Rotterdam-Zuid is not known for being a safe place. It has the odd shooting. And it is quite a long bike ride away. For these reasons, students tend to give the cheap houses in Zuid a miss. However, there is a world waiting to be discovered to the South of the Nieuwe Maas river.

Dark-skinned Loraine, 47, is in the smokers’ part of Café Schuyer, her local in Feijenoord. Tuesday afternoon is grinding to a halt. She is drinking beer and looking for a photo on her phone, without much success. She yells at a male friend, who is sitting three feet away from her, with a good view of the house rule: “Don’t smoke joints in here… Don’t roll them, either.” Next to him sits a man wearing a shell necklace and tracksuit bottoms, who starts yelling the moment someone else opens their mouth. The friend finds the photo. “Look,” says Loraine, who has been a die-hard Zuid resident for 22 years. “My son. A graduated econometrist. He is leaving for Wall Street next year. Lives in this neighbourhood, but works hard.” She bursts out laughing. “You weren’t expecting that, were you, from such a black broad? Oh, well. That’s Zuid humour for you.” She gives me her phone number in case I want to ask her some more  questions later. “Right now I’m too tipsy.

Bad rep

Colloquially, Zuid is said to cover all of Rotterdam to the south of the Nieuwe Maas, comprising the boroughs of Charlois, Feijenoord, Hoogvliet and IJsselmonde. The place is supposed to be unsafe, multi-cultural and cheap. Afrikaanderwijk, which does not boast many Dutch speakers, has a particularly bad reputation.

The Feijenoord and Charlois neighbourhoods have 73,080 and 65,309 residents, respectively, of whom 8 and 7 percent are students (the municipal authorities do not keep tabs on how many of them are EUR students). Fifty-one percent of the people living in the two neighbourhoods – where houses tend to be several dozen years older than the average Rotterdam home – are native Dutch citizens. By way of comparison, in Kralingen-West, which is considered a student haven, 12 percent of the population are students, with native Dutch people making up 67 percent of the population.

It is easy to find people like Loraine in Zuid, but much harder to find students, since they are well integrated in urban life and hardly stand out. Every once in a while a student will flit across the street. One of them is addressed by a junkie: “Yo, chief! Once upon a time people used to greet each other. Now they are quick to say, “Shut your fucking mouth”. The student walks on, looking anxious.

Tetanus shot

Richard van der Bijl

Recent graduate Richard van der Bijl, 26, lives in Polderlaan. His place is cheap. He pays about € 230 per month, which gives him his own room, as well as a 40-square-metre living room. However, it is also unsafe; just a week ago he attended a security meeting with the Mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, which was convened because of the many shootings in the Hillesluis neighbourhood of Feijenoord, which is often called a ‘ghetto’ by people from Zuid.

Richard isn’t put off by that sort of thing. “It sounds stupid, but those guys are not after me. They are criminals who are only after each other.” Richard ended up in Zuid in a roundabout way. It was not just because of the low rent that he decided to stay. “I’m from a small village. The contrast is huge. Something is always happening around here.” He himself experienced one ‘small incident’ after a night on the town, when he was bitten by an Alsatian that had torn itself loose. “It came running from a shabby café, and all of a sudden it was hanging from my arm. It was crazy. Its master was nice enough to pay for my tetanus shot.”

Bedde spryen for sale

Samir op Zuid 15

There is a great contrast between Richard’s neighbourhood and Carnisse, less than 4 kilometres down the road, where 26-year-old Samir Azrioual has a room. In this neighbourhood, streets are empty, and everyone is at work. The place has a coldish, even business-like vibe. Around the corner, an old lady is feeding dates to the animals at the deer park. A rigidly orthodox Protestant church can be found a little down the road. “It always makes me laugh,” says Samir. “It’s a little out of place in Zuid.”

A little bourgeois

A caged bird sits on his windowsill. Whenever the animal screeches, Samir quietly takes a sip of his coffee. The Master’s student in Philosophy feels a little bourgeois, he admits. “The main problem in this neighbourhood is a dearth of parking spots.” Other than that, nothing much happens here. Which is good, as Samir is here because of the peace and quiet: “If I want to go out, I’ll go to the city centre. At home I don’t want to have anything on my mind.”

He really likes the mix of cultures. He shows us his shopping street, which does not have a branch of Albert Heijn, but does have internationally oriented shops – a Polish supermarket and the Gulcan gift shop, whose window has a sign advertising “bedde spryen” rather than “beddenspreien”. Samir likes to do his groceries here. “Things are considerably cheaper and fresher than at the big-name supermarkets.”

He goes home with some spring onions, telling us, “Zuid has a bad reputation among students. That’s because no one ever sees what it is really like.” He is referring to the peace and quiet in his own neighbourhood, Zuiderpark (where he likes to study) and the Hannie Dekhuijzen Nursing Home, where students are welcome to come and have dinner if they are willing to keep the elderly people company. Samir likes to join in on occasion.

A friend of sorts

In other words, lots of diversity, in a place where the Dutch capital is habitually referred to as ‘020’. Those who call Zuid a big and unsafe jungle simply do not know what they are talking about.

Take, for instance, the forty-something guy who is paying for a few bags of weed at Colosseum coffee shop, right in the middle of the ‘ghetto’. He leaves 50 cents’ worth of change on the counter. “Last time I was here, you gave me fifty cents too much when you gave me my change.” Coffee shop waiter Martin thinks it is quite funny. He says people here are hard-boiled, with a rough sense of humour, and very down to earth – “it doesn’t take much for rich people to be considered show-offs here” – but they have big hearts. “It’s an enclave in and of itself.”


Café guest Loraine confirms this. When I talk to her on the phone, she says, quite soberly now: “Everyone knows everyone around here. People talk to each other, and shopkeepers will always greet you. No one bothers me here. Students drop us a line when they are going to have a party. Fine. The neighbourhood policeman does the same thing after there has been a shooting. We are not the kind of people who will jump at the sight of a broken nail. And obviously, the place is very multi-cultural.”

Samir op Zuid 7

Richard has noticed this, as well. During the Football World Cups and European Championships, he is generally the only person displaying a Dutch flag in his window. He was pretty upset when the local Aldi was replaced by “yet another Moroccan supermarket” a while ago.  “But now I get my groceries from there every day. The fresh vegetables are great, and cheap, too.” Sometimes language will be a bit of an issue. “For instance, I will ask the butcher for 300 grams of meat, only for him to give me 100 grams, because he didn’t understand what I was saying. But hey, that’s funny. He has become a friend of sorts. If I ever make it to Morocco, he wants to be my guide. That’s because my flatmates and I are the only white people who ever come to their shop. They like that. They are very friendly and know exactly who we are.”

There is only one insurmountable problem: it’s a good twenty minutes’ bike ride from here to Coolsingel. “My friends don’t come over for a cup of coffee very often,” says Samir, “which is a pity, because there are so many great things in Zuid. If only they knew.”