Essential Amsterdammers: Former Mayor of Amsterdam Job Cohen
Essential Amsterdammers every expat should know: Former Mayor of Amsterdam Job Cohen
Over the last year, I asked a number of residents, "Who is the most influential Amsterdammer of the past decade?” Only one man was mentioned - Job Cohen, Mayor of Amsterdam, 2001-2010. As they talked about him, it became clear that he was not only influential because of his position, but because of the kind of man that he is.
Perhaps Cohen's most significant act as Mayor was to be the first public figure to marry same-sex couples, having previously worked on the changes in legislation to allow it. In one highly visible action, he broke down huge barriers of prejudice.
Cohen moved on to national politics as leader of the Partij van der Arbeid (Labour Party) in April 2010, facing some significant difficulties as head of the opposition to the current coalition government. To me, it simply does not suit him to be face to face with political sharks such as Wilders, because he is a highly principled person.
I noticed a strong sense of nostalgia from him when we met in the Dutch Houses of Parliament in Den Haag to discuss his opinions on his favourite city.
"I grew up and studied outside of Amsterdam, but 10 years before I became mayor, we decided to take a second house in Amsterdam. That is because my wife always said, "At least once, I want to live in Amsterdam." It was a great pleasure to be mayor of this city and I learned about Amsterdam through that role.
Amsterdam’s openness is based on history, when business demanded a practical acceptance of different types of people. That openness caused Amsterdam to become a magnet for all those who want to elaborate on the one thing that they are good at, no matter what it might be.
We are a small city: nobody outside the country believes it when you tell them there are less than one million inhabitants here. If you consider what is going on here - all the publishers, the artists, so much diverse music, and so many new businesses - it is unbelievable. I often think that most of the people living in Amsterdam do not realise how special that is.
Freedom and creativity
What is the essence of Amsterdam? Firstly, freethinking, and then, creativity. People come here because they say to themselves Here I have the room and freedom to do what I want so that I can develop into who I want to be. That feeling comes because nobody looks at you and thinks, What you are doing is strange. Whatever you do, people say, "No problem, go ahead - if you do not harm me, I do not care what you do."
It is the freethinking that makes the creativity possible; it becomes acceptable to do something out of the ordinary. On top of that, of course, you have to earn your money, so that is when entrepreneurship emerges, to make valuable use of this creativity. The concepts of shares and shareholders were developed in Amsterdam in the 17th century so this idea of commerce and creating new business is an important part of Amsterdam’s history.
Amsterdam certainly has shaped my opinions, and the richness of all the possibilities constantly broadens your perspective. The city coerces you into thinking about yourself and what you really want to do, who you really want to be. That is because the city gives you those possibilities; it is difficult to avoid them.
There are definitely more tensions now than in the past among the various cultures in Amsterdam, tensions which are also being felt across Europe. You have to look wider to understand and address your own problems; for example, look at Germany and their difficulties with multiculturalism, how the Roma were ejected from France, the row in the USA about the mosque near Ground Zero… Tensions between different groups in society are bigger than they used to be.
But coming back to Amsterdam: it is more difficult now for all kinds of minorities, like Jews or homosexuals, to live in the city, and you see there is more separation between minority groups than there was back in 2001. Those are trends that have to be stopped; they’re simply not in line with the real meaning of the city.
The media have their part to play in this. Often they say it is only Moroccans and Turks causing the problems, but that is not true - it is an exaggeration. I always remind myself that the media is there to sell the story and newspapers, not to represent any cause.
It is simply difficult to take a step towards "different" people: Het vreemde vinden wij vreemd (We find strange things strange.) It is sadly a very true cliché, and not one I like at all.
I believe firmly in tolerance, respect and a kind of openness. We always have to exchange views - it does not mean we have to agree, and you can be very clear about those differences - but in doing so, you have to keep a tone of respect and perspective.
New life to the city
My favourite view in Amsterdam was from my office in the City Hall. It was quite special; you could see the centuries-old Amsterdam houses and look across the Amstel river at the cosy cafés alongside it.
Everybody finds the canals beautiful, but, in a different way, the new buildings in the former harbour around Oosterdokseiland and Westerdokseiland are just as impressive. Those are redevelopments of old industrial areas to create new, thriving districts - they draw architects from around the world to come and learn. The 17th-century houses are beautiful, but the houses built in the past 20 years are also having an impressive effect on the city.
I am happy to see the profile of visitors is changing - less of those beer drinkers, the ones spending all their money in the coffee shops! It is clear that a lot of visitors are going not only to the Red Light District, but also to the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum. It is not either / or.
Amsterdam is simply different to any other capital, and to the rest of the Netherlands. I often said to the Queen that I was president of the Republic of Amsterdam in the kingdom of the Netherlands! She always smiled at that…”
Part of this interview with former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen has previously been published in "Amsterdam... The Essence," by David Beckett.
Photography by Joost van Manen
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