Sunday 27 August 2023


Most cities would be thrilled to get a Metro.  Amsterdam is not most cities.

In the 1970s, the city council and the government were working together to drag the city into the present day, and the metro was part of that plan.  The Nazi Occupation had left parts of the centre hollowed out and ruined, even decades later; a new transport network would be the catalyst for the rebuild of these districts, with new office developments and commercial opportunities.  It would be marvellous for everyone.

The first thing that annoyed the residents was the way the subway was being built.  In most cities, you get a tunnel boring machine under the ground, and it works away while the world continues on top.  Alternatively, there's the cut and cover method, where the ground - often a roadway - is peeled back, you dig down, and then cover it back up when you're finished.

Amsterdam's wet, sandy foundations made neither of these methods easy.  The decision was made instead to construct the line using caissons; enormous, prebuilt concrete tunnel sections that would be sunk into the ground along the route.  They connect up to form a long concrete tunnel that can then be filled with the services needed.  This is, as you might expect, something of an undertaking.  It also needs a huge amount of land, because you need space alongside the route to build the concrete sections and have sufficient space to lower them in.  Hey, but that wasn't a problem, was it?  After all, it was all getting demolished anyway.  And when it was all laid, you'd have enough space left behind to build something really useful on top.  Like a big, four lane motorway.

As the line crept further and further north, the protests got louder and more forceful.  It was particularly contentious around the future Nieuwmarkt station.  The reason this area was so run-down and deserted was the Nazis had systematically eliminated the population of the former Jewish Quarter.  After they went, a terrible winter hit the city, and with the occupiers unwilling to help the Dutch they had to help themselves.  They ransacked the empty homes and buildings around the Nieuwmarkt, stripping them of anything they could use as firewood in the bitter cold.  The result was a district that was falling to pieces, right in the city centre, and which never really recovered after liberation.

In the Sixties, though, the hippies moved in.  Those empty buildings became squats for people who couldn't afford the city's expensive rents.  They made them, if not habitable, then at least occupied.  They formed a community and they made it work.  And now the city was going to bulldoze them out of the way for a new world of unbridled capitalist indulgence.  A place where people were finally able to live cheaply would be replaced by office blocks.  The squatters would be turfed out to who knows where.

The climax of the resistance came in 1975, when riots broke out around the construction - or, more accurately, demolition - sites.  Water cannons were called in, the protesters were subdued, but their point had been made, and now everyone could see it.  

The city council backed down.  The metro would still go ahead - it was too far gone to stop - but the highway on top was scrapped.  Also abandoned were plans for new commercial properties and a whole new look to the area.  Instead, the street lines were restored to what they had been before, the old historic plan.  The offices and shopping centres were scrapped and homes were built instead - social houses, at a reasonable rent, so that the district became a place for people again.  

Nieuwmarkt station commemorates all this with the artwork on its platforms.  There are pictures of what used to be here, the homes and shops and bars that were demolished for the metro.  Some parts look like smashed mirrors, or perhaps windows.  There are pictures of the protests.  And above it all, as you head down to the platform, there's a wrecking ball.  A reminder that this progress came at a price.

I love metros.  I love underground railways.  I get why the residents were furious.  It soured the city on underground railways for decades (and then, when they finally built another one but with more traditional tunnelling methods, that also went over budget and caused subsidence; really, Amsterdam had terrible luck with its infrastructure).  Part of me thinks that they should've sucked it up for the greater good of the city.  You can't fight progress.

Stepping out into the Nieuwmarkt itself, though, I got it.  This was a human place in a way that the areas between Waterlooplein and Weesperplein hadn't been.  Low buildings - still a few storeys, but not the envisaged tall concrete behemoths - built in a scattered form around a square.  Homes with balconies and the odd playground.  A civilised space to live.  And now they had a fast underground railway as well.  The best of all worlds.

I walked around the square.  I was now at the edge of the Red Light District, and the rest of my time in the city would be a descent into decadence and hedonism, the likes of which I had never seen before.  Sex, drugs, more sex; it was all to come.

Nah, of course it wasn't.  I got straight back on the train to go and collect some more stations.

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