Home English Interview: Students’ legacy in Nijmegen

During the first few months of the academic year, the city slowly fills up with students from all over the country. Dolly Verhoeven, former professor in the History of Nijmegen, talks about how the student community of Nijmegen contributes to the character of the city. ‘They determined the leftist image of Nijmegen.’

‘This is an extremely beautiful place’, Dolly Verhoeven says, while seated in the centre of cultural history of Nijmegen, which is located in De Bastei on the Waalkade. ‘This is the spot where the Romans founded the city and at the same time you can see the Waalbrug. For many people from Nijmegen, that bridge feels like coming home.’ Verhoeven wrote this, and other sentiments the inhabitants of the city share, down in her book Het Nijmegengevoel, which literally translates to ‘The Nijmegen feeling’. To write this book, Verhoeven spoke to 44 public figures from Nijmegen. She wanted to describe what characterises the city on the river Waal has according to the inhabitants themselves. The result is a diverse profile of the city in which ten distinct aspects of identity are highlighted, from its Catholic community to its inclusive character.

Now that new students are moving into the city, the question about what they are going to mean for the city on the Waal arises. Even today, the students strongly contribute to Nijmegen’s vibe. ‘They make the city lively and dynamic’, Verhoeven says. From De Bastei she explains the interaction between students, other inhabitants and the city.

On a mission

Fourteen years ago, Verhoeven took office as professor by special appointment in History of the city of Nijmegen at the Radboud University (RU). ‘I was asked for this function because I had job experience with translating academic historical research to a broader audience’, she explains. This fit well with the assignment she received: to further connect the academic community with the city.

At face value, Verhoeven was not the most obvious choice to fulfil this role in this city. As someone originally from Apeldoorn, she was fairly unknown with both the historical environment and Nijmegen itself. ‘Luckily, I felt very welcomed by the local historians’, she remembers affectionately. ‘They immediately told me that they would always be willing to help if I wanted to set something up.’ This warm welcome delivered Verhoeven her first personal, heartwarming Nijmegen feeling. 

The motto of the city points to the importance of this long history: Old city, young vibe.

She fulfilled her role with great passion for the rich history of Nijmegen. ‘There are so many stories to tell here’, she says, with a twinkle in her eyes. The old Roman founding, Charlemagne’s partiality towards Nijmegen and the German city rights are only a small selection out of the fascinating history of the city. What especially speaks to her, is that the local historians and the municipality always concern themselves with the history of Nijmegen in a prideful way. The motto of the city already points to the importance of this long history: Old city, young vibe.

Prominent predicate

According to Verhoeven, the story of the RU is one of the most important for contemporary Nijmegen. ‘The University and its students gave an enormous impulse to the Catholic character of the city’, Verhoeven explains. Before the university was founded, the deciding majority was mainly protestant. ‘They rightly feared that the university would transform the city into a Catholic stronghold’, she says, chuckling. Therefore, the founding of the Catholic University of Nijmegen only passed the local council with a small majority. ‘This had its consequences’, the historian explains. ‘From the beginning, the university has attracted many Catholic students, Fathers and nuns to study here’, she states. Some Catholic students who stayed in the city after their studies, became powerful figures. In this way, the RU formed the Catholic character of the city. While Nijmegen is not as strongly Catholic as before, her Catholic history can still be found in countless institutions and street names. For example, a community centre, a research group, and a primary school were named after Titus Brandsma, who was recently proclaimed a Saint. 

The leftist student’s mark on the city was not congruent with the real character of the city.

Wild hair

According to the former professor by special appointment, the generations of students who became active in the city during the seventies and eighties formed a new image of Nijmegen. ‘The leftist image of the city was partly formed because of the activism they engaged in’, she says. According to Verhoeven, students regularly marched through the streets while protesting and loudly made their opinions known. For example, during the squatter’s riots in the Piersonstraat. The local women’s movement, which was led by students, organised women’s cafes in working-class neighbourhoods.

During the research she did for her book Het Nijmegengevoel, Verhoeven concluded that this leftist student’s mark on the city was not congruent with the real character of the city. ‘Not all the women in the working-class neighbourhoods were happy with activist students who wanted to emancipate them’, she explains. ‘The majority of people in Nijmegen were more conservative and did not care for a revolutionary system change.’ This is also seen in local politics: the Labour Party (PvdA) only surpassed the Christian Democrats (CDA) in 1986. 

