Essay 1: Amsterdam: built for the rich, stayed for the working class?

By: AL

Image of working class family in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of the most sought out cities to visit today as it has rich history, culture, and geographical landscapes. For years and years, tourists come and visit the canals in Amsterdam and try to rent out one of the older homes along the canal as they usually Airbnb or they are biking along the river or taking a boat ride. From a geographical standpoint, Amsterdam as a city, is an epicenter of architecture, philosophy, and art.  Throughout the history of Amsterdam, there is a difference between the classes of the working and the wealthy. The  architecture and the social housing reveals how the city was designed around the wealthy while the working class lived on the outskirts of the city. Through the works of Nescio’s “Young Titans” and the historian Joppe Schaaper, and the history of organizations,  I will analyze Amsterdam as a city. 

The origin of how Amsterdam became is important to understand how the city came together to really understand the way the city was built. According to Historian Joppe Schaaper, In the seventeenth century, Dutch ships plied as the seas foreign source of goods, Amsterdam became the center for the shipping industry after the war between Phillips of Spain and William of Orange. Through the shipping industry, wealthy merchants became rich people of the netherlands. Amsterdam was created a dam of what was then called Amsel so that ships could pass creating a harbor which is where Amsterdam comes from. As the harbor was created, the people created houses and gates around amsterdam. All kinds of gates to come into the city with the old church and new church which were 13th and 14th century expansions. In the interiors of the church, it is important to note that the interior was built around listening to the choir so that traditions can live (Schapper). 

 The 17th century was the Dutch Golden Age in which Amsterdam thrived and we see when most of the wealth was created. Amsterdam was built for immigrants in which it took in French Hagnots, Ashkenazi and Sepharadic Jews, German Protestants, Antwerp residents, and Duthc provincials — thus showing how diverse of a city Amdsterdam was at the time which is shown through the city having different influences. The Jewish community substantially helped with the economy as they had great knowledge of markets. The city was a mecca for philosophers like Renes Descartes as people were making so much money that they did not oppose other people’s thoughts and these philosophers were able to speak freely without being punished or ridiculed in the public eye. Most of the wealth was created by the trade by the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and Dutch West India Company in 1621. Canals and islands were built not only for transportation but also for the warehouses for trade. (Schaaper). 

Dutch Wine Merchants

While the wealthy merchants afforded to live in the towns around the canal, the working class started to scatter towards the outskirts of the city. One of the first organizations to start a union for the working class was the diamond cutter organization.According to the Bondsgebouw ANDB official website, The Algemene Nederlandse Diamantbewerkers Bond (ANDB) (General Dutch Diamond Cutters’ Union) was the first modern union in the Netherlands. The union building symbolizes a place where the workers of the diamond industry would make people feel free and give a sense of self-worth and with an interest for art and culture (Bondsgebouw ANDB). By creating such a union it paved the way for other organizations to help with the growing middle class setting up a new culture. 

  Around 1917, there was a start of social housing on the western side of the city. The idea of social housing is to create a community for people based on their financial status similar to the idea of affordable housing in the United States. The first social housing, in the brick-expressionist Amsterdam School style, was built in Spaarndammerbuurt to newly initiated regulations such as electricity and sanitary fixtures. One example is the Het Schip (‘The Ship’), designed by Michel de Klerk in 1919 for socialist housing organisation Eigen Haard, which still operates today. This emblem of the peoples’ architecture movement was not just a social housing block, but also a post office and a school (NG).

Image of Social Housing today

The new term was coined in the Netherlands “ Pillarisation”. This term would be used in order to create a new social class and set the precedent for the social structure in Amsterdam. According to the official website, The development of pillarisation in the Netherlands was favoured by the emancipation of working and lower-middle classes on the one hand, and the execution of elite control on the other hand. The emancipation of the working class led to the establishment of socialist parties, trade unions, media, cooperative shops and collectively organised leisure activities. This “full care” of the socialist movement for its members existed similarly in other European countries. The emancipation of the conservative and often strongly religious lower-middle class fostered the emergence of the Protestant pillar. While the Dutch bourgeoisie was rather liberal and adhered to “enlightened” Protestantism, a large part of the lower-middle class embraced a more orthodox Calvinist theology.

At the same time, new and old elites tried to maintain their control over the newly emancipated social groups. For instance, the Catholic clergy set up confessional unions to prevent Catholic workers from joining socialist unions. One reason behind the formation of Christian parties was to counter the feared rise of left-wing mass parties.

In Nescio’s story “Young Titans” in the beginning of the story, the main character describes himself as not being well off and his dream to become rich and how he is a poet who is trying to understand himself. The story focuses on the social class and how it affects young people like the characters in the story. The boys in the story are trying to navigate themselves and their future in this city that they call home. It is portrayed that the main goal is to work for a wealthy merchant. Wealthy merchants, at the time, were the most respected and wealthiest people in Amsterdam as the economy was centered around trade. There is even a difference from a geographical standpoint of how they view Amsterdam. The boys would hang out in the dike and see cows which would usually be in the outskirts of town. On the contrary, the wealthy see these beautiful streets described as the “ limestone curb and the seam where two stones were sitting next to each other, and the bricks of the sidewalk” ( Nescio p55).  However, towards the end of the book, the Hoyer ( one of the main characters in the book)  ends climbing up the social ladder and living in one of the homes by the canal. These homes are considered to be one of the most sought out homes in Amsterdam. The home is talked in detail about the elegant chairs and the exotic paintings revealing how there was an emphasis on architecture and art for the rich in their homes.  Despite the book being fiction, the Author draws from real experiences and tries to understand the relay idea of where the rich live in Amsterdam and how they decorate their home versus how the poor live in Amsterdam and how they view their lives versus the rich. 

When touring the city of Amsterdam, it can be seen in very different perspectives. Those who walk the streets from the outskirts coming into the city to those living alongside the canal. From Amsterdam’s history, it can be shown that despite the attempts to show socialism and give everyone the chance at a good life it has created segregation between different social classes and religion. This creates a the social class aspect is there. The city has become very segregated as it is more about where one lives in the town and where they don’t live as they view the city in a different lense from each other. The city of Amsterdam is very different for someone who lives in the luxurious canal district versus someone who


Inge Bobbink and Steffen Nijhuis, “The Making of Dutch Delta Landscapes,” in Han Meyer, et al., Delta Urbanism: The Netherlands (APA Planners Press, 1990), ch. 3 (45-63).

 Joppe Schaaper, “Amsterdam Architectural History Crash Course”, video lecture #1 Amsterdam: City as Work of Art, GW, Summer 2020. 

 Joppe Schaaper, “Amsterdam Architectural History Crash Course”, video lecture #2 Amsterdam: City as Work of Art, GW, Summer 2020

Nescio, “Young Titans,” 1914 in Dutch; transl. in Amsterdam Stories (New York Review of Books, 2012), 35-62.

NG, AMELYN. “Amsterdam Social Housing: A Primer.” Assemble Papers, 16 Dec. 2018, first social housing, in,as electricity and sanitary fixtures.&text=In 2001, Het Schip became,80 percent rent-controlled apartments.


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