Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nieuw Amsterdam in New York

For a Dutch visitor, the signs of the old bond between New York and the Netherlands are obvious and many. Downtown has a Broad Street (Bree[d]straat) - the same name as a typical Dutch town's Main Street. Outside the old city walls (Wall Street), there is the Broad Way (Breede Weg): a naming convention that is mirrored in the Dutch West India Company's other former outpost at Curaçao, in the Carribbean. There's the Bowery (De Bouwerij - The Farm), Gramercy (Krom Messie - Little Crooked Knife [Brook]), Greenwich (Greenewijk - Pine Town). New York was Nieuw Amsterdam, but the Dutch settlers appear to have begun to consciously recreate their entire homeland: Brooklyn (Breukelen), Harlem (Haarlem), and Beverwijk (renamed Albany) are all towns close to the original Amsterdam in Holland. The Dutch Republic's parliament was commemorated at Staten Island (Staten Eiland), but other place names were given new, often perhaps unimaginative names like Long Island ('t Lange Eiland) or Rhode Island (Rood Eiland - Red Island).

Such signs may be mere curiosities for the average American tourist or any other foreign visitor to New York, except the Dutch one. These signs open up the door to the past and questions of the past can easily lead to questions of identity and nationhood. The past has often proven to be an excellent fighting ground for present-day conflicts and the Dutch past of New York is no exception.

Only last year did the Netherlands and the city of New York celebrate the fact that 400 years earlier Henry Hudson first sailed up what came to be called the Hudson river. The town of New Amsterdam (New York) was not founded until much later - perhaps such a date would have been a more obvious occasion to celebrate the bond between the US and the Netherlands. The celebration happened last year because it was needed, perhaps more in the Netherlands than in America because of the political upheaval caused by the emergence of a new populist right-wing movement, two of whose leaders were brutally murdered in recent years. A lot of these celebrations and their accompanying texts praised the international, multi-ethnic and tolerant character of Amsterdam and New York, as if to ward off the spirit of xenophobia associated with this movement.

Last Saturday, at the commemoration of the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, the same spirit of tolerance was once again invoked but by this time by the new voice in Dutch politics: Geert Wilders, currently the leader of the aforementioned populist movement, speeched at a protest rally, demonstrating against the Cordoba Community House-project, the so-called 'Ground Zero Mosque'. He said:

New York stands for freedom, openness and tolerance. New York’s Mayor recently said that New York is “rooted in Dutch tolerance.”

Wilders then went on to contrast this tolerance with Islam's supposed intolerance, contrasting New York with Mecca, and repeating Mayor Bloomberg's quote.

The point I would like to make here, however, is that both sides in this debate display an immense pride in the role the Dutch have played in the founding of this city and try to use it in their own agendas. Perhaps there is something of a 'lost empire' syndrome at work here - the idea that all this could have been 'ours'. A certain pride that this Dutchman will readily admit he is not unsusceptible to. The fact that many old New Yorkers also seem to take immense pride in their city's Dutch heritage only compounds the issue. Moreover, it is easy and fun to speculate on the possible Dutch origins of this or that institution, place name, etc. What matters in the end is: what do you do with this knowledge?

1 comment:

Isalicus said...