Whose Streets?

Everyday Streets

This is the second article in the ‘Whose Streets?’ feature. Articles in this series focus on different street localities and are accompanied by a StoryMap (a free tool developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab). Each StoryMap appears after the article and pioneers an experimental form of spatial history-telling, taking you onto the city streets of the past.

‘Who owns the city?’ is a question with ubiquitous relevance throughout the history of cities. Beyond the sphere of formal ownership and legal rights, there are also more practical and everyday dimensions to this question. How much of the street did people consider as their own? Where did people go on a daily basis and in what parts of town did they feel most at home? Did they mix and mingle with others, or were there written and unwritten rules of everyday social segregation?

The streets and canals of Amsterdam pose an interesting case study for investigating issues of what constitutes the right to the city. From the sixteenth century onwards, and even more intensively in the seventeenth century, Amsterdam saw an explicit spatial division of functions. In the several expansions that Amsterdam underwent in the early modern period, urban space was created and designated for different activities. The canal belt (Prinsengracht, Herengracht and Keizersgracht), typified elite Amsterdam, as it still does today. The area was designated as a ‘peaceful and attractive living environment for Amsterdam’s leading citizens.’ It formed a shell of expensive mansions around the medieval city centre. Noisy and polluting industries were confined to other districts that saw a much greater mix of working class and middle-class groups. Inequality and difference became ingrained in the physical structure of the city. The expansions of the city were finished in the seventeenth century and its form remained basically the same until far into the nineteenth century.

Streets were not neutral spaces, and the rich attempted to shield themselves from the rest of the city. Despite that effort to achieve segregation, the practicalities of preindustrial life never allowed the rich to live spatially disconnected from other classes. The city streets, although put under pressure by uneven development, remained shared spaces. Important work by Lesger and Van Leeuwen has helped us understand that segregation at the macro level of the district was accompanied by ‘around the corner’ segregation, which meant that affluent streets were very close to less affluent backstreets and thoroughfares. Additionally, the old medieval inner city remained a mixed district, both in terms of residential space and the activities taking place there.

What were the circumstances and motivating factors which determined everyday journeys taking place in the streets of eighteenth-century Amsterdam? Rather than exclusively capturing ‘static’ information such as residential status, we want to use more expansive methodologies to account for the complex movements and activities that comprised street life. In the context of the Freedom of the Streets project, we have collected data on the street use of different urban inhabitants to test how spatial segregation played out in everyday circumstances.

For the purposes of this article, we have selected illustrative cases that show where people lived and where they were found undertaking activities throughout the city. The innovative digital methods underpinning the accompanying StoryMap (see below) are the starting point for putting early modern people on the map in motion and building a dynamic understanding of people’s use of streets and neighbourhoods. Through geolocating various residential, work- and/or event-based locations we are able to add an extra layer to spatial understanding of the city and see how distinctions between individuals translated to different ‘mobility regimes.’

In the StoryMap, you will follow some locations within Amsterdam as geocoded from merchant registers of 1790 and notarial depositions of 1791. By employing automatic recognition of the texts and transforming them into geolocations attributed to each individual, we can create virtual itineraries for hypothesising about possible commutes within the streets. One cluster of locations were identified within attestations recorded in notarial depositions where witnesses described a conflict or offence they had witnessed. Because both the residential location of witnesses (but also often victims and perpetrators) and the location of events are given, we can patch together an enriched account of street-level experience. While this spatial data is useful for extracting detailed snapshots in the everyday life of ordinary people, there is one big gap: the affluent barely appear. That is where merchant registers come into play. The registers contain merchants’ names, trade activity, business location and (if separate) place of residence.

This map pioneers new techniques for populating the streets of historical cities, which can appear empty when viewed from a present-day vantage point. Tracing mundane activities brings us one step closer to understanding how social and material factors contributed to the way historical streets were claimed, experienced and navigated. We invite you to sample this exploratory research, by diving into the streets of Amsterdam.

For optimal viewing please view the enlarged version of this StoryMap by following this link.

Acknowledgements: This research is conducted within the context of the project entitled “The Freedom of the Streets. Gender and Urban Space in Eurasia 1600-1850” and funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) under Grant 276-68-007. The authors would like to express their thanks to Danielle van den Heuvel for providing inspiration for this piece, the technical support by Ivan Kisjes and Leon van Wissen from the CREATE-lab of the Amsterdam Centre for Cultural Heritage and Identity, and the editor Peter Jones for his valuable suggestions.

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