the office where the unemployed from the Jordaan went to pick up their “steun”, the money granted for that specific part of the working class.
I stand on the bridge crossing the Passeerdersgracht. I look towards the canal. The Jordaanoproer being 82 years ago, it is not strange that not much in the landscape is visible to the contemporary eye. These buildings all seem quite generic to me. Except for one building, the largest building in the street, Passeerdersgracht 23. This building, a former primary school called the “Queen Emma School”, was squatted by a critical art collective I am part of. We resided in this building for about two years and around 300 people a week visited this “venue”. It was one of the busiest underground venues during the time it existed. The place was evicted on the 5th of July 2011. We were arrested with around 120 people that morning which resulted in a large police violence complaint. As I stand here I realize that I am as one of the few still very much connected to this place since my girlfriend still has a court case running over it. Many got out of jail within three days and never heard anything from it anymore. Only a few randomly chosen got a letter that told them to show up at court. Most have had their higher appeals already and it resulted in no more than waste of their time. No fine, no sentence. The same will most likely be the case for my girlfriend.
I walk across the bridge to the other side of the canal and stand still to take a look at the building. For a moment I forget what reason I was actually here and feel a sense of nostalgia coming over me. What a place this was! To me, this small canal resembles pride and resistance. I wonder what this place resembled for the unemployed of my grandmother's generation since it was the place where they got their sparse money from. I turn around and look up towards a building. As far as I know, this building, or at least its façade, is put up in “Amsterdamse school" style architecture. It is nowadays being used as a school for children with all sorts of psychological issues. I think about the strangeness of putting all deviant cases, social outcasts perhaps, together in one building. In that sense, the Geist of this building has not changed much. 82 years ago the group that must also have formed some sort of burden on society, came to this building to pick up their weekly budget. This place was also the place where the unemployed class in the 1930s went to pick up food stamps. I remember an interviewee in a documentary stating that he had to go to this building on a daily basis to get those stamps. The street must have felt a lot less proud him. He referred to the welfare as “te weinig om te leven, te veel om te sterven", too less to live, too much to die.
Unity the Strongest Chain
I walk on through the Passeerdersgracht direction west where I come to the lijnbaansgracht. I take a right turn here on the Lijnbaansgracht and walk in the direction of the Rozengracht. Halfway I stop at the Elandsgracht. I know that on the other side of the once-canal (it has been transformed into a street in 1891) there are, or at least were, statues of the “famous” singers from the Jordaan. This is in a way an interesting aspect. It is my perception that the Jordaan to the tourist' eye, or maybe even the eye of the current resident, still is perceived as this messy, yet happy and nice neighbourhood. Even in popular imaginary of the time, the Jordaan was presented as such. An episode of Andere Tijden, a TV show about history pops up in my mind. In it, there was a reference to “de Jantjes”, which would translate as the Johns, a TV show airing in 1934. The scene of the show is the Jordaan representing it as messy happiness. With actors singing somewhat over-the-top about love and daily routine. The show, however, completely ignores the actual poverty most real Jordaners lived in.
I walk on, all the way down towards the Rozengracht where I take a right turn again. The Rozengracht is another canal-turned-street, the one that separates Jordaan North from Jordaan South. I stop in front of Rozengracht number 207 (or at least what I think it is, half of the houses don’t have number plates and there are many doors). In 1934 this building was called “De Harmonie”. The 1934 communist meeting where the woman that started screaming that her social welfare was lowered with seven guilders took place in this building. I look inside, it now is a fashion shop I have never heard of. I walk inside and ask the cashier if she knows what the history of this place was. She answers me that she does not have a single clue. I am not amazed; it took me quite a search to find out. She asks me why I want to know and I explain my purpose. Curious about it she asks me to come back if I have found out more about the place. I state that I keep it for highly unlikely that I will, but if so, I'll return for a briefing. I look around in the shop. It must have been a tense atmosphere that evening in July, I remember reading that around 300 Jordaners participated in the meeting. After this event, around five hundred people marched into the Jordaan. Trying to imagine this march through the Jordaan, the arbetlose Marsch, a Yiddish song pops to mind.
