When Ellen Schindler saw her teenage sons cycling to high school in the metropolis of Rotterdam two years ago, she wondered: What do they really know about the city? Of its origins, the people who built it – and that they themselves as ‘city makers’ can contribute to it? Small, she guessed. While in her work as general manager of the architectural firm De Zwarte Hond, she sees that the residents’ knowledge and involvement are crucial for the success of building projects.
Schindler, a fan of comics, got the idea to use this form to tell the story of the city together with Rotterdammers and offer it to students. The municipality was enthusiastic and gave a start-up grant. She asked the architectural historian Michelle Provoost to come up with the historical line, and the author Abdelkader Benali for the coherent story. The twelve chapters are developed by as many artists, ‘did you know’ and story texts that accompany the comics come from the historian Han van der Horst, the archival images from the Rotterdam museums and the city archives.
Since this week Subway O1O in the store, at the beginning of 2023, all Rotterdam first-year students will receive a copy, intended for citizenship and cultural education. The story is about Rotterdam teenagers Franny and Joey, who meet on a blind date, after which they are thrown back in time through a tunnel during a subway ride. They end up in the year 1270, in the settlement that then arose at Rotten, and which the first ‘city builders’ try to protect against floods by building a dam. When the dam threatens to collapse during a storm, they help seal the hole – very cleverly – with a boat. Rotterdam has been saved.
A few leaps in time later, in 1653, they stand in front of the Malle Schip, as the people of Rotterdam called the wonderful vessel that the French charlatan Jean Duson presented to the Boompjes, which was a supersonic submarine. That ship never sailed, but it gave Rotterdam a reputation as a center of innovation.
This is how the comic travels past milestones in history; we see Franny and Joey clearing the rubble after the Second World War bombing and during the race riots on Afrikaanderplein, where residents demonstrated in 1972 for a better neighborhood.
Gradually, the duo realizes that they can play a role in these events, and based on that insight, they fantasize with their friends about how they could shape the city of the future. One goes for complete greening, another sees the city as a big playground, a third believes that everything is going to hell. Ultimately, the teenagers see that all these aspects must be part of the ideal ‘inclusive’ city where everyone participates.
‘If you get to know the city better, you will love it, and what you love, you take care of,’ writes urban planner Jeroen de Willigen in the book. ‘This is what I want to achieve with the book’, says Schindler, ‘that residents, especially young people, feel involved in the city. By showing how to improve the city in all possible ways: as a fisherman, bricklayer or cartoonist.’ ‘In other words: ‘You have a voice, use it!’
Schindler notes that cities at home and abroad are interested in the idea of a graphic novel as an ‘instrument’ for city builders. She wants to offer the opportunity to take over the concept from the foundation she founded. 75 percent of the profit from the book goes to that fund, and is used for new volumes of the book. The idea is to Subway O1O at least to give as a gift to first owners for five years.
Ellen Schindler: Subway 010; publisher nai010; €29.95.