Amsterdam: A 21st-century transformation

This year we decided to take our summer vacation in Amsterdam. For my family, Amsterdam is not just any destination. I lived in the city for seven years and wrote a book about it. My partner, Pamela, lived there for 23 years. We met in Amsterdam. Our son was born in the city. We have friends, family, colleagues, memories and roots there. It is, logically and in our hearts, our second home. And yet, three years after returning to the United States, we realized that Amsterdam had become shockingly remote in our lives. So while the trip would be a vacation, the real motive was to spend a couple of weeks reclaiming the city.

We had been hearing and reading that it had changed dramatically in the short time since we had moved, thanks to a number of forces. The population is growing; the city has plans to build 50,000 homes over the next 10 years; and the largest group of newcomers (both Dutch and immigrants from places like Turkey and Morocco) are those between the ages of 20 and 34, who are putting down roots and reshaping the urban landscape.

At the same time, real estate prices are spiking. That’s partly because housing costs in top-tier European cities like London and Paris have moved into the stratosphere while the Netherlands is one of the few places where it is possible to obtain a mortgage with no money down.

Meanwhile, a few years ago Amsterdam ramped up permits for new hotels, which began coming online at the same time the Airbnb phenomenon hit. To all of that you have to factor in the ineffable: that global hipsterism came to the conclusion that Amsterdam – with its orderly northern languor, its human scale, its society built around coffee and beer – was a place of relevance.

On our arrival, however, it seemed that nothing had changed. Taking the train from the airport and stepping out of Central Station, you encounter the familiar detritus, the same ragged rumble of buses and traffic and ugly shops and wayward tourists heading up the streets called Damrak and Rokin toward the city center. Also unchanged, thankfully, is the canal zone, the heart and soul of Amsterdam. Here, where gabled brick houses line the central canals, it is always the Dutch Golden Age.

When we got to our lodgings – a canal house in the medieval city center – we found that the past still seemed tangibly and reassuringly present. Friends of ours, Kiki Amsberg and Joost Smiers – she a journalist, he a political scientist – are a couple who for more than 30 years lived in back-to-back, his-and-hers houses that share a courtyard and look out on different canals. After all that time, they had decided to move in together, so they offered us the smaller of their homes. Thus we had a classic canal house, built circa 1600, to ourselves. Each room looked out onto the medieval and ruminative Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal. Walk a few blocks and you’d be smack in the Red Light District, but at this end of the canal all was tranquil.

Each day we ate breakfast – croissants and coffee from the bakery around the corner – in our kitchen. With low ceilings, enormous beams and Delft tiles lining the hearth, it seemed almost unchanged from the period when the house was built. Rembrandt lived in this part of the city, and it occurred to me one morning, mid-croissant, that the artist could conceivably have known the occupant and sat in this very kitchen.

As it turned out, the antique facade of the neighborhood – the Binnenstad, or Inner City – belied vigorous change. Kiki told me that wealthy foreigners, especially Russians and Chinese, were buying up many of these tilting, toylike houses, driving up the prices. The sense of community was eroding, she lamented, as neighbors left, and many buildings now stood mostly empty, no longer homes but pied-à-terres awaiting the occasional appearances of their new globalized owners.

Once we had rented bicycles (the only proper way to get around the city), other changes became apparent. Amsterdam’s popularity as a travel destination has applied mostly to its center and to some extent its long-gentrified southern districts. Venture even a short way to the eastern or western parts of the city, or across the waterfront called the IJ, into Amsterdam North, and you were likely to find yourself in humdrum, working-class districts or areas colonized by recent immigrants: neighborhoods of women wearing headscarves, of drab social housing units clustered around proletariat playgrounds.

We now discovered that gentrification and tourism have reached into these districts. Over coffee at De Jaren, the big, modern, centrally located cafe that serves as my unofficial headquarters when I’m in Amsterdam, my friend Ruth Oldenziel, a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology, told me, “I now see tourists in my neighborhood taking photos as if it were the city center.”

This wasn’t entirely surprising. The houses along the main street in her neighborhood, Weesperzijde, were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries rather than the more evocative 17th, but since the street runs alongside the scenic Amstel River, it’s a natural draw.

