on Edge
Photographs by Brian Rose


For 15 years I lived in the center of Amsterdam, the famous urban village of canals and bicycles. It was a great life style environment, but it did not interest me much as a subject for photography. What could I add or subtract from this idyll of urban seamlessness? Even the red light district appeared tame, and cozily contained. But I eventually found rougher edges of the city along stretches of the once bustling waterfront, and I discovered the new neighborhoods on the periphery, the playgrounds of Dutch planners and architects. This was clearly where the action was.

In the 19th century Amsterdam was a compact city ringed by a series of windmills, a few of which still exist. Beyond that lay the polder, the land reclaimed from the many lakes and marshes of the surrounding countryside. The city expanded into the polder in the early 20th century, creating new neighborhoods featuring the architecture of the so-called Amsterdam School. I photographed one of those neighborhoods, the blocks surrounding Mercatorplein, a square in the west of Amsterdam named for the Flemish cartographer. The neighborhood, with its streets named after seafaring explorers, had become populated predominately by Muslims from Morocco and Turkey, and it was here that I first became aware of the tensions that lay beneath the calm surface of Dutch society.

After World War II, Dutch planners took up the huge task of rebuilding the country, and Amsterdam, though not devastated like Rotterdam, nevertheless, lay in tatters. To the south and west, neighborhoods of Corbusier-style flats and open parkland were laid out in the polder. The most utopian of these was the Bijlmermeer, an immense honeycomb of housing projects linked by a network of paths and highways designed to separate cars and pedestrians. Although intended for working class Dutch, it became, to a great extent, an ethnic enclave populated by Surinamese who had fled the Dutch colony at the time of its independence. By the late ‘90s, Dutch planners were performing drastic architectural surgery on this increasingly dysfunctional city within a city.


In exploring the outskirts of the city, I often took trams to their end points, or drove to obscure areas along the freeways. One unexpected discovery was a Jewish cemetery bisected by a train viaduct and hemmed in by a freeway and high-tension power lines. Many of the gravestones were marked Westerbork, the name of the camp that served as a way station en route to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps. Nearly 90,000 Jews, more than 10 percent of the population of Amsterdam at that time, were killed.

Among the strangest sights on the periphery of Amsterdam was a fenced in drive surrounded by a sidewalk and a dozen bus shelters—also situated along a rail viaduct. During the day it was deserted. At night cars circled the drive as men ogled the women standing in the shelters. This was Amsterdam’s official prostitution zone (tippelzone), an attempt to regulate drug-addicted prostitutes and remove them from the center of town. The attempt failed for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which was the admission by a prominent city councilman that he frequented the zone. The tippelzone closed in 2003, but the paved circuit and bus shelters remain, now used as a driving school.

The Dutch believe that society can be made—that it is malleable and can be designed and constructed. They skillfully employ modest means to reach ambitious goals. When they fail they keep on trying. But sometimes I see them forever pushing on their pedals against the wind, the gleaming city in the distance a mirage rather than reality. What I once thought was tolerance and liberalism I now understand to be a compulsion to organize and manage. Each to one's own door, but keep the curtains open. Everything is permissible as long as it can be contained—and the dikes hold.