Is it a town hall or a castle?

Is it a town hall or a castle?

The Coolsingel is steeped in history. Once a city moat and red light district, now it is a gathering place for Feyenoord fans and the end point of the Rotterdam marathon.

Words: Evelien Baks

Some evenings, the Coolsingel is so quiet you could fire a cannonball down it and not hit a thing. You wouldn’t think so today, yet once, and indeed for several hundred years, this wide thoroughfare was Rotterdam’s bustling centre. There’s not much happening there these days. Well, okay, there’s a bit going on at Blushings, the new café recently opened by Dutch TV star Gordon. And, of course, there’s the Bijenkorf, the long-standing up-market department store. But that’s nothing compared with how it was in bygone days.

As cars and trams whiz and jangle by, it’s hard to imagine that the street was once a moat where for centuries labourers lugged and heaved heavy goods on and off cargo vessels.

Almost 100 years after the city of Rotterdam was established in 1270, the local Count gave the go-ahead in 1358 to build ramparts. The Westvest, Oostvest, Goudsesingel and Coolsingel were all part of these medieval fortifications. The civil guard was located at the top of the Coolsingel. The only relic dating from this time is now housed in the Museum Rotterdam, where an exhibition about the Coolsingel’s history will soon open. Textile industry enterprises also sprung up at this watery location, and bleacheries and rope-makers’ lines.

Despite all this industry, the Coolsingel was not the true city centre at this time. That was a little further up in the Hoogstraat. As the city expanded, however, its centre began to move more towards the Coolsingel. In the 19th century, plans were drawn up to fill in the moat and develop the Coolsingel to give it a stately allure. It was to become a wide, chic boulevard similar to the Parisian streets designed for Napoleon III by Baron Hausmann, a style that many other great cities had also adopted.

Rotterdam’s oldest and most established streets were Haringvliet, Hoogstraat and Leuvehaven, but slowly the Coolsingel gained in power. Literally. The municipality moved into the grandiose town hall there, which is to this day one of the city’s most stately buildings.

Visitors often ask if it was once a castle. It wasn’t. As a matter of interest though, prostitutes once eked out a living at that very spot. The stock exchange and post office were erected on the boulevard. Also a hospital and a cinema, and at the weekend folk danced the night away at a Pschorr, a popular dance club.

This period was the Coolsingel’s heyday as the city’s pulsating centre. It all came to an abrupt end at the outset of World War II with the bombardment of the city in 1940. The town hall and post office survived, but the damage everywhere else was extreme. Memorialised on the Coolsingel are the 11 citizens who were executed there towards the end of the war as a reprisal by the Germans.

The war devastated the city and it took years to fill up the empty spaces left behind after the rubble had been cleared. Some buildings were built with speed and a number of temporary buildings and shops were erected. Slowly the Coolsingel began to take shape again.

Through all these changes, Rotterdammers have never stopped congregating there. They flock to the Coolsingel to cheer on their football club (“Hup, Feyenoord!”), to demonstrate as the dockside workers did in their droves in the 1970s and 1980s and the rubbish collectors who dumped tons of garbage on the pavement to draw attention to their cause. In 2002, thousands gathered to watch the funeral procession of murdered Rotterdam politician Pim Fortuyn and they pour in to watch the Rotterdam marathon runners cross the finish line in front of the town hall, the same building where numerous couples come every year to say “I do” to one another.

There are big plans in place for the Coolsingel. In time it will once again be transformed into a grand boulevard.

See the exhibition and film about the Coolsingel, on show until April 8th at the Museum Rotterdam, Rodezand 26.

Editor: Evelien Baks

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