The political move to the left is still present. ‘Nijmegen is a city made up of higher educated people, and they regularly vote more left-leaning than average’, she explains. This can still be seen today: lower educated people in working-class neighbourhoods more often voted for the local City Party (Stadspartij Nijmegen) during the municipal election. ‘During the national elections, those are the neighbourhoods where more people vote for Wilders and Forum for Democracy’, verhoeven analyses. In the city centre, where more highly educated people live, the Greens (GroenLinks) are more popular.

Stronger Image

The historian sees that the discrepancy between the politically divided Nijmegen and the leftist image of Nijmegen lead to a dichotomy which persists until today. ‘University staff members and students find themselves in a privileged position. They often have a good future perspective and the possibility to influence their lives’, she explains. People who are not part of this higher educated environment often don’t recognise themselves in the image which is associated with Nijmegen and its inhabitants. ‘I have interviewed people who told me: “Being in a city where bicycles are important is all fine and dandy, but because of all the traffic lights in the Sint Annastraat it takes a lot longer to get to the city centre!”’. According to Verhoeven, this group of inhabitants has more financial problems than the more leftist highly educated, who have more time and energy to pursue their ideals. ‘There really are divided worlds and because of that, multiple Nijmegens’, Verhoeven says. 

The idealism among the academically educated contributes to the welcoming vibe.

However, the highly educated group has been gaining the upper hand, Verhoeven explains. ‘The image of the city amplifies itself. People who identify with that will then also move to Nijmegen’, she explains. Those people will also intensify the character of Nijmegen. Even before the layout of the local council was changed, the image that Nijmegen was a leftist city existed. That attracted certain people, and because of their vote, the political center of gravity was moved to the left. ‘In turn, that influenced how the community was organised’, Verhoeven says. 

An oil spill of idealism

Verhoeven sees that the leftist, liberal student still exerts its influence on the city to this day, but less regularly takes to the streets. ‘This is not as simple as in the eighties, because then it was mostly highly educated graduates. Because of the high unemployment rate at that time, they had the time to express their opinions.’ The contemporary student in Nijmegen mostly leaves its mark through economic means: according to Verhoeven, they more often follow a vegetarian diet or buy second-hand stuff. ‘That diffuses like an oil spill through their circles’, she explains. This tendency is noticeable in the growing vegetarian catering industry in Nijmegen, for example. 

Verhoeven thinks that the idealism among the academically educated contributes to the welcoming vibe the city shows newcomers. During migration crises, the university shows a helping hand by developing educational programs, for example. This tone can be found in the rest of the city, according to Verhoeven. ‘When I asked the public figures at which moments they were proud to be from Nijmegen, they told me that they primarily felt this way when the city opened itself up to refugees.’ From De Bastei, one can see that this mentality is even represented on the columns of the characteristic Waalbrug: ‘Refugees welcome’. ‘The open character and hospitable attitude really come through in Nijmegen’, Verhoeven concludes.

‘It becomes more fun to live here when you understand the appearance of Nijmegen.’

Student-like acquaintance

In her work and her book, Verhoeven shows how the students in Nijmegen have contributed to the rich history of the city. Whether she has, in her role as professor by special appointment, made this whole group acquainted with the city’s history, she does not know for sure. ‘I think that would be too presumptuous’, Verhoeven says, laughing. However, she is convinced that the students and other newcomers can become acquainted with the city on their own initiative. ‘It becomes more fun to live here when you understand the appearance and the vibe of Nijmegen’, she contends passionately. ‘When you walk past the swing on the Raadhuisplein and know that it is there to remind us of the victims of the bombing in 1944, you never walk past that place in the same way.’ According to Verhoeven, you can see Nijmegen’s heritage everywhere in the streetscape. ‘Because of this, every newcomer can connect with the history of Nijmegen in their own way’, she concludes, satisfied. 

Professor dr. Dolly Verhoeven is professor by special appointment at the Radboud Institute for Culture and History and specialised in the local and regional history of the Province of Gelderland. At this moment, she is working to make the history of Gelderland known to a more broad audience. She works with museums, the university, businesses and authorities. She leads the project Story of Gelderland (Verhaal van Gelderland) which is making a new overview of the history of Gelderland from the prehistory until today. 

This article was published in Dutch on the 25th of August 2022.

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