Saturday, March 30, 2013

Amsterdam-Noord pt 1

Windy and overcast. As I boarded the Buiksloterweg ferry across the IJ gray clouds bunched up over the Overhoeks tower. Next to it, the white plastic EYE winks at the lady with the parasol on the tower. The crossing takes about three minutes. I take cover in the inside deck. The ferry casually dodges tugboats, pleasure craft, cruisers and great big barges transporting logs and slag.

QR code tiles: scan for info
Last fall I had an assignment to write about an Amsterdam tourism initiative in which QR codes--those bar code-like boxes you see on all kinds of products these days which you scan your smartphone over--are posted at various points of historical/cultural interest. As only North Amsterdam had actually installed the things, I limited my research to that part of town. As usual when writing something I try to immerse myself in the environment and scribble my impressions. The article eventually ran on the London City Airports website. What follows are random impressions from my explorations of Amsterdam-Noord.  

(note: original date of this entry: Sept 14, 2012)
On the "other side," rain splashes on my head and I take cover in the nearest structure, the Tolhuistuin. Hipsters checking their laptops in the bar. Paintings, abstract profiles of black people on exhibit. By the time I reach the garden behind, the sun breaks through, warming me slightly, then disappears behind fast-moving gray clouds. The garden is pleasant and uninhabited, old trees, paths, hanging chair. I've been here before when Os Mutantes played at a little summer festival. Then the garden was populated by hipsters, with makeshift restaurants and picnic tables. Another time I attended one of Mikkel's "beat club" happenings, with the rear part of the Tolhuis becoming a dance hall.


Noord is no newcomer to the urban panorama. It's just been on the edge. This garden was part of the toll-house compound. There was a toll house here centuries ago, where they collected fees for the ferry crossing. Amsterdam shut the door after dark so latecomers had to spend the night at the inn. Now the ferries run all night long.

"The IJ is just a square," said Adri Doorneveld, a tourism promoter for Amsterdam-Noord, meaning that the river is more a point of reference on the Amsterdam landscape than a significant cultural barrier. Foot and cycle traffic span it in a constant stream, the ferry no more than a floating lane: no toll collected, nothing to deter the movement. But northerners know too that Amsterdam-Noord is another scene entirely, a cast-off piece of the central Amsterdam fabric.

Adri is a historian and has all kinds of fun facts about North Amsterdam where he's lived most of his life. The cozy Café De Pont where we had coffee used to be a canteen and headquarters for the captains of the big car ferries that crossed the IJ before a tunnel was built under the waterway a short distance east. (The ferries that remain are for those on foot, bicycle or moped and are free of charge.)

Behind the toll house garden is the Poortgebouw. The building houses artists workshops and hosts the odd event, such as Raoul van der Weide's Oorsprong Curators concert series, in which the jazz bassist invites different curators to gather musicians who have not previously played together and have them improvise collectively in the hopes that the spontaneous interaction will spark something new and original, and it often does.

Cross-IJ view of Amsterdam Central Station

EYE cafe, Overhoeks tower
Afterward I moved over to the fabulous EYE bar-restaurant, which soon after its mid-2012 opening became a de rigeur meeting point for coffee on the sweeping terrace, with views to the truncated arch at the rear of Central Station with its yet-to-be-completed AM    RDAM sign, beckoning travelers from the north like a Hollywood for adults. I'm having a velouté of Dutch shrimp with parsley and a splash of cognac. It is very good (€8.50). (Other light fare available: green asparagus salad (€8.50), baguettes of smoked Bawykov salmon with dill cream cheese (€7.50) and chocolate cake by Holtkamp and ice cream by Lef (€3.75).

And the museum? ... Exhibit shut but I was able to explore the basement for free. They've got "pods" which you can sit inside and watch full movies and a "panorama" room with theme-based stations showing scenes from a few of the movies in the fabulous collection. There was some kind of film conference going on in the café.

Amsterdam is a town that's made for cycling. Cycling is not a "green initiative" but a long-term part of the country's infrastructure, a cheap, convenient, safe, muscle-toning form of transport, and everything is close enough to reach. It's not primarily a recreational or family activity (though it is both those things) but a functional and aesthetic one. And there's always somewhere to park your vehicle at no cost. 

Leaves of steel: Noorderpark bridge
Adri Doorneveld accompanied me as I proceeded north from the river. He pointed out a bit of the Noorderpark where the benches were shaped like leaves. A bridge connects the park to a section on the other side of the highway, then another, over the Noord Holland Kanaal, reaches a third section. It's a sprawling park that's a major recreational option for Amsterdammers. We were then going up the Adelaarsweg (eagles way, with an eagle's head inconspicuously jutting out of one facade), which skirts the Nieuwe Leeuwardeweg, the road that emerges from the IJ Tunnel and heads for the A10.

We then turned onto the Nieuwendammerdijk, built by farmers to protect their polders from the waters of the IJ. The dike once faced the IJ; now it runs alongside a forest with campground, the WH Vliegenbos (oldest urban wooded area in Amsterdam, built as a buffer between the harbor industry and residential zone). The street is narrow and long, with low wooden houses along its length. The ex-minister of finance lives here. The brick house at 335 was once residence of a doctor who solved the malaria problem by throwing oil on the water. It seems calm and quiet until you stop for a moment and realize it is a major bike thoroughfare leading east, toward a place called Schellingwoud. Continued ...

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