Unknown Europe Model City Rotterdam

Rotterdam’s harbour with the Erasmus Bridge: When is a person a Rotterdammer?
Rotterdam’s harbour with the Erasmus Bridge: When is a person a Rotterdammer? | Photo: Gerhard van Roon

Rotterdam not only has prestigious architectural projects and the continent’s largest harbour. The latest developments show that Rotterdam could be the first city in which the utopia of a transcultural identity becomes a reality. By Su-Ran Sichling

The huge harbour remains the main attraction in this seemingly fantastical field of experimentation called Rotterdam. Even though it has lost its former importance as the city’s most important employer, it is by far the largest port of Europe and the world’s second largest. The thought of Rotterdam immediately brings to mind images of the many container ships and the harbour grounds.

Ever since the German Luftwaffe laid the old city to waste in a 1940 air raid, the city has gained a poor reputation as a working city, which, unlike its picturesque neighbour Amsterdam, never set much store in a beautiful cityscape. The newly designed city centre with its post-war buildings proclaimed a break with history and belief in a better future. Even today it is the setting for ambitious architectural projects such as the recently constructed triple towers De Rotterdam by Rem Koolhaas.

Yet again and again Rotterdammers feel that they have been left behind by the developments in their city. Since unemployment began to rise in the 1970s during the oil and economic crisis, the city has been symbolic of poverty and decline. Yet at first glance we oversee the practically most important thing that characterized and influenced the harbour over the centuries: the inhabitants of Rotterdam. For 400 years, its connections with the world have led Rotterdam harbour to attract people from every nation: Flemish refugees, French Huguenots, English philosophers, German domestics, Brabant labourers, Chinese sailors and, in the post-war era, workers from Morocco, Turkey, the Cape Verde Islands and Suriname.

Transcultural repast

Paul van de Laar, the director of the Rotterdam Museum, leans forward in excitement when speaking about this topic. “It is precisely this mixture of people and their cultures that make today’s Rotterdam what it is,” says van de Laar. His 2013 exhibition Echte Rotterdammers (True Rotterdammers) asks: What makes someone a Rotterdammer? If they were born here?

Van de Laar aims to visualize a transcultural identity fed from many influences. “Just look at food in Rotterdam. This makes it most clear,” is van de Laar’s advice. Indeed, the Kapsalon (hair salon), a Rotterdam speciality available on every corner is the perfect synthesis of many cultures. By now a popular export that is even offered by some Berlin food stalls, it proclaims these everyday cultural blends. In a disposable aluminium tray, chips, doner kebab or shawarma meat, garlic and hot sambal are layered, baked with cheese and then topped with fresh lettuce. The Kapsalon was invented in 2003 by the Cape Verdean hairdresser Nathaniël Gomes, who asked the next-door shawarma stand to create a dish from his favourite ingredients.

It’s all in the mix: Rotterdam has one of Europe’s highest percentages of immigrants It’s all in the mix: Rotterdam has one of Europe’s highest percentages of immigrants | Photo: Gerhard van Roon Even typically Dutch places are now the interfaces of different cultures: De Schouw is a bar on Witte de With Straat that serves Heineken in slim beer glasses. People of all ages get to talking here, loudly and jovially. Some guests dance to music from the 1970s and 1980s. Then he suddenly appears: the sambal man, a tall man carrying a little basket of shiny treasures. Colourful sauces from Suriname, brown, red and yellow, ranging from aromatic earthy (tamarind chutney) to infernally hot (the yellow chutney made of Madame Jeanette chillies). Many of the bar patrons have been waiting for him and happily purchase his tiny jars. At the same time they explain how they use his sambal at home: on cheese sandwiches, with boiled potatoes or to accompany a meat dish.

A monument to the guest workers

Very soon, Rotterdam inhabitants with immigrant roots will number more than fifty percent of the population. Compared with other European cities, Rotterdam already has the highest number of immigrants in its population. Moreover, in 2009 the city elected a mayor with dual Dutch-Moroccan citizenship, Ahmed Aboutaleb. This European breakthrough was nearly overshadowed by the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States. And while last summer Berlin debated the successor to Mayor Klaus Wowereit and whether Berliners were ready for the German-Palestinian Raed Saleh, for five years, Ahmed Aboutaleb has been the first Muslim immigrant to govern a city in the “Christian occident.” In addition, there are a number of city councils across the Netherlands with council members with immigrant backgrounds and no Dutch citizenship.

Although these Rotterdammers are still underrepresented in the better residential areas, universities and the openings of art exhibitions, Paul van de Laar is convinced it is merely a matter of time before things improve for immigrants. Here, too, Rotterdam may play a leading role. It is always surprising what arises here unbeknownst to Europe.

For although guest workers contributed to post-war reconstruction in most European countries, only Rotterdam commemorates its immigrant helpers with a monument. It has Europe’s first guest workers monument. Dedicated in late 2013, the object poured from different terrazzo looks a little like a colourful space rocket topped by a golden star. And even if the monument looks like a Utopian science fiction vehicle from today’s perspective, here in Rotterdam a utopia may become reality for the first time: the utopia of a transcultural identity.