Rotterdam children learn history to find their identity

It had to be a book with a message. Not a non-binding comic book, but a serious graphic novel with stories about Rotterdam then and now, and especially about Rotterdamers past and present. This was the book Elaine Schindler had in mind, and will now be presented on November 22 at the Zuidplein Theater: Subway 010. From that date it will also be available in bookstores, and next year all 9,000 first-year Rotterdam high school students will receive a copy.

Schindler is a partner and CEO of De Zwarte Hond, a design agency for architecture and urban planning. In Rotterdam, the office is responsible for the design of the Zuidplein Theater, Praktijkcollege Zuidwijk and the recent De Boezem housing project in Boezemweg.

To do your job well as architects and urban planners, you have to get to know the city, make it your own, and maybe even love it a little bit, says Schindler. At the same time, you should realize that you are building the city not only for the moment, but also for future generations, starting with the current young population. And then you also have to ask yourself what young people already know about the city. “Do they know history? Do they feel part of the city, do they feel they can make a difference?”

With these questions as a starting point, Schindler began the book. As a director, she has hired Rotterdam historians, painters, photographers and urban poets. Abdelkader Benali wrote the story of Franny and Joy, which runs like a red thread in the book. The main characters are two students who climb on the subway together, and as a result of Maasvlakte’s nuclear power experiment, they get stuck and take a journey through time.

At each stop, Franny and Joey attend an important moment in history. They existed when the dam was built at Roti in 1270 and when the expanded village received city rights fifty years later. In the 19th century they helped excavate the Nieuwe Waterweg and were bombed in 1940. After the war, they demonstrated for urban renewal.

In the dam at Rotte, a wooden bunt was used to seal the hole.
Illustration by Marcel Reuters

Impact on your city

Questions about the identity of Rotterdam and the people of Rotterdam occupied Schindler for some time. She herself began to feel Rotterdam from the day she came to town from Heerlen at the age of seventeen to study at the Willem de Kooning Academy. Prior to her work at De Zwarte Hond, she worked in Amsterdam for over ten years. “I longed to go back to Rotterdam. I love no-nonsense. Today we want something, tomorrow we’ll do it, and the day after tomorrow it will be there. That’s how this city is put together and that’s what I am. That’s how the book came about.”

It is no coincidence that the book is given to seventh graders. “This is the moment when instead of going around a street corner with your scooter, you go to your new school with a bike. You expand your range, and you explore the city,” Schindler says. Excellent moment to learn more about your city and the history of the city.

The book was published by the Ken Je Stad Foundation, Maak Je Stad! , which was founded by Schindler to introduce young people to history, architecture and urban planning, by giving these disciplines a place in education. We want to show that young people can influence how their streets, neighborhoods and city develop. A city is not made in an instant by one person, but over time with society. And everyone is part of that.”

Rotterdam great decoration for caricature

The book is funded by the municipality and several sponsors and is published by nai010. It will be a school version that will also include educational materials. Teachers and students can work with this, under the motto: The city is in the classroom. In addition, the intention is for students to be able to get out: the classroom in the city. Discussions are underway about cooperation with various cultural institutions, such as the library. The project is also planned to run over the next five years, even longer if successful.

On the foundation’s board of directors, Kareem Amgar has to maintain the education bridge. Amgar has been studying at Zadken for thirteen years, is chair of a committee that advises Minister Djgraf on inequality of opportunity in MBO and has created a show for Open Rotterdam on Rotterdam’s identity. “Education is about teaching children to be self-reliant and resilient, to teach them to deal with setbacks. This is only possible if they are grounded, if they know who they are. This is why identity development is so important,” says Amgar.

responsible for the future

At the same time, identity, personal and interconnected with the environment, is not something that you impose, but that arises. It is especially difficult to understand in a polymorphous city like Rotterdam. Amgar: “A person does not fit into one box. The diversity and differences between us are important, but what unites us is equally important. The people of Rotterdam can still hold each other: you are for living or thinking, believer or unbeliever, Christian or Muslim. But If you let it go, many of these contradictions fade away.

You notice that when you meet another Rotterdam worker somewhere in the world: there is an instant click.”

Amger hopes that through the book and project, the classes will speak with the knowledge of the past about everyone’s responsibility for the future of Rotterdam. It becomes clear that the history of the city you live in is something everyone shares. „If you work first for common ground, or a common goal, you can discuss the most difficult topics. That common ground is Rotterdam identity, kind of feeling. This allows you to bring young people together and address the bigger issues in the city as well.”

Dirk Davids. Verseden became a carpenter for the city in 1642 and made his own map of the city.
Illustration by Martin Van Santen

These issues are addressed when Franny and Joey’s journey ends and the book ends with a number of drawn future scenarios. What will Rotterdam look like in 2050? As an inclusive city where everyone is welcome, where there is room for sports and games, where technology provides solutions? Where did nature flood the buildings? Or is it going in the wrong direction and the city has become unlivable by then: RotterDoom.

Ultimately, Schindler says, the book is a way to discuss an individual’s living environment, how it arises and what role it plays in a shared identity. In a city with so many different nationalities and cultures, this is not so obvious. “I noticed something amazing in this regard: many young people, regardless of their origin, feel Rotterdam more than the Dutch. Knowing the history of the city can reinforce this.”

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