History of De Plantage

In 1682, the local government suddenly decided it wasn’t interested in extending the Canal belt in the new neighbourhood that was developing on the eastern side of the centre, adjacent to the harbour. They wanted a park instead - a wide open, lush, green space. Large avenues were designed on a geometrical grid, and a lot of Linden trees were planted: De Plantage (‘Plantation’) was born. While today such a beautiful, leisurely neighbourhood would target higher-income residents, back then it was geared towards middle and lower-class Amsterdammers.

In fact, it quickly became a den of depravity – as Erik de Jong, professor of Nature, Culture and Landscape at the University of Amsterdam, puts it, "you saw a lot of dismal behaviour. The greenery invited a more relaxed attitude, and people allowed themselves things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Men peed on the trees!"(and frequented prostitutes, he forgets to add.) He explains that Protestant preachers even tried to forbid walking – in an area meant for strolls, of all places… Needless to say, that initiative failed, and on the contrary, De Plantage’s free spirit blossomed. By the end of the 18th century, the atmosphere was not only festive but increasingly rich in culture, sprouting many theatres and other entertainment – or even scientific – institutions.

The Kriterion film theatre - founded by resistance fighters after WWII as a student-run cinema, remains at the heart of the neighbourhood's cultural life today

At the origins of De Plantage, the city planners had also revamped the Hortus Botanicus, the apothecary garden that stands guard at the entrance to the neighbourhood, which since its opening in 1638 had provided local doctors with medicinal herbs. Golden Age explorers were sailing back to their Dutch homeland with ships full of plants and flowers from faraway shores, and after the 17th century the botanical garden also became the proud repository of all these exotic marvels. Napoleon wanted to transform it into a new version of the French Jardin des Plantes, and the area had such panache that it was even considered as a location for a new royal palace.

Artis Zoo now and then

The gem – and defining institution – of De Plantage is most certainly Artis. What is now the city’s famous sprawling zoo started out in 1838 as the Society Natura Artis Magistra. Its reverence for the humanities is all in the title, now its motto: ‘Nature is the teacher of art and science’. Its initiators started buying small gardens and slowly built them into a park. ‘It was intended as a collection of living animals, with a library, an aquarium, a natural and geological museum and a garden with living plants. It was all about culture and man’s position in the world’, explains Professor De Jong. At its origins, it only had a couple of parrots and monkeys, and one wildcat from Surinam, but it was an important and madly popular intellectual endeavour at a time where science mattered more than the arts: according to De Jong, "In the 19th century, more money was spent acquiring a lion than a Rembrandt" – so membership was a prized accomplishment. As Artis grew, it came to the forefront of architectural prowess, erecting green houses in modern materials such as iron and glass. It’s also considered a mover and shaker in civil rights: its membership opened to women as early as 1842, a bold step towards a then-rare intellectual emancipation.

Giraffes at Artis Royal Zoo 

What cemented De Plantage’s reputation as a leader in higher cultural pursuits was the opening of the University of Amsterdam’s second campus in 1872, on what is now Roeterseisland. It brought zoological and botanical collections, laboratories, and of course, scientists and researchers – established and aspiring. "De Plantage was very central in natural history endeavours", concludes De Jong, and all this scholarly effervescence brought in even more theatres and cultural institutions, such as the Hollandsche Schouwburg, Royal Thetare Carré and Plancius.

Death and rebirth of the Plantage

When Word War II struck, though, the flourishing neighbourhood lost its luster in a heartbeat. De Plantage was home to much of Amsterdam’s Jewish community, and it sustained terrible physical and moral damages. The Hollandsche Schouwburg and even Plancius (which had been founded by a Jewish choral society) became deportation centres. While Artis’s director hid as many persecuted people as he could above animal cages, the Resistance tried to bomb one of the park’s buildings where identification papers were being kept. "It had been a booming neighbourhood, and then horror," says Hester Schölvinck, Project Manager of the cultural cooperative Plantage Amsterdam. "For a long period, it was not a happy, warm neighbourhood." After the war, De Plantage, heavy with its dark history, became neglected.

Still, the area hasn’t lost its inherent beauty, with its quaint parks and private gardens and its gabled, white and brick façades that often sport cascades of colourful plants and flowers. For many residents it is a quiet, green abode with a lot of cachet, including for Artis which has been hard at work opening a new restaurant (the Café-Restaurant De Plantage, a large, airy bistrot on Artisplein that’s open to non-zoo visitors) and thrilling exhibitions such as Micropia or the brand new jaguar enclosure. According to Diane Borst of Artis’ communications department, the much more spacious elephant enclosure currently in construction was specifically designed to accommodate the pachyderms’ behavioural habits in the wild. Long term, one of their biggest projects is the restoration of the Grand Museum for Man and Nature, which dates back to 1852 and has been closed for 80 years. In there, Artis, which aims at being active and community-centred, is planning to host semi-permanent exhibitions but also a communal workplace for scientific endeavours.

The future of De Plantage

This need for a renewal isn’t lost on the local government, who sees an opportunity to alleviate the centre’s congestion. According to Professor De Jong, "the municipality is now preparing the renovation of De Plantage as a whole": automobile and tram traffic will be rethought, pedestrian areas and smaller parks will be rejuvenated, with the same eco-conscious spirit that has been driving the city in the past years. "They want to reinforce its green, garden-esque character. De Plantage is the alternative Museum Quarter, after all – a mirror of Museumplein, focused on nature, science, ethnography and history. All this will be revitalised, to be included in the larger whole of the city centre, where all the parts add up to a magnificent area."

Photos: Marie Peze

Article originally published in A-Mag, April  2017