Just north of the Western Islands is the Zeeheldenbuurt (Sea Heroes neighborhood), with the Oude Houthaven (Old Wood Harbor) to the north of it and the Spaarndammerbuurt (Spaarndam neighborhood) to the west. At the Oude Houthaven wood from Scandinavia was once stored and processed (for ship building and house construction), to the east of it the Silodam jutting into the IJ. On Van Diemenstraat are large warehouses, on the south side (the northern quay of Zoutkeetsgracht) were the 17th century salt shacks. Most streets in the area are named after Dutch seafarers and explorers.
Amsterdam’s Western Islands were created shortly after Amsterdam’s Third City Expansion of 1613, which included the Grachtengordel (Canal Belt), Jordaan and Haarlemmerbuurt (Haarlem neighborhood). The city wall with its bastions had lost its defense function — thus all the bastions were demolished between 1830 and 1832. There were some smaller islands to the north of these Western Islands, closest to the IJ, which did not have official names — they are the oldest part of the current Zeeheldenbuurt.
History of the Zeeheldenbuurt
The first constructions in this neighborhood date from the 17th century, consisting mostly of shipyards, saltworks, ropewalks and tanners, well into the 18th century. The area held mostly workshops and a few company houses, with warehouses on Zoutkeetsgracht. The first salt shack appeared in 1615 and others followed — sea water was heated there over a peat fire in big bowls to retrieve the salt. In 1652 the area behind bastion Blaauwhoofd was designated for herring smokers, on Bokkinghangen.
For almost two centuries little changed here — the salt shacks were gradually replaced with homes and warehouses. It was a busy neighborhood with many businesses during the 18th and 19th century, but when they gradually moved elsewhere it became a more residential area, except for the large warehouses on Van Diemenstraat.
Speculators & Philantropists
Growing industrialization around 1900 meant many new workers came to Amsterdam, making expansions and more homes urgently needed. After costly expansion plans by Niftrik were rejected in 1868 and 1871, private investors had already started building to the west. A plan by Jan Kalff, which respected the existing situation more, was approved in 1877.
A building spree followed, fueled on one hand by private speculators looking for quick profits from cheap homes, on the other hand by philantropists who wanted to improve living conditions for the workers. In 1851 the Association on Behalf of the Working Class was founded (VAK, Vereeniging ten Behoeve der Arbeidersklasse), the first Dutch housing association. They were followed in 1875 by AVA, the Amsterdam Association for Building Workers’ Homes.
AVA Workers’ Homes
In 1872 an Amsterdam Health Comittee investigated the horrible and unhealthy housing conditions of workers and came to shocking conclusions. The AVA housing corporation was founded in 1875, after a lot of political and social pressure on the city council, to ensure better and affordable housing for workers. A group of 166 wealthy citizens established a guarantee fund at 2.5% interest.
Even though the city council was afraid to be labeled as socialist, they still provided the capital, the lots, the plans and the architect, supervising the build. Thus during the 19th century 774 homes were constructed, followed by another 238 in the 20th century. Land speculation and endless procedures slowed down the demolition of the slum areas and hindered the progress of the association. The 1902 Housing Act laid down rules to guarantee better quality social housing.
AVA built two blocks (sometimes nicknamed residential barracks) in this neighborhood in 1879-1881 and 1883-1884 (Blocks H and I), designed by city architect Bastiaan de Greef. In 1914-1916 they built two more blocks here (Blocks K and L), between Barentszplein and Van Linschotenstraat. Renovated in the 1970s and 1990s, the blocks have been municipal monuments since 2016. AVA created the Labor Housing Association in 1933, who became owner of AVA property in 1975 — in 1992 they merged with Corporation Eigen Haard.
Street Names in the Zeeheldenbuurt
- Barentszplein – Willem Barentsz (1550-1597) was a Dutch seafarer, cartographer and explorer. He made three voyages to find a northeast passage to China, discovering the coast of Nova Zembla, Bear Island and Spitsbergen. He got stranded with his crew on Nova Zembla during the winter of 1596 on his third expedition — only 12 crew members survived to return to Holland.
- Barentszstraat – see above.
- Bokkinghangen – Buckling Hang, named after the sheds where salted herring was smoked above oak wood fires to conserve it.
- Dirk Hartogstraat – Dirk Hartogh (1580-1621) was a Dutch sailor and explorer, the first European to see the west coast of Australia.
- Houtmankade (eastern quay) – Cornelis de Houtman (1565-1599), was a Dutch merchant and seafarer who commanded the first expedition to the East Indies.
