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Dam Square: Mirror of change in the city

Room by Tom van der Molen, curator Amsterdam Museum

René Rietbergen has been working at the Royal Palace on Dam Square for many years and on 4 May 2020 he flew the flag at half-mast in the morning as part of the national commemoration of the warvictims. From the turret on the palace he filmed the empty Dam Square, which would remain empty for the first time. Then René took us on a tour of the morning horizon of Amsterdam. René is a meritorious singer of the Jordanese song and he sings Mijn ouwe Amstelstad by Tante Leen. The song is about how Amsterdam changes.

“Als Naatje van de Dam je nu bekijken zou, dan zei ze net als ik tegen jou: Wat ben je toch veranderd in die jaren, mijn ouwe Amstelstad [If Naatje of the Dam would look at you now, she’d say to you just like I did: How you’ve changed in those years, my old Amstel city]”

Naatje of the Dam, the monument commemorating the Ten Day Campaign against Belgium in 1830, was demolished when Tante Leen was two, in 1914. It had stood there from 1856 onwards. In the song, the disappeared monument partly represents the changing city itself, but mainly serves as an absent, imaginary witness.

At the beginning of March this year the city changed again. Rather abruptly it transformed from a full, according to some, overcrowded, to a suddenly empty, almost ghost town. It is interesting to see how once again Dam Square plays a special role in the image. Many an Amsterdammer would say that the Dam is not much to look for in normal times. They would say it is a square for tourists, day trippers and living statues. But that changed in the last few weeks that the city changed. Among the many entries for Corona in the City was a lot of photography of the changed streetscape, the silence and the emptiness. Remarkably often the Dam Square is visited in these photos. Sometimes to prove that the tourists and day trippers have disappeared, but actually the Red Light District is more symbolic of the disappeared tourism than Dam Square. More often the pictures seem to testify that the heart of the city, the center, has changed. It is as if photographers, just like Naatje van de Dam, could only really witness the changed Amstelstad on Dam square. After all, Dam Square is above all a symbolic place, where ideas about what the city, its inhabitants or even the entire country are anchored. The place is interwoven with the urban and even national identity and thus for many an anchor for meaning.

It is the birthplace of Amsterdam, the place where a Dam in the Amstel river formed the very beginning. In the 17th century, the new town hall was built, which above all testified to the urban identity of an international port city. The Dam not only became the centre of the city, but also the centre of a world view. In 1808, the City Hall became the Royal Palace and at the same time Amsterdam became the capital of the Netherlands. Since then, Dam Square has also played a central role as a stage of national identity. This was reinforced by the construction of national monuments, first Naatje op de Dam, later the National Monument, which has been the setting for the annual commemoration of war victims on 4 May since 1956.

This year’s commemoration, which began with the flying of the flag by René and his tour of Amsterdam’s skyline, was exceptional. The rituals had changed, it looked different and the meaning changed as well. It seems to be the same with the Dam itself. The meaning of the square changes as the city changes. Change also offers possibilities. In the spring of 2020 you could quietly walk your dog on the Dam Square, you could contemplate what it meant that the city was empty and whether it would ever get filled up again and how. And you could wonder what Naatje van de Dam would say, now that the city had changed again.

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Soundtrackcity Het huis van Amsterdam met dank aan: Gemeente Amsterdam West