When Ellen Schindler saw her teenage sons cycle to secondary school into the metropolis of Rotterdam two years ago, she wondered: what do they actually know about the city? Of its origins, the people who built it – and that they themselves, as ‘city makers’, can contribute to it? Little, she guessed. While she sees in her work as general director of architectural firm De Zwarte Hond that the knowledge and involvement of residents are crucial for the success of construction projects.
Schindler, a fan of comic books, got the idea to use this form to tell the story of the city together with Rotterdammers and to offer it to students. The municipality was enthusiastic and gave a start-up grant. She asked architectural historian Michelle Provoost to come up with the historical line, and writer Abdelkader Benali for the connecting story. The twelve chapters have been developed by just as many artists, the ‘did you know that’ and history texts accompanying the comics come from historian Han van der Horst, the archive images of Rotterdam museums and the city archives.
Since this week Subway O1O in the shop, at the beginning of 2023, all Rotterdam first-year students will receive a copy, intended for citizenship and culture education. The story is about the 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 on the Rotte, and which the first ‘town makers’ try to protect against flooding by building a dam. When the dam threatens to collapse during a storm, they help to seal the hole – very cleverly – with a boat. Rotterdam has been saved.
A few leaps through time later, in 1653, they are standing 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, as if it were a supersonic submarine. That ship never sailed, but it did give Rotterdam a reputation as a center of innovation.
This is how the comic strip travels past milestones in history; we see Franny and Joey clearing the rubble after the bombing during the Second World War, and during the racial riots on the Afrikaanderplein, where residents demonstrate in 1972 for a better neighbourhood.
Gradually, the duo realizes that they can play a role in these events, and from that insight they fantasize with their friends about how they could shape the future city. One goes for complete greening, the other sees the city as a big playground, a third thinks that everything is going to hell. In the end, the teenagers see that all these aspects should be part of the ideal ‘inclusive’ city in which everyone participates.
‘If you get to know the city better, you will love it, and what you love, you take care of it’, urban planner Jeroen de Willigen writes in the book. ‘That’s what I want to achieve with the book’, says Schindler, ‘that residents, especially young people, feel involved in the city. By showing how you can improve the city in all sorts of ways: as a fisherman, bricklayer or cartoonist.’ ‘In other words: ‘You have a voice, use it!’
Schindler notices that cities at home and abroad are interested in the idea of a graphic novel as an ‘instrument’ for city makers. She wants to offer the opportunity to take over the concept from the foundation she founded. 75 percent of the proceeds from the book go to that foundation, and are used for new volumes of the book. The idea is to Subway O1O in any case, to give as a gift to first graders for five years.
Ellen Schindler: Subway 010; publisher nai010; €29.95.