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The Charm of the Jordaan District

The Charm of the Jordaan District (37)

Outrageous, bohemian and delicious. This is how the peaceful Jordaan district, now a cause of pride for the city of Amsterdam, could be described. 

Although it is close to the historical centre, this district has maintained a peaceful atmosphere of coffee-time laughter and conversations in its courtyards. Its narrow maze-like streets, full of plant pots and flowers that hang out of the windows, and its tiny canals make the district a small jewel in the city. 

In the Jordaan district you can walk around a maze of streets riddled with shops that are full of outrageous things such as wigs from the seventies, old sinks, haute couture dungarees or designer bicycle seats. There is many a café and restaurant here and, if you are looking for a lively yet uncrowded atmosphere, then this is your place. 

The presence of young bohemians, artists and craftspeople is also explained by history. 

The Jordaan was built to the west of the centre in the seventeenth century, Amsterdam’s Golden Century, which was so called because of the prosperity experienced by the city and its consequent population growth. Most new residents were workers and ordinary people, although some of the migrant petite bourgeoisie and craftspeople also moved here. 

The district was constructed at the same time as the canal belt was extended, around 1610. This zone did not witness the construction of great palatial residences, but rather small houses, as the canals were narrow and the streets little more than widened tracks. For the same reason, large companies could not establish themselves in the zone yet small handicraft companies, of which only the street names currently remain, did set up here. 

The planning of this district was done obliquely, following the routes of the cattle paths, which ran parallel to each other. This planned expansion of the city took place separately from that of the great canals around Prinsengracht, which maintained the district practically isolated from the city until the early twentieth century, when an electric tram line was established to link Jordaan to the centre.

This lasting isolation is said to have given rise to the name of the district. Indeed, it is thought that Jordaan was the nickname given to the Prisengracht, thus establishing a parallel with the river that separated the Israelites from the promised land.

This, however, is not the only theory about the district’s name. If you take a good look around while walking around Jordaan you will find yourself trying to decipher the almost impossible names of its narrow streets. Names such as Bloemgracht, Rozengracht or Leliegracht in fact mean flower, rose and fleur-de-lis canal. It is thought that these streets were thus called because of the name with which the recently settled French Huguenots referred to the district. They knew the district as “garden” and hence the name Jordaan. 

A third and even more convoluted explanation is that of the historian Kannegieter. It is also related to the French Huguenots, who would compare the Prinsengracht, which at the time was dirty and heavily polluted, with the river Jordanne in the Auvergne region from which they came. 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, during the process of industrialisation, the district deteriorated somewhat, families crammed into the small houses and courtyards were no longer cared for and were given other uses. 

The city council took measures and, in the nineteen-sixties, a process of restoration prompted its rebirth. Many of the families of workers who had settled there, moved on and changed district, and the local residents were gradually replaced by students, artists, musicians and intellectuals. 

The art galleries, the delicatessens and the restaurants of thousands of nationalities, and the Noorderkerk church, the bird market of which has revived popular spirit, are all gifts offered by the streets and canals of Jordaan. This cocktail, mixed with the warmth of the local people, will probably make a walk through the district one of your best memories of the city.

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