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Originally published Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 3:04 AM

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Russell Shorto’s ‘Amsterdam’: the roots of a tolerant city

Russell Shorto’s “Amsterdam” looks at the history, politics and spirit of what is arguably the world’s most liberal city.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City’

by Russell Shorto

Doubleday, 354 pp., $28.95

This finely spun and illuminating history of Amsterdam explores both a city and an idea. And writer Russell Shorto is well-positioned to investigate both.

He’s an American who has lived in Amsterdam for the last five years.

He’s also the author of “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America,” a book examining how American diversity and a significant portion of American freedoms had their roots in the colonial settlement on Upper New York Bay more than 400 years ago.

“Amsterdam,” in a sense, picks up where “Island” left off, by giving a millennium-long overview of the country that was the source for the values of colonial New Amsterdam. Shorto has an ardent appetite for understanding all he can about his new home, and he’s especially alert to how the physical fabric of Amsterdam’s city center holds the memories of figures and events from centuries past.

He starts 1,000 years ago with the physical creation, through drainage and dam building, of the land where Amsterdam is now sited. He then moves through the Netherlands’ wars against Spanish rule and its years of religious strife.

He dwells on the Golden Age of the 1600s, when the ever-expanding city produced artists and thinkers who still astound us — Rembrandt and Spinoza, to name just two — and when, for better or worse, it invented the world’s first speculation-driven (and crash-susceptible) publicly traded stock market. During these glory days, when the city was a center of free speech that gave refuge to dissidents from other countries, an estimated half of all the books published in the world in the 17th century were published in the Netherlands.

Shorto also chronicles the decline of the city in the 18th century following destructive wars with Britain, the disastrous Nazi occupation during World War II and the turn the city took in the 1960s when, as one Dutch writer observes, “The counterculture became Amsterdam’s dominant culture.” The book brings things up to the present day, when debates over multiculturalism and assimilation are tense and unresolved, especially when it comes to the country’s Muslim immigrants.

Through all these glories, disasters and moments of cultural drift, the notion of what’s “liberal” (a word that over the centuries, Shorto notes, has been “mercilessly pulled in various directions”) was taking shape. Shorto cannily locates the conservative strain in Dutch character (“better to legalize and regulate an activity that will happen anyway”) that gave rise to what the rest of the world sees as the liberal door thrown wide open, whether you’re talking policies governing birth control, prostitution, gay rights or access to drugs.

Where did this hybrid of freedom, tolerance and pragmatism come from? Shorto believes there’s one answer: water. In working together to create land literally from scratch, the Dutch naturally developed a strong communal spirit. At the same time, that land belonged to its creators individually, in marked contrast to other European countries where feudal systems applied. One consequence: Far less of an aristocratic-authoritarian hand steered Dutch economic and government policy.

Shorto is a marvelous picture painter in words as he makes these points. And that makes “Amsterdam” a pleasure to savor on many levels.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

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