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The Hook

30 December 201702:29AMviking-raidtravel

It's one of those things you don't notice until someone points it out, but once they do you start to see it everywhere. Almost every building in the old part of Amsterdam has a sturdy metal hook jutting out from the roof above the footpath.

literal hooks

It took us a while to figure out what was going on, and we weren't certain until a tour guide mentioned it in passing. They're for lifting furniture up from the street and through the building's windows. Whenever you move house, you hook up a big old-fashioned winch and pulley, and you throw your couches and fridges out the windows in an orderly fashion. At your new place, you do the whole thing in reverse.

ropes and pulleys

So why not just take it up the staircase? Thanks to a quirky bit of Dutch taxation law, houses in the old part of Amsterdam tend to be very narrow. In the 17th century, housing taxes were based on the length of your street frontage, so to minimise your tax bill, you had to build tall and narrow. Narrow houses means narrow staircases, narrow staircases mean elaborate systems of pulleys.

narrow houses

These pulleys weren't originally built for fridges, of course. They were originally goods lifts, hoisting and storing the ill-gotten gains of the Dutch East India Company and Amsterdam's enormous merchant navy. In a glorious example of mixed-use zoning, most buildings also served as storage for trade goods. Human houses by night, merchant storage by day, these are considered the world's first were-houses.

...okay, I made that bit up. The were-house bit, I mean. The warehouse bit is totally legit.

This entire fiasco also helps explain, at least in part, why so many of these buildings are on a bit of a tilt. The side-to-side tilt is entirely accidental, but the forwards lean is not. It's so you can hoist your goods up to the top floor without bumping them into the facade.

I could go on in this vein pretty much indefinitely. Amsterdam, somewhat ironically given its international reputation, is a city of consequences. It is the way it is, and works the way it works, because of an unbroken chain of cause and consequence dating all the way back to the city's foundation.

And sure - what city isn't? But in Amsterdam's case they've resulted in something unique. Mercenary but not boring, and diverse but not diluted. Which, as much as you might like to, can't easily be replicated anywhere else.

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