- Roggeveenstraat – Jacob Roggeveen (1659-1729) was a Dutch explorer who was sent to find Australia, but instead found Easter Island, Bora Bora, Maupiti and Samoa.
- Van Linschotenstraat – Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1563-1611) traveled with the Portuguese to India, where he spent 6 years in Goa. He returned to the Netherlands in 1592, bringing with him a wealth of information about trade, sailing routes and spices, copied from the Portuguese secrets. He settled in the town of Enkhuizen. His work Itinerario from 1596 allowed Cornelis de Houtman to reach Java, which started the Dutch colonial trade.
- Van Diemenstraat – Antonio van Diemen (1593-1643) was a governor-general of the Dutch East Indies. Van Diemensland in Australia was named after him, renamed Tasmania in 1856.
- Van Diemenkade – This is the other side of the Van Diemenstraat, bordering on the water of the Oude Houthaven.
- Van Heemskerckstraat – Jacob van Heemskerck (1567-1607) was a Dutch explorer and vice-admiral, who survived together with Barentsz during a winter on Nova Zembla. Later he made several voyages to the East Indies. In 1607 he was commander of a war fleet which defeated the Spanish during the Battle of Gibraltar, during which he was killed. He lies buried in the Oude Kerk.
- Van Neckstraat – Jacob Cornelisz van Neck (1564–1638) was a Dutch naval officer and explorer who led the second Dutch expedition to the East Indies from 1598 to 1599. He was mayor of Amsterdam several times. He was known as a rather decent and civilized man (for the times), quite unlike the later J.P. Coen. He and his crew started the killing of dodos on the island of Mauritius — the birds went extinct 50 years later.
- Zoutkeetsgracht (northern quay) – Salt Shack Canal, named after the saltworks and salt storage sheds which were located here in the 17th century. The northern quay is all 20th century buildings now, except for 3 warehouses which are national monuments.
- Zoutkeetsplein – Salt Shack Square, named in 1913 and restructured in 2005. On the square is the artwork Monkey Table by Merijn Bolink (1967). At the numbers 1-7 is a block from 1881, designed by architect A.W. Kramer.
- Silodam – Named after the grain silos on the breakwater, now apartments. Silo Korthals Altes from 1896, the concrete Silo from 1952. Apartment complex MVRDV is from 1998-2002.
The canal was named after the salt shacks which appeared here from 1615 on. In the 18th century the salt shacks were gradually replaced by homes and warehouses. Many harbor related businesses moved from Zoutkeetsgracht to Houthaven in the 19th century. In 1863 a large bread factory opened here, rebuilt in 1896 after a fire. After the bread factory had been demolished in 1961, new apartments were constructed around 1976.
Barentszplein is located on the corner of Van Diemenstraat and Westerdoksdijk. The square, named in 1878, has a large children’s playground called Zuiderspeeltuin, created in 1910. Until around 1879 this was the location of bastion Blaauwhoofd. On the north corner of the square is the building IJside from 2010, with sculpture Islanded, by Anneke de Witte, in front of it. In front of that is a plaque showing the location of the former bastion (part of the Bastion Route plaques). On the southern end of the square is Bokkinghangen.
The quay Bokkinghangen (Buckling Hang) is only 50 m (164 ft) long, located between Barentszplein en Zoutkeetsgracht, named after the herring smokers which were located here after 1652. Salted herring was hung in sheds to be smoked above an oak fire. The fish smokers were quite a nuisance to their environment with their smoke an smell, so they were always placed on the outskirts of town, near the old city wall. Nothing remains today of the old buildings, it’s all new apartment blocks.
Buckling was an important and cheap staple food, rich in vitamins A, D and B12. Because of the limited ways of conserving food in the past, buckling was popular until the end of the 19th century. There were three varieties: short smoked (soft buckling, lasted a few days), medium smoked (tough buckling, lasted a few weeks) and long smoked (hard buckling, lasted a few months). That last variety was exported by the millions, mostly to Germany. There was once a dedicated buckling market on Koningsplein.
Salt Shack Square got its name in 1913 and was restructured in 2005. This was once the location of Bastion De Bogt (The Bend), part of the 17th century defense structure. A plaque shows where the former bastion and windmill once stood. It was called The Bend because the city wall proceeded south here at an angle. Both this bastion and the bastion Leeuwenburg (or Blaauwhoofd) on the current Barentszplein, although armed with canons, were less than impressive — little more than earthen knolls with a little stone cladding, at the outer edge of the IJ water.
