Sometimes an island pops up in an unexpected spot.
In the hectic city centre of Rome, the Tiber splits in two to create space for an island: Isola Tiberina. Just as in the rest of the Eternal City, this islet is steeped in legendary anecdotes. It abounds in spectacle and horrors that dull its true history.
Isola Tiberina is moored like a ship in a bend of the river, the concrete stem riveted to one of Ponte Garibaldi’s piles.
Myths speak of Tarquinus Superbus as the central figure of the island’s genesis. Farmers threw their corn harvests in the River Tiber, furious at the iniquitous policy of their ruler. However, the stream of the river did not carry away the corn, but held it in one place and thereby formed Isola Tiberina. A more bloodthirsty version describes that not corn was thrown in the river, but the body of Tarquinius. Sludge and plants stuck to the corpse, which grew into an island.
The truth is not as sinister. Like all of Rome, the island consists of volcanic rock.
People in transit wrote a large part of the history of this urban island. Refugees, immigrants, newcomers, departees, fortune seekers, expatriates, pipe-dreamers, visionaries, castaways, outcasts, illegals, emigrants, wayfarers, wanderers and exiles, they all left a story behind.
Migrants from all over Europe travelled to Antwerp between 1873 and 1934 for the crossing on one of the Red Star Line ships, that docked in the Rijnkaai. Because the shipping company had to pay the return voyage for emigrants rejected on Ellis Island, the immigration law was strictly controlled (“no idiots, cripples, infectious sick persons, criminals and pregnant women”). In what is now the Red Star Line museum, the medical checks were carried out. Off to the promised land or otherwise stay behind in the the dregs of society.
‘t Eilandje used to be called Nieuwstad (‘new city’). It’s located between the Scheldt, Kattendijk and three large docks. If all bridges and locks are open, it is still an island.
The island spells its own poetry. I do not mean the ‘Kaaiengedicht’, a poem written by Antwerp dwellers about the river Scheldt that runs along the quays like a typewriter ribbon. This new poem writes itself. While walking, you travel through unfinished urbanity. Temporariness on the move. As a current visitor you are not a tourist, but a discoverer of painted images, of buildings and destinations under construction. They come your way unprepared, you can’t know them from any travel guide, and this rough version will only remain for a while. You connect the many street artworks. Today’s Antwerp island is at odds with the one of the past.
The island itself has also been in transit during the centuries. The district began its existence in the 16th century as an ingenious, impoldered part of the harbour within the city walls. It grew into a flourishing port until the beginning of the 20th century, moved from the 1960s towards abandonment and decline, and blossomed into new prosperity in the 21st century.
We walk along giants from the past. There is colour in the row of 12, but they do better in black and white, in the heavy iron and immeasurable power of construction and technological ingenuity. Monumental and industrial, you feel dwarfed in their shadows.
Year after year, they were pivotal in the harbour’s activity. They came alive with freezing dock water. They nodded and toiled, the water forced through the undergound city veins and reached the harbour cranes’ limbs, prompting them into action. Electric cranes came on, but until 1974 they proudly held their ground. Now they point and nod to the new harbour further along. Technology has outrun them.
The colossuses have numbers, no names. It makes no difference for the history buffs; there is admiration, even love for these museological showpieces. The 20th century action and liveliness has completely died down and all is quiet now.