Hemelrijk neighbourhood, Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s Kingdom of Heaven

The Hemelrijk (Kingdom of Heaven) is a smaller neighbour­hood, between Singel and Hekel­veld, named after an over­populated slum area there, before it was sanitized in the 1920s. Between the Engelse­steeg and the Hekel­veld there were two alleys, ironically called Groot Hemel­rijk and Klein Hemel­rijk (Large and Small Kingdom of Heaven). The area has been completely renovated and upgraded, all traces of the former slum shame removed.

The Hemelrijk neighborhood in Amsterdam on today's map

The Hemelrijk neighbour­hood on today’s map.

Explanation of the Street Names

  • (Korte) Nieuwen­dijk — Amsterdammers call this part of the Nieuwen­dijk the Short New Dike.
  • Gouwenaars­steeg (Gouwenaar’s Alley) — Probably named after realtor Willem Jac. Gouwenaar, who lived at the corner of the Stromarkt around 1600. A Gouwenaar was also a narrow type of ship.
  • Engelse­steeg (English Alley)— Already named thus in the 16th century, probably because it had an inn frequented by English skippers and merchants, or maybe because the first fled English Protestants lived there.
  • Nieuwezijds Voor­burg­wal — New Side In-Front-Of-The-Wall.
  • Hekelveld (Hackle Field or Hell Field) — Although everyone assumes that the name is derived from hekel (hackle) related to the flax industry, historian Ter Gouw in his book from 1856 (explaining Amsterdam street names), makes a strong case for hekel meaning “male evil spirit” or “hell”, so more related to the Dutch “een hekel hebben aan” (having a strong dislike).
  • Spuistraat (Spew Street) — Water drainage street, former canal filled-in in 1867.
Smaksteeg seen from the Nieuwendijk in Amsterdam, showing the distinct slope

Smaksteeg seen from the Nieuwen­dijk. All alleys in the neighbor­hood which end on the Korte Nieuwen­dijk show a distinct slope, which shows the original function as a sea dike.

  • Smaksteeg (Smack Alley) — Name derived from a gable stone or sign depicting a smack (a type of seaworthy ship). The Smak was also the name of an inn that was located here. On the corner with the Nieuwen­dijk is a gable stone called “Alle zegen komt van boven” (All Blessings Come From Above).
  • Korte Korsjes­poort­steeg (Short Korsjes Gate Alley) — Named after a bridge across the Singel, which took its name from wood merchant Corsgen Jacobsz, who had an orchard there in the 15th century. Thus people called that bridge the Korsjes­poort (Korsjes Gate), even though the real city gate of that name was located near the current Blauw­burg­wal.
Korte Korsjespoortsteeg and Teerketelsteeg in Amsterdam

Left: Korte Korsjes­poort­steeg corner Teer­ketel­steeg. Right: Teer­ketel­steeg.

  • Stromarkt (Straw Market) — Named after the 16th and 17th century straw market here. Until the 16th century it was also known as Kuipmarkt (Barrel Market).
  • Jeroenen­steeg (Jeroenen Alley) — Probably named after the former St. Jeroenen tower, one of the smaller towers on the 15th century city wall, which the street led to.
  • Kattengat (Cat Flap) — When it was still a small angled canal connecting the water of the  Nieuwe­zijds Achter­burg­wal (now Spui­straat) and the water of the Singel, it used to have a very narrow entrance and exit, hence the name. The houses on the north side of the Katten­gat were demolished between 1930 and 1941. One branch of the filled-in water became the Teer­ketel­steeg, the part exiting on the Singel became the Kogge­straat.
The Kattengat on a map from 1625 by Balthasar Florisz van Berckenrode

Under the lens the Katten­gat (still water then) on a map from 1625 by Balthasar Florisz van Bercken­rode.

Kattengat 4-6, Amsterdam, with the Gouden Spiegel & the Silveren Spiegel

Kattengat 4-6, the Gouden Spiegel & the Silveren Spiegel (the Gold & the Silver Mirror). The two small shallow houses were built in 1614 for Laurens Jansz. Spiegel, who had a soap factory in the Kogge­straat behind the buildings. The two houses have been owned by conservation society Hendrick de Keyser since 1926 and were spectacularly restored in 1930 and 1931.

