North of the Jordaan and Haarlemmerbuurt neighborhoods are Amsterdam’s three (man-made) Western Islands: Bickerseiland, Prinseneiland and Realeneiland, a small and quiet world with a distinct flavor all of its own — seemingly stuck in time — close to the city center. On a surface area of 22 hectare (54 acres), the islands were historically dedicated to shipyards and warehouses, combining industry and housing. These days they are often used as the backdrop for movies because of their many nostalgic panoramas.
History of the Western Islands
At the start of the 1600s, the Western Islands were still marshland with reed and bushes — many unsavory characters hid there, making the area a dangerous one. In 1610, to allow for bigger ships, the city started to deepen the Nieuwe Waal, the water between the Western Islands and the IJ, nowadays closed off by the Westerdoksdijk (Western Dock Dike), open water back then.
As a part of Amsterdam’s Third Expansion (Derde Uitleg), three artificial islands were created between 1611 and 1615. They were originally named Vooreiland, Middeneiland and Achtereiland (Front, Middle and Back Island). The new islands were meant to be used for storage and businesses connected to shipping, homes were only allowed and constructed there for the workers.
Initially businesses were put here which were too noisy or dangerous to have in the city, like shipyards, tar cookeries and salt works. The Third City Expansion also provided for a wall, way out into the waters of the IJ, with three bastions, the rows of poles in the water extended as well to defend the shipyards. Homes here were built mostly on the western side of Bickerseiland and on the eastern part of Realeneiland.
Land speculation by some city board members (mayor Oetgens and his brother-in-law Barthold Cromhout, who knew about the intended expansions beforehand) led to a scandal in the council in 1614 — it would have cost the city an enormous amount in buyouts if it had succeeded. An independent committee was asked to look into the deals. Still, because of the ensuing drawn-out negotiations, building on these three new islands was delayed for years — it only took off between 1623 and 1647 — and Oetgens and Cromhout still made a lot of money from their less than pretty deals.
The Front Island was eventually called Bickerseiland (Bickers Island), after owner Jan Bicker, descendant of an important regent and merchant family, who had initiated and steered the islands’ construction through the city council. The Middle Island was eventually called Prinseneiland (Princes Island), possibly after the first three princes of the House of Orange. The Back Island became Realeneiland (Realen Island), after Amsterdam alderman Jacob Reael, who also promoted the islands’ construction in the council and who owned land there.
Trade & Warehouses
In the eastern part of town, Amsterdam’s Eastern Islands were dedicated to the trade of the VOC (Dutch East India Company), with its own shipyards and warehouses. But the shipyards and warehouses of the Western Islands were mostly dealing with the WIC (Dutch West India Company) and trade with the Levant (the Eastern Mediterranean region) and the Baltic Sea area. The warehouses stored herring, grain, tobacco, salt, anchovies, cat hides, pitch and tar. Many street names on the Western Islands point to these goods, like Bokkinghangen (Buckling Hang), Zoutkeetsgracht (Salt Store Canal) and Nieuwe Teertuinen (New Tar Gardens). Gable stones and warehouse names also still mirror these activities.
Construction of the Westerdok & Railroad
On the nearby Haarlemmerstraat you can see the West-Indische Huis (West India House), the former office of the WIC. In 1834 the Westerdok (Western Dock) was created, to counteract the continuous silting up of the waters around the islands. With the construction of first the Westerdoksdijk and later the Westerdokseiland, the new islands were not subject to ebb and flow anymore, as they were now closed off from the IJ (which back then had an open connection to the Zuiderzee).
When the railroad westward to Haarlem got a raised railway embankment here, the Western Islands were also separated from the Haarlemmerbuurt (Haarlem neighborhood) and the Haarlemmer Houttuinen (Haarlem Wood Gardens), where all the wood was stored used for shipbuilding en homes.
Jacob Olie (1834–1905) was a city photographer who lived at Zandhoek 10 on Realeneiland. To him we owe many wonderful photographs in black and white of Amsterdam in the 19th century. Photography was just a hobby for him — he was a carpenter and civil engineer, as well as teacher at (and later principal of) the first craft school in the Netherlands. He was buried on the Nieuwe Ooster cemetery, his lost gravestone found again and now restored.
End of the Harbour
Until the end of the 19th century the area was a bustling and busy neighborhood, but after that the new ships became too big for this small harbour extension. The development of a bigger and more modern harbour in the eastern part of town marked the end of nearly 200 years of shipbuilding related activities on the Western Islands. Luckily much of the old industrious past’s atmosphere has been preserved.
From Slums to Gem
When the shipyards closed, empty warehouses were soon neglected and the area was badly maintained, the factories adding noise and pollution. During the Second World War much was demolished to provide wood for burning. Some 100 families stayed, even when the neighborhood almost became a slum. Artists, squatters and drug addicts took over the abandoned warehouses. Many properties on Bickerseiland were bought in 1965 by project developers who wanted to create big offices there.
In 1970 a committee of locals prevented these plans, sometimes with grim sabotage. Eventually, in 1973, two young architects created an alternative plan for the island and much of the neighborhood was saved. Since 1990 the islands underwent many changes and became a magnet for well-to-do citizens, artists and musicians.
I will cover each of Amsterdam’s Western Islands in separate blog posts in the future, each with explanation and more pictures.
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