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Cover Illustration: Johannes Vermeer, View of Houses in Delft, known as The Little Street

The Neighborhood as Social Network: Excerpt from The Little Street

The neighborhood takes center stage in Linda Stone-Ferrier‘s interdisciplinary study, The Little Street: The Neighborhood in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Culture. Engaging the work of Johannes Vermeer—from whose painting View of Houses in Delft, known as The Little Street, the book borrows its title—and other Dutch artists of the 1600s through the framework of the neighborhood, Stone-Ferrier argues for a paradigm shift in art historical scholarship. Rather than restricting her analysis to distinct genres and conceptual binaries, Stone-Ferrier extends her interpretive lens across image categories and disciplines in an unprecedented take on Dutch painting and the neighborhood in the seventeenth century.

Johannes Vermeer, View of Houses in Delft, known as The Little Street, c. 1658. Oil on canvas, 21 × 17¹⁄₈ in. (53.5 × 43.5 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Inv. no. SK-A-2860.

In the excerpted material from her new book, Stone-Ferrier characterizes the seventeenth-century Dutch neighborhood and its enduring legacy in the Netherlands today, discussing the relationship between art, ideals, and reality.

Historians and sociologists refer to the seventeenth-century Dutch neighborhood as a primary organizing unit in urban daily life. Neighborhoods functioned as “micro-societies” with a typically large degree of autonomy. Self-determined gebuyrten (neighborhood organizations) established buurtbrieven (neighborhood regulations) and chose administrators from among their members, who played mediatory roles. Various neighborhoods drafted their regulations and submitted them to their respective city governments for approval, although sometimes many years after the fact. Other cities had little, if any, oversight of neighborhoods.1

Neighborhood organizations uniformly shared goals of brotherhood, friendliness, and unity. A message of love and goodwill underlay their buurtbrieven. Such regulations, for example, address the promotion of “good peace and civil unity,” the “continuation of good neighborliness and the extension of friendship,” and the “preservation of the peace-loving neighborliness.” A neighborhood in The Hague called itself buurt der liefde (neighborhood of love). The Leiden burgomaster Jan Jansz. Orlers declared that even the members of the city government had the responsibility to ensure that “neighbors may reside and live in good unity and concord together.”2

Quirijn Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam, The Tailor’s Shop, 1661. Oil on panel, 26 × 20 7⁄₈ in. (66 × 53 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Inv. no. SK-C-112.

Above all, gebuyrten held members responsible for upholding their personal honor as well as that of their communities, which affected all residents—rich and poor. Neighborhoods fostered their goals through meetings and the typically annual communal meal. To further maintain neighborhood principles, residents intervened in each other’s lives to negotiate conflicts resulting from adultery, shabby housekeeping, territorial disputes due to crowding, and other issues. They also warned each other against wastefulness, drunkenness, cruelty, and other transgressions.3

In most cities, including Delft, Haarlem, Leiden, The Hague, Utrecht, and Rotterdam, residents officially organized themselves into neighborhoods according to their own free will, without governmental intervention or direction. As documented consistently in petitions to local governments and in buurtbrieven, the neighborhood consisted of a group of individuals who lived on the same street or in a designated area. Inclusiveness and social fluidity for all, including women and noncitizens, characterized the small communities.4

The presence and roles of diverse neighbors impacted everyone. Typically, the neighborhood formally required gebuyrten membership of all who resided within its geographically small jurisdiction, regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic circumstances, class, profession or trade, religion, nationality, citizenship, immigration status, or whether one owned or rented one’s house, cellar, or room. Some exceptions existed. In Utrecht, for example, those who resided in cellars and rooms lost their status as members of the neighborhood. Haarlem neighborhoods excluded indigent new émigrés. Jews and anyone perceived to have an unsavory reputation, unacceptable conduct, or both might be systematically excluded from membership in gebuyrten and, thus, participation in the communities’ social events.5

Jan Steen, The Leiden Baker Arent Oostwaard and His Wife Catharina Keizerswaard, 1658. Oil on panel, 14 7⁄₈ × 12³⁄₈ in. (37.7 × 31.5 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Inv. no. SK-A-390.

The neighborhood fostered daily discourse and social exchange that resulted in one of the most important means by which society maintained its stability. In an era of high mortality, a resident could not necessarily rely on a fixed number of family members in one’s household or on extended family who lived in the neighborhood. As a result, residents and immigrants, in particular, depended upon the reciprocal ties within the very households in which they found lodging and in the neighborhoods themselves, which provided critical assistance in various circumstances.

Many of the characteristic features and principles that distinguished seventeenth-century neighborhoods also typify their modern-day Netherlandish counterparts. The richness and centrality of current neighborhood life are reflected in the large number of contemporary Dutch terms and expressions with the root word “buur” (neighbor) or “buurt” (neighborhood). One may be a buur or buurman (male neighbor), buurvrouw (female neighbor), buurjongen (neighbor boy), buurmeisje (neighbor girl), or buurkind (neighbor’s child). Individuals may be overburen (neighbors across the street), achterburen (backyard neighbors), benedenburen (downstairs neighbors), or bovenburen (upstairs neighbors). Two or more people can have a buurpraatje (a neighborly chat or exchange of gossip) or buurschap houden (neighborly relations). A buurthuis (neighborhood house) is a community center. Burengerucht (neighbor noise) refers to loud sounds about which neighbors complain.6

In present-day neighborhoods, communal identity and the maintenance of individual as well as collective honor continue. Many of the same or similar neighborhood customs prevail today that earlier encouraged and facilitated glimpses, glances, and gossip. Out of idle curiosity as well as invested concern, residents continue to peer out open windows—often leaning forward on their windowsills— in order to peruse neighborhood activities on the street below.

