The industrial cities are the ones that have had to fight for many centuries for their right to exist. But that is the very reason why second cities are so incredibly resilient. This article takes you on a voyage of discovery in respect of Rotterdam’s identity, which bears an uncanny resemblance to those of cities such as Liverpool, Marseille and Genoa.
Exactly five years ago, Feyenoord was in a bad way in the competition and the hardcore supporters came into action. You would think they did this to make sure the team played better. But no. The supporters said that Feyenoord had to lose its next match on purpose. This was against PSV on 24 April 2010. Although this defeat would mean that Feyenoord would throw away its chances in European football, anything was better than the alternative: letting Ajax win the championship. The supporters would rather see ‘nothing in Amsterdam’ than celebrations on Coolsingel in Rotterdam. Football has a unique way of exposing national characteristics, and Rotterdammers frankly dislike Amsterdammers. Some people enjoy this. They positively wallow in hatred of Amsterdam. Others think it is childish and say it is high time Rotterdam grew up. They say Rotterdam suffers from ‘second-city syndrome’. But is this actually true? We decided to investigate the symptoms of this disorder, whether the number of patients has increased, and whether it can be cured.
What is the diagnosis?
The term ‘second-city syndrome’ refers to the fact that a city goes out of its way to project its image in respect of another city. This term was coined in 1952 by US journalist A.J. Liebling, who wrote a book comparing Chicago to global cities like Paris or London – and New York in particular. It is a particularly stubborn type of inferiority complex. And as far as Rotterdam goes, it simply is not as popular as Amsterdam. Houses here are not so much in demand, there are not as many cultural institutions and there are more problems here in Rotterdam. All the really important people and institutions are in Amsterdam. And we hate that.
Hang on, though. Surely we’re more than just an anti-Amsterdam feeling?
Of course we are. This syndrome is only part of the story and the concept of second cities has meanwhile become rooted in our approach to urban development. It is like this: in the 1980s, when urban studies really took off, everyone was talking about global cities or in other words, the metropolis as a self-contained community. Cities like Paris, London and Tokyo that have everything and have had everything for centuries. But the concept of the global city – which became famous thanks to scholars like John Friedmann and Saskia Sassen – was not a good enough description for certain other types of city like Liverpool, Marseille, Genoa and Rotterdam: they are big, they are important on the world scene, but there is still something missing. The biggest difference between global cities and second cities is that second cities do not have any FIRE services (this is short for Finance, Insurance and Real Estate). So there is no financial sector there – or services economy either.
Okay, so Rotterdam is a second city because we have not got a business district like Amsterdam’s Zuidas?
That is part of the story. But if we compare cities of this type, we see that they have more in common. Second cities are industrial cities with all the relevant features: immigration, a large number of manual workers, dependence on one or two sectors and a prominent role for business people. Rotterdam poet Rien Vroegindeweij once described Rotterdam as ‘half a city’ in the Roets in Rotterdam documentary series. Admittedly Rotterdam has got a great deal, but there is a lot more it has not got, like drama academies, publishing firms, classical music societies or media.
Almost everything is located in Amsterdam. But, people say, it is in the second cities where the real work is done. Traders in Rotterdam literally used to have dinner with the Mayor until the PvdA (Labour Party) put a stop to this in the 1970s. It is what is described as an agency in the literature. The captains of industry were the ones to establish the Netherlands School of Commerce (Nederlandsche Handels-Hoogeschool) – forerunner to Erasmus University – in 1913. And the Kop van Zuid neighbourhood owes its existence to Rotterdam businessman and founder of the Rotterdamsche Handelsvereeniging trade association Lodewijk Pincoffs (1827-1911), who decided all by himself to convert the other side of the river into a harbour. The mark left by this type of person on urban development is much bigger in second cities than elsewhere, according to Rotterdam urban historian Hilde Sennema, who is carrying out doctoral research into the reconstruction of Liverpool and Rotterdam at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (see box). And Rotterdam has done very well out of this. Witteveen had already put forward his plans for a new city centre while the city was still being bombed, on the instructions of that same business network that pushed the modern basic plans through. Liverpool, on the other hand – which suffered just as much damage during the war as Rotterdam – did not manage to get a new shopping centre built until the 1960s, and even that was a lot of trouble.
