Rotterdam children learn about history to find their identity

It had to be a book with a message. Not a casual comic, but a serious graphic novel with stories about Rotterdam then and now, and especially about Rotterdam’s population then and now. This was the book that Ellen Schindler had in mind, and which will now be presented on 22 November in the Theater Zuidplein: Subway 010. From that date it will also be available in bookstores, and next year all approximately 9,000 students in the first year of upper secondary schools in Rotterdam will receive a copy.

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

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

With these questions as a starting point, Schindler took the initiative for the book. As a director, she put Rotterdam historians, illustrators, photographers and urban poets to work. Abdelkader Benali wrote the story of Franny and Joey, which runs like a common thread through the book. The main characters are two students who get on the subway together, which, as a result of an experiment with nuclear energy on the Maasvlakte, breaks down and makes a journey through time.

At each stop, Franny and Joey participate in a key moment in the story. They are there when the dam is built in Rotte in 1270 and when the expanded village receives city rights fifty years later. In the nineteenth century they helped dig the Nieuwe Waterweg and were bombed in 1940. After the war they demonstrated for urban renewal.

At the dam in Rotte, a wooden putter was used to close the hole.
Illustration by Marcel Ruijters

Influence on your own city

Questions about the identity of Rotterdam and the people of Rotterdam have occupied Schindler for some time. She herself began to feel like a Rotterdammer from the day she came to the city from Heerlen at the age of seventeen to study at the Willem de Kooning Academy. Before her time at De Zwarte Hond, she worked in Amsterdam for more than ten years. “I really longed to come back to Rotterdam. I like no nonsense. Today we want something, tomorrow we just do it and the day after tomorrow it will be there. That’s how this city is put together and that’s how I am . This is how the book came to be.”

It is no coincidence that the book is distributed to students in the seventh grade. “It’s the moment when, instead of walking around the corner of the street with your scooter, you go to your new school with a bicycle. You increase your reach, explore the city,” says Schindler. An excellent moment to learn more about your city and about its history.

The book is published by the foundation Ken Je Stad, Maak Je Stad!, 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 own street, neighborhood and city develops. A city is not created in a moment, by one person, but is created over time with a community. And everyone is a part of that.”

Rotterdam is a great setting for comics

The book is financed by the municipality and several sponsors and is published by nai010. It will be a school edition that will also contain teaching materials. Teachers and students can work with it under the motto: the city in the classroom. In addition, students are meant to go out: the classroom in the city. Discussions are underway about collaboration with various cultural institutions, such as the library. It is also planned to run the project over the next five years, longer if successful.

On the foundation’s board, Karim Amghar must maintain the bridge to education. Amghar has taught at Zadkine for thirteen years, chairs a committee advising Minister Dijkgraaf on inequality of opportunity in MBO and made a program for Open Rotterdam on Rotterdam’s identity. “Education has the task of teaching children to make themselves self-reliant and resilient, to teach them to deal with setbacks. It is only possible if they are grounded, if they know who they are. That is why identity development is so important,” says Amghar.

Responsible for the future

At the same time, identity, both personal and coherent with the environment, is not something you impose, but something that arises. It is especially difficult to understand in a multiform city like Rotterdam. Amghar: “A person never fits into a single box. Diversity, our differences, are important, but equally important is what unites us. Rotterdammers can still be reserved towards each other: you are too Liveable or too Think, you is a believer or an unbeliever, a Christian or a Muslim.But if you let go of that, many of these contradictions disappear.

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

Amghar hopes that through the book and the project, the classrooms will speak with knowledge of the past about everyone’s responsibility for Rotterdam’s future. It becomes clear that the history of the city you live in is something that everyone shares. “If you first work towards common ground, or a common goal, then you can discuss the most difficult topics. The common basis is the Rotterdam identity, a kind of we feeling. It allows you to bring young people together and also tackle bigger issues in the city.”

Dirk Davidz. Versijden became a town carpenter in 1642 and made his own map of the town.
Illustration by Martijn van Santen

These issues are addressed once Franny and Joey’s journey is over, and the book ends with a series of imagined future scenarios. What will Rotterdam look like in 2050? As a spacious city where everyone is welcome, where there is room for sport and play, where technology provides solutions? Where nature has grown the buildings to? Or it goes in the wrong direction and the city has become unlivable by then: RotterDoom.

In the end, the book is a way to discuss one’s own living environment, how it arises and what role it plays in a common identity, says Schindler. In a city with so many different nationalities and cultures, it is not obvious. “I notice something striking in this connection: many young people, regardless of their origin, feel more Rotterdam than Dutch. Knowledge of the city’s history can reinforce that.”

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