Like all local rivalries, the cities have more in common than they do differences. My university in Boston had a number of New York students who fought Massachusetts natives on principle. While studying abroad, both groups were flabbergasted that Europeans would mistake them for each other. Like New York and Boston, Amsterdam and Rotterdam attract a certain type of person and foster a different type. Rotterdam thinks Amsterdam is twee and unreal. Amsterdam, well, I don’t think Amsterdam thinks of Rotterdam much at all.
The first month that COVID shutdowns emptied the city, however, this Amsterdammer thought a lot about the pictures of Rotterdam before and after the Luftwaffe hit it. Like Amsterdam, Rotterdam was a thriving port city clad in red brick and overseen by church spires. It was gone within a day. On the north side of the river, where the center of the town had been, only a church and a couple solid buildings survived. The pictures look like desolation.
Rotterdam now is a modern architecture showcase. It’s said that an architect hasn’t truly made it until they have a building in Rotterdam – and not just by the Dutch! After the war, the city rebuilt with care, attention, and lots of planning. Instead of recreating red brick history, they rebuilt with steel and glass ingenuity. The city is a marvel to look at from any angle. Clean and modern, it’s called the city of the future. The people get an energy from the buildings and they, in turn, funnel it into street culture and tech startups. It’s a special place.
No one would choose the tragedy that befell them. The injuries and deaths were appalling. As a lover of history, I mourn the destruction of the buildings and archives as well. But it is also undeniable that something impressive and unique was created on the foundation of that tragedy.
I tried, as I walked through Amsterdam’s deserted canal belt that day, to find some hope in Rotterdam’s fabulous skyline and culture. They would’ve given anything to avoid the times they lived through, as we would the crises we face today. But they took their loss and shaped it into something monumental. It gave me hope that we might do the same.