Ivan De Luce
The Strange History of Amsterdam Street Names
My old street in Amsterdam, Pierre Lallementstraat, can hardly be called a street. It’s more of an open alleyway that leads to a courtyard. My old apartment building, a modern, pearl-white student housing behemoth, is one of only two addresses there. In fact, my building is so large it needs two separate front entrances.
Pierre Lallementstraat is named after Pierre Lallement, the inventor of the bicycle. This is highly appropriate considering the Netherlands is a land of bikes. But this tiny backstreet didn’t seem to deserve such a fascinating name. Then again, it seems as if every street in Amsterdam is named after someone. Coming from New York, with our numbered grid system, I’m not used to streets being named after anything. But in Amsterdam, there’s no grid. But there is a President Kennedylaan, a Churchill-laan, and even a President Allendelaan, named after the Chilean Marxist who was overthrown in a coup with the help of the CIA on September 11, 1973. As Social Democrats, the Dutch presumably saw him as a victim of injustice when they christened the street five months later.
There are other streets, too — ones named after Beethoven, Hans Holbein, Richard Wagner, Chopin, Rubens, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bach, Jan van Eyck, Titian, and Botticelli. And those are all within blocks of each other. My neighbourhood, in Watergraafsmeer, is composed of streets named after engineers. James Wattstraat runs along the front of my building. At least engineers are more interesting than grids of numbers.
Amsterdam’s street names started out like many old European streets — they were named after things that happened there, or after some unique feature about the location. But after the 1850s, as the city encroached on the countryside, the Dutch decided to come up with seemingly unrelated names. After 1870, cities began commemorating people by naming streets after them, especially in France.
While Holland was late to this practice, it made up for it by giving every conceivable figure a street named after them. There’s even a Lord of the Rings-themed neighbourhood in the town of Geldrop — take a right onto Laan van Tolkien, and soon you’ll walk along Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, and more dwarf streets than you can imagine.
But back to our friend Pierre. He seemed to have nothing to do with Amsterdam or the Netherlands, but they obviously owe a great to deal to him. He was born in France in 1843, and in his hometown of Nancy, in 1862, he saw someone riding a dandyhorse, an early version of the bicycle which had no pedals and required the rider to pedal with their feet, like a bike from The Flintstones. He added the chains and pedals soon after, and so the bike was born. He never received the recognition he deserved, however. A Frenchman named Pierre Michaux became known as the man who invented the velocipede, and he was the first to mass-produce them. Pierre L. was probably dismayed, so in 1865 he moved to Ansonia, Connecticut and filed a patent for his velocipede a year later. When he returned to France two years after that, bikes were all the rage, which must have infuriated him even more. Pierre Lallement died poor and forgotten in 1891 in Boston at age 47. Thanks to an investigation in 1993, Lallement, not Michaux, is known to have created the first modern bicycle. Thankfully, Michaux does not have any streets named after him. AQ