By Laura van der Laan
Middelburg is typically considered a rather ordinary, safe, and peaceful place to live; quaint markets, music, coffee stands, and ‘terrasjes’ paint Middelburg as the cozy city that it is. In fact, there are very few instances of crime or drama—and residents generally continue to live in a state of tranquility, hard work, and day-to-day business/activities. However, many are unaware of Middelburg’s historical past, the days in which the city saw much more life and movement, the continuous stream of sailors and the chatter of businessmen, big money, and well, prostitution. An interview with Professor Tobias van Gent of University College Roosevelt, a historian and author of a book on Middleburg’s history, provided insight into the darker past of one of the most prestigious and luxurious streets in the town of Middelburg, the Spanish Street.
The Spanish Street is currently considered one of the most desired places to live, and is home to quite a few UCR professors and important Middelburg residents. A beautiful collection of townhomes line both sides of the narrow Spanish Street, directly behind Abbey Square; most doors are painted with glossy dark green paint and small decorations, and behind each house is a small garden. However, in the 17th century, the street was far from clean and prestigious; cautious parents asked their children to avoid the alley on their ways to school, and locals deemed it the “slum of Middelburg.” During this time, Middelburg was the 2nd largest harbor town and trade was very prominent. The Spanish street was particularly prone to crime and prostitution and housed several brothels, which were often used by lonely sailors and Spanish merchants, many of which had undergone long months of travel from the Indies and pocketed large sums of money, just waiting to be spent. Professor van Gent translated a 16th century local law legislated to the Spanish street, stating “It is allowed to kiss and hug in the Spanish street,” a subtle hint towards the street’s true activities.
The Spanish Street remained the slum of Middelburg for quite some time, and prostitution remained in practice for quite some time until the entire street underwent renovations. Professor van Gent cites a Kracht Wijken study, explaining that renovation can completely transform the state and conditions of an area. In fact, paying particular attention to health, style, and atmosphere, as well as schooling and safety regulations, has enormous power in delegating the future of a run-down area. Likewise, after renovations, the dark Spanish street became one of the most popular and expensive streets to live in, with little indication of its much more complex past.
For those who wish to know more, Professor van Gent is very knowledgeable in the quite interesting past of Middelburg. The story of Spanish Street goes to show that Middelburg is much more than the quiet old town it is today—one can find a large array of stories hidden in monuments and homes, providing those who look with a bit of insight into how it all used to be.
Laura van der Laan is a Law major from Orinda, California.