The Real Rotterdammer Is From Elsewhere!

Words by Paul van de Laar & Peter Scholten. This piece was originally published on the LDE Port City Futures website.

Turkish dock worker with a colleague at Multi-Terminals (1980), Robert de Hartogh, Rotterdam.

A superdiverse city

The first Rotterdammers who built the prospective city’s first settlement around 1270 were not born in South-Holland. These migrants arrived there as the builders of a new settlement that offered them jobs and a future. Therefore, today’s superdiversity in Rotterdam is closely intertwined with the port city’s long migration history, and as such this story needs to be told. On 1 January 2022, approximately 54 percent of all Rotterdammers had a first- or second-generation migration background. That is why we can speak of Rotterdam as a ‘majority-minority city’, a city that for the majority consists of all kinds of different minority groups. A characteristic of Rotterdam is not only the share of Rotterdammers with a migration background, but also that the diversity within this group is large. 

Politicians often have a myopic, ahistorical vision on migration, as if today’s migration and problems of integration, social exclusion, and marginalization of substantial groups of minorities differ fundamentally from what the world witnessed in the past. Even in pre-industrial societies, mobility of people was the norm and not the exception. In that respect, post-war migration processes are not fundamentally different from older migration patterns. This does not mean, however, that we as authors are naive and think that lessons from the past can be directly applied to issues that play a role in the present or in the future, as historically dominant migration narratives and developments in Rotterdam also illustrate. 

The working city and the legacy of Bouman and Bouman

The most convincing migration narrative of Rotterdam was presented by P.J. Bouman and W.H. Bouman in their seminal 1952 book De groei van de grote werkstad (The Growth of the Great Working City). Their book echoed that Rotterdam’s success story was based on the working ethos of the 19th-century laborers who had migrated to the city during the Agrarian Depression (1873-1896). As such, the book voiced the major contributions of the offspring of rural-urban migrants. These people rebuilt the city after the fatal German bombardment in May 1940, and subsequently shouldered together to shape the petroleum port that turned Rotterdam into the largest port worldwide in 1962. The port industries generated many jobs and port companies started recruiting guest workers, first from Italy and Spain, later from Turkey and Morocco. 

Around 1970, the great working city had become a city in doubt. In the wake of the oil crisis of 1973, Rotterdam remained the largest port in the world, but the transshipment of oil and chemical products reached a saturation point. Because the port no longer functioned as the ‘working horse’ of the Dutch economy, the number of jobs in the maritime industries shrank. The port economy of the 1970s and 1980s offered too little jobs for the often low-skilled guest workers. The socio-cultural conditions under which the guest workers lived proved to be a test case for Rotterdam’s social welfare politics as well. They often rented rooms in boarding houses in working-class neighborhoods, which were built at the turn of the 20th century during the migration peak. Most areas were in desperate need of urban renovation, but not prioritized by the local government. Dissatisfied residents, themselves second- or third-generation migrants who had benefited from the welfare state during the 1960s and could afford to move, left the city. Those who stayed could not escape from miserable housing conditions and complained about the disintegration of socio-cultural homogeneity, because of the settlement of new guest workers. This new reality presented a major challenge for the city government. Therefore, the Afrikaanderwijk riots in 1972 became a turning point in Rotterdam’s integration policies. 

A laboratory of integration

From the 1970s onwards, the port city struggled with the integration of its guest workers, their families and the question of how these new Rotterdammers could find a place in society. The increase in the number of migrants in the 1980s, the high unemployment rates and unsatisfactory housing conditions created an unprecedented challenge. Rotterdam embraced experimental policy paths during the 1980s and 1990s, and became a laboratory for innovative integration policies that were mainly guided by socio-economic themes: work, education and housing. Cultural integration of minorities was not (yet) a major issue. On the contrary, from 1998-2002, multiculturalism became one of the official hallmarks of Rotterdam’s new urban identity. However, multiculturalism proved not to be an ideal model for Rotterdam. Policymakers failed to embed their idealism in its historical context and relate the changing socio-cultural structure of Rotterdam to a convincing and appealing migration narrative, as Bouman and Bouman had done before. In fact, the public discourse on integration presented a tilted narrative, in which the migration history of the working and port city of Rotterdam was incompatible with post-1960 migration movements. The guest workers and their families shared the same social classes as the Dutch with a migration background, but differed in ethnic, cultural and religious traditions, which were considered to be insurmountable. This gave opponents of multiculturalism an opportunity to attribute all that went wrong in the city to people with a migration background. This culminated in the rise of Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing politician, whose Livable Rotterdam party’s election campaign focused on the failures of integration policies, with anti-Islamic rhetoric as a trump card. 

Superdiversity: challenge for a new narrative

Since the ‘political and policy turn’ against multiculturalism, the city government has launched a different policy. Ignoring Rotterdam’s own migration history, the emphasis has been placed on assimilation of citizens instead of integration, steered by the powerful hand of the city government. The accompanying action program, “Towards a city in balance”, demonstrated a clear intention to reduce the influx of poor migrants. The Dutch government followed suit, introducing the “Act on Extraordinary Measures for Urban Problems” in 2005 at Rotterdam’s instigation (which is why it is commonly called the “Rotterdam Act”). The law excluded residents by socio-economic status and regulated the duration of settlement. In 2006, Rotterdam additionally introduced “The Rotterdam Code”, which stipulated that Dutch should be used as the common language. Attempts to impose social and cultural norms thus became more visible. However, they were not necessarily more effective in shaping an inclusive city. 


When Bouman and Bouman published their migration narrative in the mid-20th century, there was consensus on the fact that it takes two or three generations to become ‘a real Rotterdammer’. Their empirical evidence witnessed the problems migrants faced in coming to terms with their new society, in particular rural-urban migrants who had escaped the countryside at the end of the 19th century. Marginalization, discrimination and exclusion were not minor issues for these people, but they all became Rotterdammers in the end. This is also the social reality of today’s superdiverse Rotterdam. Integration cannot be enforced in a superdiverse city. Acknowledging this starts with recognizing that Rotterdam is not just a port and a modern skyline city, but first and foremost a city shaped by centuries of migration. Rotterdam’s inhabitants are often not aware of this. A historically mirrored perspective helps to awaken people’s open-mindedness in better understanding the essence of Rotterdam as a city of migration. In the end, we are all Rotterdammers.  

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This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the authors and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Carola Hein, and Vincent Baptist.