Netherlands: Canal Culture

Nick Martens delves into the history of Amsterdam’s intricate and pervasive canal system, which runs through the city like blood vessels.

On my first day in the city, I wandered across a crowd gathered on a small bridge overlooking a canal. Leaning against the railing, I saw a long boat heaped with junk, swinging a mechanical arm over the water. A muscular steel claw, like you might find at a steampunk carnival, hung from the arm on a weathered chain. The operator lowered the claw into the canal, waited for a moment, and came up with two mangled bicycles. Then I realized that the entire pile of garbage was bicycles. My mind filled with awe at the notion of Amsterdam’s entire canal system coated with a thin layer of broken bikes. The claw-boat could stop at any point in the city, reach down, and snag a fistful of frames and wheels.

Since that day, I’ve been fascinated by Amsterdam’s canals. As you can see from overhead, they pervade the entire city, running through it like blood vessels. Though Amsterdam carries many visual associations–red lights, classical architecture, XXX logos, tulips, windmills–I most often see the city represented by a simple image of a bridge over a canal, the bridge standing on three half-circle arches rimmed with lights so that its reflection closes the shapes. I haven’t been to Venice, so living in place suffused with water constantly reminds me that I’m somewhere special. On long walks back to my apartment from the clubs, resting on the edge of a bridge and taking in the water and the city evokes the rare sense that modern society and nature are living and breathing together. (Of course, in this position I am also paranoid about being shoved from behind into the canal.)

On the surface, the canals seem to be of little utility in the average Amsterdammer’s everyday life. Indeed, their only apparent economic contribution is that they enable the ever-popular canal tours, on which foreigners too lazy or stoned to bike can experience the city’s unique charm. I can understand why the Italians might build a major city on canals only because they make the city beautiful, but such an aesthetic declaration seems out of character for the Dutch, who pride themselves on pragmatism.

It turns out that canals’ original raison-d’être couldn’t be more utilitarian. Since much of the Netherlands is below sea level (the name ain’t for nothing), the 13th century Dutch needed a way to stay afloat (i.e., not drown). So, they built their city on a series of dykes and dams that pushed against the water and afforded outlets for the sea to vent its fury. The famous central horseshoe of canals was built, as the city expanded during the 16th century, for defensive and shipping purposes. Naturally, the canals have been made obsolete by obscenely complex dam technology, and by the fact that, if someone wants to wage war against the Dutch, moats are no longer considered a state-of-the-art protective measure.

There are some inhabitants of Amsterdam who might argue against the idea that the canals have outlived their usefulness. These people live in the 1,500 or so houseboats docked along the edges of the canals. One such boat has been converted into the Houseboat Museum, where, for €3, anyone may sample a few minutes of life on the water. The boat is small, but a short person would likely find it livable (a sub-optimal situation considering that the Dutch are the tallest people on Earth). A pamphlet inside the museum suggests that, while buying a boat is slightly cheaper than a house, a prospective houseboatsman must also consider the annual mooring fee of €500. Sadly, an old boat is a buyer’s only option because there are no vacant moorings left in Amsterdam. From a houseboat real estate listing inside the museum, I learned that a 625 square-foot houseboat costs €185,000, about $280,000. I don’t even want to know how much non-boat houses cost here.

Housing prices are one of many parallels to draw between Amsterdam and Manhattan–or as it was known when the Dutch settled there in the 17th century–New Amsterdam. To understand the rationale behind the canals, it helps to look at a different page from the Big Apple’s playbook: Central Park. According to a property-appraisal firm, the real estate value of the park is $528 billion, yet no one living in Manhattan would dream of giving the land over to developers. The park is simply worth more than the money. Similarly, Amsterdam could fill in its canals, reclaiming valuable land in and around the over-crowded city center. This almost seems more palatable than building on Central Park because what recreation the canals do offer is minimal and limited by season. But to strip out the canals, however impractical they may be, would be to neuter the city’s spirit. For its entire history, Amsterdam has balanced on the knife’s edge separating land from water; it can exist in no other state.

Besides, while researching this article I discovered a major function of the canals that I had overlooked. In the first room of the Amsterdam Historical Museum, displayed overhead in plexiglass case is a twisted, rusty bicycle. A display describes the object:

This bicycle surfaced while the canals were being dredged. It must have remained underwater for a considerable length of time considering that mussels have attached themselves to the metal frame. Use of the canals as a public dumping ground persists. This becomes particularly apparent during a hard freeze when discarded mattresses and wrecked bicycles remain lying on the ice or when the canals are dredged to stimulate flow.

Though disappointed by this mundane explanation to a previously fascinating mystery, I was satisfied to know that the Dutch will find utility in even the most vestigial and ornamental elements of their aqueous city.

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Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.