Most people are cycling and walking in Amsterdam’s Jodenbreestraat today. But the street could have been so different if the 4 lane motorway of the 1970s would have been further extended all the way to Central Station as it was originally planned. Fortunately that didn’t happen and in the end this street became a place for people again!
The street in the historic city centre of Amsterdam was originally known as the southern part of Sint Antoniesbreestraat. It was home to the famous Dutch master Rembrandt for 23 years until 1656. His house still exists and it is now the Rembrandt museum. From 1619 many Jewish emigrants from Portugal and Spain settled in the neighbourhood, making it a Jewish quarter. In the second half of the 17th century the street got the name, Jodenbreestraat (“Jewish Broad Street”) to reflect that. The famous Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was born in an alley just off this street in 1632. As his first name reveals he also belonged to an originally Spanish/Portuguese Jewish family. In 1675 the very large Portuguese Synagogue was finished. At the time also in the same street.
Many residents of the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam were deported during World War II to the Nazi concentration camps and the neighbourhood was left practically deserted. During the severe hunger winter of 1944-1945 most of the wood from the abandoned houses was stolen and used for heating. The buildings were left in a decrepit state and many were torn down as soon as the war ended.
It took years to make plans for rebuilding this area of the city. They involved constructing an underground metro line and a 4 lane road from the south all the way to Amsterdam’s Central Station, right through the historic heart of the city. While the plans were taking shape, Jodenbreestraat was widened for that 4 lane road. By 1971 the whole east side of this street consisted of just one large building, nicknamed “Maupoleum”, that was soon named the ugliest building of Amsterdam or even The Netherlands.
At the south end of the street a new traffic square was built. Meester Visserplein was turned into a five arm roundabout with a motor traffic tunnel underneath, for traffic from the south to the east to get to the IJ-tunnel. When the Meester Visserplein tunnel was opened in 1969 the papers wrote that it was good to see the future of Amsterdam with traffic on separate levels, something that would soon be normal all over the city. But the people of Amsterdam weren’t so happy to see all these roads being built in their neighbourhoods and it quickly led to fierce protests. In 1972 the plans were abandoned with a difference of just one vote in the city council. This was at the same time that the children of De Pijp were fighting for their play streets. The 4 lane road to Central Station was not built, but the metro line was. To protest against all the houses that had to be demolished for the metro there were riots again in 1975. It was well into the 1980s that finally slowly but steadily the area got its lively atmosphere back.
Already in 1973 people complained that pedestrians and cyclists had not been taken into account in the large traffic square. Pedestrians had to use dark and ugly tunnels to cross the street from the tram stop to their destinations. Because nobody wanted to use the tunnels, people crossed multiple lanes of traffic on foot which led to dangerous situations. The city had relocated the tram stop for this reason and the level pedestrian crossings came back. The disused pedestrian tunnels were finally walled off in 1985.
The big traffic plans of the 1960s were further reversed when in 1994 the Maupoleum was torn down. The access road to the IJ-tunnel was narrowed from 4 lanes to 2 and on the free space 350 new homes were built. The motor traffic tunnel under the traffic circle was closed in 1996 and Jodenbreestraat went from 4 lanes to 2 in the south part and only one lane in the north part of the street. The entire east side of the street was rebuilt so that the street was much narrower again and it now has shops again on ground level. The traffic circle was kept as it was “for the time being”, because local merchants complained that blocking off main streets would be bad for their business.
But in 2008 plans to block off a further street were approved and in 2010 the reconstruction of the traffic circle was completed. The former tunnel entrances were hidden under a new double T-junction that came in the place of the traffic circle.
And what became of that car-tunnel? Well, that was given to Amsterdam’s children! It was turned into a huge underground playground called TunFun. Where once traffic roared, children jump on trampolines now!
Over the years, lot of space in this area has been taken away from motor traffic and it was given back to people. People living in homes at the location of a former road, people walking and many people cycling. Jodenbreestraat, once a lively street in the Jewish quarter, later turned into a horrible four lane road for motor traffic, is now a main cycle route from the south into the historic city centre of Amsterdam; a people’s place again!
Amsterdam’s Jodenbreestraat is a main cycle route into the city centre, and it shows!
Note especially what a main cycle route sounds like.