I am back outside, I have three more stops on my way. I will pass by the small statue, and end my walk in my own street, after passing by the “Oranjebrug", the Orange bridge. I walk in the direction of the Western church (sometimes falsely considered the main church of the Jordaan, it is not, however, it's just outside the Jordaan. The main church is, in fact, the Northern church). During the days of the riot in 1934, there have been several shootings by the police. There has been a shooting here at the Rozengracht as well. A bullet that went inside one of the houses –I could not trace which house it was- was found, the police, however, stated that it was not a bullet from a police gun. There is a debate about whether it came from a civilian’s gun.
At the Prinsengracht, I take a turn and walk towards the Noordermarkt, Northern market. I cross the square. On the left side of the church, I find the small statue. As I stand here in front of it, I think back about a TV show from 1934 and how the poverty of the Jordaan was ignored. This small statue was realized more than fifty years after the actual riots and killings happened. This is significant I guess. Taking the ignorance around the poverty in the Jordaan into consideration. The romanticized image of the Jordaan has remained dominant ever since. At least, that is my perception as I walk through the neighbourhood. And a riot of the local population opposing the lowering of welfare, stating they would starve, does not fit the image that has been put up.
The statue figures three individuals, women, with something that resembles a piece of cloth wrapped around them. On the block of concrete these women stand on, it says “Eenheid de sterkste keten", Unity the strongest chain. I take my phone out of my pocket. It is amazing how they come to influence the way we deal with our surrounding. I do a quick search on the internet. I read that the women represent the role played by women in the riots. And the cloth represents something of a unity that makes them strong. Interesting, I think as I stand there, the statue is dedicated to the riots, not to the deceased. I actually thought it was a homage to them. On the other hand, it can be read as dedicated to the victims, which counts for both survivors and deceased.
Picture 2. The statue dedicated to the Jordaanoproer by Frake Schermer
I read that the statue was placed in 1987. The 1980s saw some similarities with the 1930s. From what I remember, the Netherlands saw a similar politics of austerity and the Amsterdam youth was revolting, just like Jordaners did in their days. The strong presence of popular uprising in the 1980s might explain why it has been placed there at that time and not years before.
In my mind, I pad one of the bronze women on her shoulder and think to myself: “well done, 82 years later, keep it real". I walk towards the Prinsengracht and take a left turn in the direction of the Brouwersgracht. Here I take a left again. I walk towards the Oranjebrug. I cross this bridge a lot since it is at the end of my street, but I never really stand still here to take a look at it. Many tourists do however, I guess it has some aesthetics. During the riots, the bridge was raised by the Jordaners to prevent police from entering the neighbourhood. After that, they threw the winch handle into the canal. That must have felt victorious. Would the handle still be there at the bottom of the canal? Would it have sunk in the mud? Would it have been lost (or found?) during one of the excavation projects in the past decades.
Picture 3. The Oranjebrug in the Jordaan by Frake Schermer
My final stop is near the bridge. It is the Palmstraat where I live. It is by its residents considered one of the last streets of the Jordaan that breathes some of the “old" atmospheres. Not the messy Happiness, although it is messy, the hanging out of the window of its residents and the swearing you hear on many occasions between neighbours or family members. My neighbour told me she swears a lot and “we just have to get used to that". There is a strong working class ethic on this street (despite the fact that quite a proportion is on welfare) and some of the houses (including mine) seem to fall apart. The building corporation wants them demolished, but as was once standard practice in the whole of Jordaan, the residents resist. They have done so for the past 30 years on the various occasions it was scheduled by the corporation. I could not find much of a history in relation to the Jordaanoproer, except for one photo:
Picture 4. Corner Palmstraat – Palmdwarsstraat in the direction of Palmgracht (Foto: Het Leven, 10 July 1934. Collection Jordaanmuseum.)
