Looking at Rotterdam through the lens of the West Side Story

Iris van den Broek

What do Rotterdam and the musical West Side Story from 1961 have in common? At first glance, maybe not that much. But according to prof.dr. Emese von Bóné (ESE) and prof.dr. Paul van de Laar (ESHCC) there are many similarities. “Rotterdam and New York are both multicultural cities with a lot of immigrants. The Musical West Side Story shows that same diversity.  And music has the gift of bringing people together, that could help achieving inclusion in Rotterdam."

Paul van de Laar adds that since Rotterdam developed its new docks across the river and started to build Rotterdam South, this area has been framed as place of otherness where the poor migrants and dock workers settled. “The river Maas is then not just a physical barrier which is easy to cross, but a mental barrier. The differences between Rotterdam North and South can be used as a metaphor to express social, cultural and ethnic differences. This is exactly what the West Side Story expresses.”

The role of music in communication and tolerance

“We live in the age of emotions and that makes communication troublesome. Words matter of course, but sometimes in issues of societal debate, they may complicate communication. Music and dance - an ideal combination - are powerful ways to guide our emotions.” Emese adds that Music is a language on its own, it’s less direct than words.

Iris van den Broek

"West Side Story shows us that there’s a delicate balance between success and failure"

“Rotterdam South is a city of arrival.” Mentioned Van de laar. “And to find your way in Rotterdam and to climb the social ladder you need all your talents. There are a lot of talented people living in Rotterdam South but how do you tap these talents? Which problems face young adults in these parts of Rotterdam?”

And that’s where the West Side Story comes into play. “The musical shows us that there’s a delicate balance between success and failure and this depends on the social and cultural conditions in vulnerable neighbourhoods. Group pressure can be a major obstacle to escape from the existing conditions. It requires strength and courage to break through those group processes. The problems the musical addresses are of all times and the fact that New York restages the musical and adapts it to new social and cultural circumstances shows how its relevance. It would be great to stage a Rotterdam version.“

Port cities have a certain reputation

An example of a theme from the West Side Story related to Rotterdam is the crime rate in Rotterdam South. Emese von Bóné: “That’s why the district-court of Rotterdam installed a community-court in a multicultural neighbourhood with a high crime rate in Rotterdam South, a pilot conform the community-court in New York.”

“People really believe that parts of Rotterdam South are a no-go area. But compared to other districts in port cities in Europe or elsewhere, Rotterdam has a better track record.” Says Paul van de Laar. “However, port cities have a reputation of being cities on the edge, unloved within the nation and they really had to work very hard to improve their images. Rotterdam has been successful, but the city remains vulnerable to external shocks. The Covid-19 crisis has shown the vulnerability of the population to unexpected setbacks."

The right way to inclusion and diversity via the music of the West Side Story

Emese and Paul took this subject as the theme for a multidisciplinary Summer School, which takes place in August 2021 and is open for all students of the Erasmus University Rotterdam and other universities in the Netherlands. Emese: “Diversity and inclusion play an important role at Erasmus University Rotterdam. This Summer School will elaborate on diversity and inclusion from historical, legal/musical, sociological and economical perspectives.”

More information

Summer School for students of all universities


Subjects that will be discussed during this summer school are diversity in the labor market a taxation for women and families. Students will visit the practice of a prosecutor of the district-court of Rotterdam, who is the first prosecutor with a Turkish background at the district-court of Rotterdam. He will explain how crime is prosecuted in Rotterdam. An art-director from Codarts will work with students on how to make a script based on this theme, in connection to Rotterdam. And students will discover the creative city of Rotterdam.

Interested to participate? Please send an email to sign up: Emese von Bone (vonbone@law.eur.nl) and Paul van de Laar (vandelaar@eshcc.eur.nl).
Or
First read all about the Summer School online.

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