But I refused to believe it when Pamela’s 25-year-old son, Reinier Koch, who lives in Amsterdam, insisted that the Indische Buurt, or Indies Neighborhood, had likewise been transformed. It had long been the home of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, of halal butchers and poky corner groceries smelling of cumin.

Yet he was right. Here, though, it wasn’t tourists but locals driving the change. Rising prices elsewhere in the city have led young families, artists and others to become pioneers. Cruising down the Javastraat, the main thoroughfare, we passed several indicators of gentrification: an olive oil boutique, a frozen yogurt shop, a women’s boutique with purses arranged atop distressed-wood tables and, as if to underscore the transformation, a coffee bar called Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Amsterdam has long had a bit of a split personality issue because the section called Amsterdam North sits across the harbor from the rest of the city. Municipal planners have worked for years to bring “Noord” into the fold, and that seems to be bearing results. The main barrier, besides the water, has always been Central Station. Planners have reworked the traffic on the northern side of the train station and installed an airport-like plaza of shops. But the most significant change is a tunnel paneled with blue-and-white Dutch tiles, depicting old nautical scenes. It ushers pedestrians and cyclists past the mess of the train station and delivers them right to the waterfront and the free ferries.

There are many new restaurants dotting the waterfront, further cementing the connection between the two parts of the city. MOS, in a starkly modern building jutting out on the IJdok peninsula, is new but offers somewhat old-school “French-international” nouvelle cuisine along with gorgeous water views. I had a fine meal there, but, together with several other new places where I ate, it stirred a feeling that as the city grows and changes so rapidly, it is also in danger of homogenizing. I don’t doubt that the culinary landscape has improved (traditional Dutch fare being, well, you know), but several times it occurred to me that I could have been having the same dinner in Chicago.

Oldenziel made the same point in a different way, telling me that the city government had taken steps recently toward restricting houseboats on the canals, where the often quirky and makeshift residences have been a feature since just after World War II. “What I worry about,” she said, “is the impulse to take out all irregularities.”

How far have the changes gone? One of the pleasures of Noord I remembered was the pastoral quiet once you leave the waterfront. During our visit, a local newspaper ran an article decrying the gentrification of Noord, saying in effect that you can’t see the cows anymore for all the BMWs.

One afternoon, my daughter Eva, my son, Anthony, and I cycled out to see if that was true. But 10 minutes after getting off the ferry, we were riding through polders (land reclaimed from the sea). We saw no BMWs, only lots of farmland. We took a detour on a polder path, then stopped. The wind was the only thing we heard. On the waterways cutting between the fields were herons and geese. It was a landscape that could have been painted by Jacob van Ruisdael.

The effects of Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union have not shown up yet in Amsterdam. But the topic came up in conversations I had with friends. While people had a range of opinions, nearly everyone thought it would rattle the city. There has been talk of Amsterdam, with its long history as a financial center, eventually replacing London as the unofficial economic capital of the European Union. No one I met with looked forward to such a thing. The city has always been modest in size: With 830,000 residents, its population is one-tenth that of London. “Balance” is what everyone frets over these days, as in how to balance growth and change against tradition and quality of life.

This gets at the core of Amsterdam’s identity. It’s not an accident that the city has no central, representative monument: no Big Ben or Notre Dame or Colosseum.

The closest Amsterdam has to a defining monument was the one we were staying in, thanks to our friends Kiki and Joost: the canal house. An individual family dwelling is an apt symbol for the city because Amsterdam shaped itself around the power and needs of individuals. Where other European capitals were built around the might of the church or a monarch or both, here the central forces were commerce, art and science. All are pursuits spearheaded by individuals.

In Amsterdam’s Golden Age, the city’s traders gathered the exotic goods of the wide world and brought them here, their ships sailing right up the canals to their front doors. They stored those goods – cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper – in their attics. The canals were, in effect, arms extending around the globe, gathering bounty and bringing it not just into the city center but into the very homes of its residents. Dutch interior paintings of the 17th century celebrated the particular brand of domesticity that the Dutch traders fostered. “Gezelligheid” – an untranslatable word that means something like “the warm feeling that comes from being secure and in the embrace of friends and family” – is what animates those paintings.

Indeed, it still animates Amsterdam. We felt it, on our return to the city that has meant so much to us. And we wondered how long it would endure.