Review by Wayne Swanson •
Every city has one — that neighborhood “everybody” knows to stay away from. It’s too rough, or too hostile, or too unsafe, or just too different in some way or another. For Arnhem, a medium-sized Dutch city near the eastern border with Germany, that neighborhood is Rijnwijk.
This insular 100-year-old working-class district is set apart from its neighbors by a gate. Outsiders seldom ventured through it, due to the area’s reputation as a sketchy, bare-knuckled place out of Oliver Twist or Peaky Blinders, with many of its residents on the dole.
It also happens to be located on prime real estate along the banks of the Rhine, making it a thorn in the side of the city government. In 2004 the city announced an urban renewal plan to replace the people and their homes with new apartments and office buildings. Most Rijnwijk residents have been forced out. But 13 families have refused to leave.
Dutch photographer Erik van Cuyk has been fascinated by Rijnwijk since he was a child. “I heard the strangest stories about the neighborhood next to mine,” van Cuyk says. “I was curious and started to document the people before it has been vanished.” In 2017 he began going through the gate, and he spent the next year getting to know the place and the remaining residents. “I started loving these people and wanted to give them a present by making a proper document on their lives and neighborhood.”
The result is Rijnwijk Mijn wijk (my district), a warm portrait of a group of people often looked upon as outcasts. Van Cuyk makes the point that Dutch society is known for order, cleanliness, and the urge to meet social standards and be successful. Rijnwijk did not live up to those expectations. He acknowledges that the area had been something of a war zone over the years, and now a lot of it is abandoned. Even so, if you’re expecting scenes of violence or squalor, you won’t find these here.
Rather than documenting what is gone, van Cuyk focuses on what’s left. He captures atmospheric scenes of daily life and portraits of the remaining residents. And it all looks rather nice and homey, if a bit worn.
Van Cuyk makes well-composed found-still-life photos from the mundane elements of domestic life. The settings may be a bit tattered, but everything is surprisingly neat and clean (compared to many urban neighborhoods in the U.S.). He carefully pairs the images on each spread so elements in one play off the other in interesting ways.
His portraits of the residents, printed sideways and filling entire 2-page spreads, treat his subjects with simple dignity. These are neatly groomed folks you’d be happy to meet on the street.
The images hardly fit the rough-and-tumble reputation of the area. Van Cuyk acknowledges that reputation, but he also notes that the honesty and warmth of the people he met is what has stayed with him. Van Cuyk is more interested in documenting a proud community before it is gone forever.
Rijnwijk Mijn wijk captures the last days of a nonconformist neighborhood without patronizing or pitying it. Van Cuyk’s other takeaway, which sadly is still surprising in today’s world, is that the “other,” wherever they may live, are pretty much like us, if we just get to know them.
Rijnwijk Mijn wijk, Erik van Cuyk
Photographer: Erik van Cuyk resides Arnhem, Netherlands
Self-published: Erik van Cuyk Arnhem, NL, copyright 2019
Essay: Erik van Cuyk
Hardcover book with dust jacket, sewn binding, four-color lithography, printed in Netherlands
Photobook designer: Margot Wolters