Zoutkeetsplein borders on the Westerkanaal (Western Channel), dug in 1893 on government orders to connect the Singelgracht to the IJ. This canal cut the Zeehelden neighborhood in half and also meant the removal of the last remnants of the Westerplantsoen from 1844, which had been the first Amsterdam public park.
On the square is the artwork Monkey Table in bronze and stainless steel, by Merijn Bolink (1967), placed in 2005. Zoutkeetsplein 1-7 are homes from 1881, designed by architect A.W. Kramer.
On Van Diemenstraat (called Barentszkade before 1878) private companies constructed large warehouses. First in 1896 was the Nederlandsche Veem, followed by warehouse Koelit in 1898, in 1913 by a group of six warehouses for the Deli Maatschappij. Warehouse Koningin Emma dates from 1914. These warehouses were accessible by ships on the side of the Van Diemenkade, at the front (Van Diemenstraat) they had a railway track to further transport the goods.
Former Koningin Emma Veem from 1914 at Van Diemenstraat 20-200 became Y-Tech business building in 1987. The former warehouses of the Deli Maatschappij from 1912-1914 at Van Diemenstraat 206-380 became office building Y-Point in 1990. The Oranje Nassau Veem from 1898 at Van Diemenstraat 412 is now Werkgebouw Het Veem. Only the southeast side of the street has apartments.
Around 1870 tea, cacao, sugar, coffee, rubber, leather and tobacco from Asia were stored here. Even coca leaves from Java were imported — from 1902 there was Dutch cocaine factory (Nederlandsche Cocaïne-Fabriek, NCF), at Eerste Schinkelstraat 30. At the western end of the street is the Westerkeersluis, a bridge connecting Van Diemenstraat to Tasmanstraat, part of the car route around the city center.
Warehouse Het Veem
The yellow brick warehouse Het Veem (previously called Oranje Nassau) at Van Diemenstraat 410 dates from 1898, designed by architects Foeke & Roel Kuipers. The goods arrived in big seafaring ships at the harbor on Van Diemenkade. The building was restructured in 1914.
After warehouse company Pakhoed left in 1978, the building stood empty a few years. It was occupied by squatters in 1981 and transformed into 70 low rent workshops for artists and small businesses, a theater and a restaurant. The occupants bought the building from the city for the sum of 1 guilder, took out a loan of 1 million guilders and renovated the inside and outside (with state and municipal subsidies). The building is now both a national and municipal monument.
Oude Houthaven (Old Wood Harbor)
Before the 13th century this area outside of the sea dike was called Overbraker Outside Polder, protected only by a summer dike, mostly grassland and a few country homes along the dike. The Oude Houthaven was dug out here to become part of the IJ in 1876, with eight narrow harbor basins, alternated with broad strips of land for wood storage. The Noordzeekanaal (North Sea Channel) was created around that same time, providing Amsterdam with a direct ship route to the west and the North Sea. In 1878 this part of the harbor was extended further north.
The wood was brought here from Finland, Sweden and Russia as logs. They were bound into rafts and left in the water to improve the quality. Next they were stored in big open sheds to dry. Smaller vessels then transported them to saw mills. After the First World War the exporting countries started sawing the logs themselves — when concrete piles replaced the wooden foundation piles it sped up the demise of this wood harbor.
After the Second World War wood transport over water diminished, many of the harbour basins were filled in and the wood businesses left. During the construction of subway line 52 (North-South line, 1999-2018) the sand dug out was dumped here, which reduced the depth of the water to a few meters, unfit for larger vessels. Three piers remained: pier A is used as a residential area for houseboats of former skippers, B and C are in use by commercial barges as a waiting harbor.
The Silodam is a 300 m (984 ft) long breakwater between the IJ and the Houthavens, created to protect the wood harbor from the IJ swells. The breakwater was named after the two big grain silos here: the brick Korthals Altes silo from 1896 (by architects J.F. Klinkhamer and A.L. van Gendt) and the adjacent concrete silo from 1952. Both silos were decommissioned in 1987 and squatted for a while, before being transformed into apartments between 1997 and 2001. The brick silo has been a national monument since 1996.
At the far end of the breakwater the colorful modern apartment building Silodam, looking like container ship, constructed in 1998-2002, designed by architects MVDRV. There’s a mechanical 214 car parking with elevators below the breakwater (only for residents). The apartment building has a publicly accessible walking route through it as well as a boardwalk around it, leading to a a sort of balcony at the end, with a nice open view of the IJ.
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