  • Koggestraat (Cog Street) — Named after a type of cargo ship. Once a canal running from the Nieuwe­zijds Achter­burg­wal (now Spui­straat) to the Singel. Filled-in around 1860 and renamed Kogge­straat.
  • Teerketel­steeg (Tar Kettle Alley) — This alley once ended on the water that is now the Kogge­straat, it ran behind a house called The Tar Kettle on the current Spui­straat. In the 16th century they cooked and sold tar there.
  • Singel (City Moat) — From the Latin verb “cingere”, meaning to encircle, girdle.
Koggestraat and Teerketelsteeg, Amsterdam

Kogge­straat and Teer­ketel­steeg.

  • Prins Hendrik­kade (Prince Henry’s Quay) — Named after prince Willem Frederik Hendrik (1820-1879). Before 1879 this was called Haring­pakkerij (Herring Packers), after a herring business there.
  • Martelaars­gracht (Martyr’s Canal) — Because of a house that once stood here with a sign showing a martyr (probably St. Sebastian). Filled-in in 1884.
  • Ossen­spook­steeg (Oxen Ghost Alley) — According to historian Ter Gouw, a bastardized form of Osjes­poort­steeg (Oxen Gate Alley). Early in the 17th century there was a brewery “The Little Ox” and this alley ran at the side of the brewery. The alley is still there, but now closed off.
  • Groot Hemel­rijk (Big Kingdom of Heaven) — Demolished in 1925-1927. The name probably derived from a sign showing Kingdom of Heaven, described in an old document from 1712, stating that a certain Willem Clermont lived on the Spui­straat (then Nieuwe­zijds Achter­burg­wal) between the Korsjes­poort­steeg and the Katten­gat “where the Kingdom of Heaven is hung”. Amsterdam did not have street numbering then, so gable stones and shop signs were used as indicators.
  • Klein Hemel­rijk (Small Kingdom of Heaven) — The alley Klein Hemel­rijk was called Vagevuur (Purgatory) until the 17th century. It was demolished in 1925-1928.
  • Zwarte Bijl­steeg (Black Axe Alley) — Part of the former slums, demolished in 1928.
The Hemelrijk area on a cadastral map from 1853

The Hemel­rijk area (then called Neigh­bour­hood L) on a cadastral map from 1853 (orientation is WNW on top).
Under the lens the slum area of Groot Hemel­rijk, Klein Hemel­rijk and Zwarte Bijl­steeg (demolished 1925-1928).

Then & Now

When in 1375 the Nieuwen­dijk was built, it enclosed large swampy areas from previous floodings. That land was used by potteries, flax workers and cheap slums for the day labourers. In the 15th century there were 3 big breweries in this area, now gone. The Katten­gat water with its branches determined the form of the alleys and buildings, many warehouses were built right on the water.

With the arrival of many Lutherian refugees, the old Lutherian Church on the Spui became too small. From 1668 until 1671 the new Round Lutherian Church was built here, between the Jeroenen­steeg and the Ossen­spook­steeg. A fire in 1822 destroyed the church, but it was rebuilt. In 1993 there was another fire that destroyed the top end. The building has become part of the hotel — in use for events — with an underground passage below the Katten­gat.

Part of the Stromarkt with the Koepelkerk on the Singel, Amsterdam

On the left a part of the Stromarkt, on the right the Koepelkerk.

In the 19th century there were still 94 very small dwellings in the slums, the bigger alleys were connected between them by nameless “corridors” (gangen). In 1890 the Dominicus Church (they never finished the tower) was built on the Teer­ketel­steeg, corner with the Korte Korstjes­poort­steeg.

In 1917 the first part of the slums was demolished for the construction of an office building. After the building of the Arbeiders­pers (Worker’s Press) in 1931, the last remnants of the Hemel­rijk slums were removed. The Sonesta Hotel (now Renaissance Hotel) in 1975 cleaned up the last bits up to the Katten­gat.

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