As I stand here in the middle of my street, I find myself grown pretty fond of this neighbourhood. I can literally hear my neighbour typing on his laptop upstairs when I'm in my bed at night and chat along with the conversations of my neighbours in their living room, but I don’t mind. Not a visible sign of the Jordaanoproer. But its spirit is lurking, if I may take the opportunity to be sentimental.
I knew from the start that an ethnographic work around the Jordaanoproer would be challenging. I met several challenges along the way from literature review to fieldwork. First, not much of the riots of 1934 has remained in the landscape, only a single statue has been dedicated to the events. Second, the generation that actively witnessed, or participated in the riots would be in their late nineties or hundreds right now. This makes it highly unlikely to bump into a witness on these strolls of mine, let alone get to hear a life history dealing with the event. Lastly, it is my guess that identification of contemporary citizens with the history of the neighbourhood might be very limited. As mentioned above, the Jordaan has a name it gained through popular media. Media, however, was very selective in their choices of what is supposed to represent the Jordaan.
In the literature review on this disaster I mentioned that:
Some scholars, when dealing with “the origin" of disasters state that they do not have to be present at all. This category of scholars suggests that disasters are entirely sociocultural constructs. ‘[i]ts “reality” is established by its social consequences (Quarantelli 1985:48) (Oliver-Smith 2001: 37).
In relation to this case, I still very much agree with it. And disasters, I think, grow and shrink. They come to life and slowly faint away again. A disaster is a temporary phenomenon. Its time depends on your relation to it. Being a victim, a witness or an outsider makes a difference and it is very much in the eye of the beholder when it comes to defining an event as such. Overthinking this event, my stroll through the Jordaan, my perspective on it, I consider this disaster, which for some definitely was one, deceased along with the last witness. And just like with a deceased relative, every once in a while someone mentions its name. That’s a comforting thought.
1 NPO Geschiedenis: http://www.npogeschiedenis.nl/nieuws/2014/juli/Oorlog-in-de-Jordaan.html (10-02-2016)
2 Is Geschiedenis http://www.isgeschiedenis.nl/citaat-uit-het-nieuws/jordaanoproer-in-1934/ (10-02-2016)
Jordaners op de Barricaden – De Onderste Steen
De grote kladderadatsch na het jordaanoproer werd de wapenkamer van de jordaan voorgoed leeggeruimd: de straten werden geasfalteerd door Eric Duivenvoorden 11 juni 1997 Een oproer laat zich niet echt organiseren, maar wie het weer en blunderende autoriteiten aan zijn zijde heeft, maakt goede kans van slagen. Hoe groot is de kans dat die factoren volgende week samenkomen rond de Eurotop? WANNEER WE ALLE aangekondigde protesten en demonstraties rond de Eurotop serieus nemen, krijgt Amsterdam volgende week te maken met de grootste manifestatie van politieke onvrede sinds jaren. Brutaal worden her en der zelfs pogingen gedaan om een Euro-oproer van de grond te krijgen. Als we de organisatoren van de Chaosdagen mogen geloven, blijft er weinig van Amsterdam over. Maar het fenomeen oproer kent zijn eigen wetten. Het is weinigen gegeven om die allemaal naar zijn of haar hand te zetten. Lees meer..
- Mak, G. 2001 Een Kleine Geschiedenis Van Amsterdam Amsterdam: Olympus 
- Wielinga, F. 2012 Geschiedenis Van Nederland: Van de Opstand Tot Heden Amsterdam: Boom, Stuttgart: Philip Reclam Jun.
- Knegtmans, P.J. 2011 Amsterdam: Een Geschiedenis Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom
- Oliver-Smith 2001 Theorizing Disasters: Nature, Power, and Culture In: Hoffman, S and Oliver-Smith, A (red.), Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster Oxford: School of American Research Press