And Rotterdam has done very well out of this. Witteveen had already put forward his plans for a new city centre while the city was still being bombed, on the instructions of that same business network that pushed the modern basic plans through. Liverpool, on the other hand – which suffered just as much damage during the war as Rotterdam – did not manage to get a new shopping centre built until the 1960s, and even that was a lot of trouble.
Rolling up our sleeves and getting down to it. Is that due to the bombing?
That is a misconception. And what is more, the idea of ‘let us stop gassing and get down to it’ is typical of the second-city mentality and already existed long before 14 May 1940. The eleven-storey Witte Huis (‘White House’) was built back in 1898. Nowadays it pales into insignificance beside the towering buildings constructed on Wijnhaveneiland, but it used to be known as ‘Europe’s first skyscraper’. Another good example of Rotterdam’s unrestrained ambition is a photograph of Chicago city centre published in Groot Rotterdam magazine in the summer of 1928 with the resolute words ‘What Rotterdam will look like in a few years’ time’ printed underneath.
Second cities continually have to fight to maintain their position. The fact that a second city can achieve greatness by processing oil – to give just one example – does not mean that this can still be successful half a century later. Dependence on a certain sector makes a city vulnerable – look at Detroit – and means that it has to keep on reinventing itself the whole time. Rotterdam used to have the biggest harbour in the world, but we have been overtaken on all sides ever since this leading position was taken over by Shanghai in 2004. Nowadays we are only somewhere at the bottom of the top 10. And in view of our dependence on the petrochemicals industry – we may be good at containers, but there is hardly any money to be made in that respect – the future does not seem to be very hopeful.
Can a second city ever become a global city?
Yes, it can. And Rotterdam’s exultant mood since the New York Times, the Guardian and Lonely Planet all put the city on the must-see list is creating the impression that we are really going places. But Hilde Sennema’s research shows that it is equally likely that many second cities will deteriorate further. If we take a good look at Rotterdam, we see that the city is suffering from an identity crisis on several fronts.
People at the Port of Rotterdam are desperately brainstorming to find ways in which circular bio-based economies and the manufacturing industry can take over the role of the refineries. And people in the city itself, where the port has ceased to exist for decades, are launching one start-up hub after another – usually to no purpose. The Lloyd Pier was supposed to become the Netherlands’ biggest media island ten years ago, but MTV chose the NDSM dockyard in Amsterdam instead. The same thing happened when the NRC Handelsblad newspaper moved into a building on Rokin in Amsterdam in 2012 instead of opting for a new location in Rotterdam. Culture cannot be driven. Second-city councils may try and force it, but it is no wonder that this type of city boasts a great many cultural festivals. Rotterdam has an eventful history in that respect, with the 1960 Floriade (the Euromast was built to mark this occasion), C70 (marked by the funicular right through the city) and European Capital of Culture in 2001. This year the city is celebrating 75 years of reconstruction with the cultural event Rotterdam viert de stad! (Rotterdam celebrates the city). And a group of business people – yes, there they are again! – are trying to get the 2025 World Expo to be held in Rotterdam. But all this could collapse at any moment unless it becomes a solid cultural infrastructure.
Oh dear! Is there still any hope for the city?
So Rotterdam is definitely going along the right track, but we still have a very long way to go.
Of course there is, says Jerome Hodos, author of the book Second Cities: Globalization and Local Politics in Manchester and Philadelphia. Only we have to stop pretending to be a global city. Mr Hodos says we should accept this ‘second’ identity with open arms and emphasise our strong points as a second city. After a tough reconstruction period, Liverpool decided to redevelop its docks about 20 years ago, while Hamburg – another seaport – focused on providing maritime services. According to Hilde Sennema, these are clever moves and Rotterdam could learn a lot from them. After all, the port might still be important in an economic sense but it is no longer a real part of the physical, social and cultural system. This means that the port has to be reincorporated into the city: Katendrecht and Wijnhaveneiland are good examples. So Rotterdam is definitely going along the right track, but we still have a very long way to go. And this is just as it should be for a second city too.