Pieter de Hooch, Man Handing a Letter to a Woman in the Entrance Hall of a House, 1670. Oil on canvas, 26¾ × 23¼ in. (68 × 59 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest), Inv. no. SK-C-147.

Homage to such a long-lived neighborhood custom was paid with a one-story-tall painting on the exterior blank wall of a high-rise flat in the Schilderswijk neighborhood in The Hague. In the 1960s, flats replaced rows of older deteriorating houses. The very large image depicts two women together, who peer out an open window as they rest their forearms on the sill. A displaced female resident of a former house in the old neighborhood explained that the painted image was “‘a symbol of what it was like in the old days’ and the picture of the old women hanging out of the window ‘of how the people used to be.’”7

Jan Steen, Adolf and Catharina Croeser (formerly known as The Burgher of Delft and His Daughter), 1655. Oil on canvas, 32½ × 27 in. (82.5 × 68.5 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Inv. no. SK-A-4981.

In still other ways, contemporary Dutch residents perpetuate the custom of perusing neighborhood activities from inside their homes. Since the nineteenth century, a special mirror (spinnontje)—called a spying mirror in travelers’ journals—provides a reflected view of neighborhood street activities for a resident positioned just inside a dwelling’s window. Affixed to the street-side wall of a house or flat, the mirror extends out perpendicular to the surface and functions similar to an automobile’s side-view mirror. With such interest and attentiveness, neighbors may recognize the presence of new residents, temporary interlopers, and a range of quotidian or unusual activities in their midst. Like their seventeenth-century counterparts, modern residents also monitor the physical appearance of their shared neighborhood and may take alleviating matters into their own hands when neighbors fail to maintain the appearance of their property.

The seventeenth-century market demand for scenes of neighborhood life at the intersection of home and street reflects the widespread affirmation of that social network. They present pristine views of a neighborhood roadway, residents’ cheerful social exchange at open doors and windows, honorable neighborhood trades and professions, and life-cycle celebrations and communal gatherings mandated by neighborhood organizations. As such, the pictures offer exempla of idealized neighborhood life and discourse that perpetuated the tenets and authority of neighborhood organizations. Today, the sparkling visual appeal of such paintings, the varied and impressive artistry they exhibit, and the compelling social tenets they avow continue to engage us and resonate richly with our own diverse neighborhood experiences.

1. Herman Roodenburg, “‘Freundschaft,’ ‘Bruderlichkeit’ und ‘Einigkeit’: Städtische Nachbarschaften im Westen der Republik,” in Ausbreitung bürgerlicher Kultur in den Niederlanden und Nordwestdeutschland, ed. T. Dekker et al. (Münster: T. Coppenrath Verlag, 1991), 15; Herman Roodenburg, “Naar een etnografie van de vroegmoderne stad: de ‘gebuyrten’ in Leiden en Den Haag,” in Cultuur en maatschappij in Nederland 15001850. Een historisch-antropologisch perspectief, ed. Peter Burke et al. (Meppel & Heerlen: Boom & Open Universiteit, 1992), 224; Gabrielle Dorren, “Communities within the Community: Aspects of Neighbourhood in Seventeenth-Century Haarlem,” Urban History 25, no. 2 (August 1998): 177; Gabrielle Dorren, Eenheid en verscheidenheid. De burgers van Haarlem in de Gouden Eeuw (Amsterdam: Prometheus/Bert Bak, 2001), 73; Donald Haks, Huwelijk en gezin in Holland in de 17de en 18de eeuw: Processtukken en moralisten over aspecten van het laat 17de- en 18de-eeuwse gezinsleven, 2nd ed. (Utrecht: HES, 1985), 61.

2. Roodenburg, “Naar een etnografie,” 239–40; Roodenburg, “‘Freundschaft,’” 16; J. J. Orlers, Beschrijving der Stad Leyden (Leyden: Andries Jansz. Cloeting tot Delft and Abraham Commelijn tot Leyden, 1641), 77.

3. Dorren, “Communities,” 187–88.

4. Of those cities with gebuyrten, Leiden and The Hague have relatively well-maintained records; Roodenburg, “‘Freundschaft,’” 11, 20; Roodenburg, “Naar een etnografie,” 221–24, 233; Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly, “Neighborhood Social Change in Western European Cities,” International Review of Social History 38 (1993): 5; Dorren, Eenheid, 73–74; Dorren, “Communities,” 175, 180, 188n44; Maarten Prak, The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century: The Golden Age, trans. Dianne Webb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 164.

5. Roodenburg, “‘Freundschaft,’” 15; Llewellyn Bogaers, “Geleund over de onderdeur: Doorkijkjes in het Utrechtse buurtleven van de vroege middeleeuwen tot in de zeven-tiende eeuw,” Bijdragen en mededelingen betreffende de geschiedenis der Nederlanden 112 (1997): 357–59; Dorren, “Communities,” 173–74, 177, 187; Dorren, Eenheid, 73; Roodenburg, “Naar een etnografie,” 224, 235–36.

6. “The Neighborhood,” Hear Dutch Here.net, https://www.heardutchhere.net/lesson14.html#the_neighborhood.

7. Patricia van der Does, Sonja Edelaar, Imke Gooskens, Margreet Liefting, and Marije van Mierlo, “Reading Images: A Study of a Dutch Neighborhood,” Visual Sociology 7, no. 1 (1992): 19, 26.

From The Little Street: The Neighborhood in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Culture by Linda Stone-Ferrier. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.

Linda Stone-Ferrier is professor of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art in the Kress Foundation Department of Art History at the University of Kansas.

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