Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City

Geert Mak

translated from the Dutch by Philipp Blom
Vintage 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2022
Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City is largely a social history, touching on urban planning, political dissent, and popular sentiment among other topics, but not making any attempt at a connected political narrative. There is little about the Dutch East India Company, for example, or the relationship between Amsterdam and provincial and national governments.

For the early period Mak tries to give a feel for what life might have been like in medieval Amsterdam: "We now have some images. But can we restore more? Smells? Sounds? During the winter there would have been a smell of wood fires between the houses, and of peat and manure..." As soon as individual perspectives become available, they are used as focal points: early diarist/chronicler Wouter Jacobszoon (1522-95); Rembrandt and an executed girl Elsje Christiaens he painted; the merchant and "gossiping civil servant" Jacob Bicker Raye, who kept a diary from 1732 to 1772; various members of the Van Hall dynasty; the visionary builder and innovator Samuel Sapharti; city councillors F.M. Wibaut and Salomon de Miranda; and others.

"the city had not expanded beyond the boundaries that had existed around the year 1600. A completely new, large-scale expansion was necessary, and it was at least as necessary that the Town Council should have both the strength and the enthusiasm for the task.
... this ambitious undertaking owed its realization largely to chance, in this instance to the presence of a number of visionary administrators who complemented each other ... Luckily, the mood of the times was on their side.
In 1921 the Social Democrats achieved a great break-through in the municipal administration ... and they had three men on the Town Council who could be relied on to force through the social housing project: Wibaut, De Miranda and Vliegen."

With the Second World War Mak focuses on the failure of the Netherlands to protect its Jewish citizens and on the gigantic banking fraud that was central to the resistance. He then describes a "Twenty Years War" made up of various urban protest movements, beginning "on 12 July 1965, when the first issue of the newspaper Provo was sold on the streets" and ending "on 21 December 1984, when the squatters spat at the newly appointed Burgomaster on a working visit to the Staadsliedenbuurt". A Brief Life ends there, though it was published a decade later in 1994.

With a good mix of biographical detail and social background, A Brief Life of the City evokes the changing zeitgeist, whether it is the confidence of the Golden Age, the stifling conformity of the late nineteenth century, or the excitements of the 1960s. It is lively and engaging and offers much that isn't in general histories.

July 2022

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%T Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City
%A Mak, Geert
%M Dutch
%F Blom, Philipp
%I Vintage
%D 2001 [1994]
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9781860467899
%P 338pp