Oude Noorden has become one of the most popular boroughs of Rotterdam, beloved by students as well as by ‘regular’ people. Back in the early noughties (remember how old you were at the time?), it was a run-down part of town, characterised by houses with boarded-up windows, lots of litter in the streets and drug dealers. But no sooner did the borough hit rock bottom than progress came knocking on its doors. First artists moved in, then coffee bars, then yuppies and students. Sixteen percent of all residents are now aged between 19 and 26.

Considerate to the neighbours

“If you’re the kind of student who looks beyond the platitudes of student life, Noord is the perfect place to live,” says 19-year-old Dora van den Herik. “If you want to go to campus or attend a student party, you can cycle to Kralingen. When I’m at home, I try to be considerate to my neighbours.” After the summer holiday she will embark on the second year of her psychology degree at EUR. In March she moved into a renovated block of flats in Meidoornstraat, a street that runs parallel to Zaagmolenstraat, which is served by a rather loud tram. “When I first arrived in Rotterdam, I really had to get used to the hustle and bustle. I’m from a tiny village near Bergen op Zoom, where everyone knows each other and I never had to lock my bike. I suffered a culture shock during my first few weeks in Rotterdam.”

Now that it’s summer holiday, the streets are devoid of such hustle and bustle. The Noord residents all seem to have left the city, coronavirus or not. Now that the streets are not dominated by people, it’s easier to see the built environment, which is a mix of narrow streets, green squares and renovated pre-war buildings. Zwaanshals, a shopping street, is home to vintage clothes shops, bistros, lifestyle shops and art galleries with squeaky clean shop windows. A bit further down the road, Zwart Janstraat, which may be the busiest section of the neighbourhood, boasts a more diverse and less fancy range of services. Small shops with hand-written signs advertising discounts on vegetables, cheap clothes shops and phone shops are reminders that this part of Rotterdam is a little rough around the edges.

Groengoed’s urban vegetable plot, which is run by locals. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

The empty streets tickle our imagination. What kinds of people would we normally come across here? According to the municipal government’s website, Noord residents are a ‘motley crew’. Dora confirms that a wide range of people calls this neighbourhood home. “Amazingly, everyone is friendly. People always greet each other.” She shares her apartment with two flatmates. Their neighbours are a family with Moroccan roots and an elderly lady from Suriname. “I soon felt at home. When I come home after work in the evening, my neighbour will offer me some food. And when she goes to the market, she’ll sometimes buy me a bun as well.”

Picnic tables everywhere

There’s a farmer’s market in Noordplein every Saturday where a lot of the produce is organic and, most of all, healthy. “It’s relatively expensive,” admits 24-year-old Jana Elshof, who will embark on a pre-master programme in Educational Challenges in a Diverse Society after the summer holiday. She is holding a paper box filled with a mix of Middle Eastern vegetables, purchased from a stall that sells mezze. The fact that the produce is expensive does not stop Jana, who lives in Zuid (the ‘south side’), from crossing the Erasmus Bridge every week to visit the farmer’s market in Noord. The fact that she also attends a gym in the neighbourhood helps. “For students who are into healthy food and conscious eating, this market is a godsend. Because things are expensive, I have to be very conscious of the choices I make. When I go to a supermarket, I’ll buy vegetables I can wash with water. When I go to the farmer’s market, I’ll buy a cabbage grown without the use of chemicals. Those aren’t easily washed with water.”

There are picnic tables all over the place, and people use them to hang out together. A truck that sells coffee provides them with warm drinks on this rainy summer’s day. Children are running around, and groups of students are catching up on the week’s news. The longest queue can be found at a stall that sells cheese, which is hardly surprising, as the cheese is flavoursome, locally produced and possibly cheaper than many a piece of cheese sold by Albert Heijn. Win-win-win!

Harvest time

From the market, follow the Rotte river towards the Zaagmolen Bridge, turn left and then take the second street on the right and you will arrive at the green square in Stolkstraat. On this particular morning in July, there aren’t many signs of life, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find some peanut shells left around the wooden benches in the park. This place is home to one of Groengoed’s urban vegetable plots, which is run by the locals themselves. Bright-coloured blackberries, raspberries, peppers and tomatoes contrast with the surrounding green. Groengoed seeks to combat poverty in the neighbourhood and promote unity and solidarity. There are vegetable plots run by locals all over the Oude Noorden neighbourhood.

Spending the summer in Noord

The Noordt brewery on Zaagmolenkade, situated in a courtyard that is easily overlooked, could do with some helping hands. The brewery can’t open today due to a lack of staff.

The brewery’s tables are empty, even though the large beer tanks next to the bar are full. It’s high time the city filled up with students again.

Dora will stay in Rotterdam all summer. She and her flatmates like to go to a restaurant called Tosca whenever they’re in the mood for a special celebration. The restaurant is located next to a small park full of flowers. The outdoor seating area comes with coloured lights hanging overhead from the branches of the trees, and the façade is covered in vines. “It’s as if you’re stepping into Italy. Unfortunately, it’s too expensive for our students’ budgets to come here often, but we think it’s one of the nicest places in the neighbourhood.”

Oude Noorden is a good place even for people who like to leave the neighbourhood. “It’s very centrally located,” says Dora. “It takes me half an hour to cycle to campus, but it only takes me ten minutes to get to Central Station.”