The image would have been a phenomenon on social media: a few thousand citizens of the Netherlands’ second largest city beside a river laying eggs on the new 127 meter yacht built for Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world.
When the boat passed through the crowd, it would be targeted by bright orange gemstones, plus at least one very bright red dot. “I would have thrown a tomato. I’m basically vegan,” says Stefan Lewis, a former City Council member, near the Hef, as the Koningshaven bridge is known.
Bezos and Oceanco, the shipyard that manufactured the three-masted schooner for US$ 500 million (R$ 2.5 billion), generated outrage with what sounded like an innocuous request to the local government: briefly dismantle the middle section of the Hef, from 70 meters high, allowing the ship to cross the channel and head out to sea. The process would have taken a day or two and Oceanco would bear the costs.
The bridge, made of dark steel in the shape of a huge “H”, is not actually used by anyone. It served as a railroad crossing for decades until it was replaced by a tunnel and decommissioned in the early 1990s. It has been unused since then.
In short, the operation would have been fast, free and would not interfere with anything. So why the fuss? “There’s a principle at play,” says Lewis, 37. “What can you buy if money isn’t an obstacle? Will you bend all the rules? Can you dismantle monuments?”
In late June, the city’s deputy mayor reported that Oceanco had backtracked and canceled the order, which was seen as a victory for the masses over a billionaire — although it was much more than that. It was an opportunity to see the antagonism between Dutch and American values.
The more that is known about Holland, with its preference for modesty over extravagance, the community over the individual, the more it seems that this confusion was scripted by someone whose aim was to drive the local population crazy.
The first problem was Bezos’ surprising wealth. “The Dutch like to say, ‘It’s crazy to act normally.’ And we think that rich people are not acting normally. We don’t believe that everyone can be rich like in the US, where the sky is the limit,” says Ellen Verkoelen, member of the City Council and leader of the 50Plus Party.
She was among those who considered Oceanco’s order a reasonable concession to a company in a highly competitive industry. But she saw angry voters and understood the origins of it. “When I was 11, we had an American exchange student for a week. And my mom told him to make his own sandwich, just like in the US. Instead of putting one sausage on the bun, he put five. My mom didn’t say nothing, but he commented to me: ‘We will never eat like this in this house’.”
There are billionaires in the Netherlands, and a huge pay gap between CEOs and employees. Research firm Statista reported that for every dollar earned by an average worker, CEOs earn $171 ($265 in the US, the widest disparity across all countries).
The difference is that the rich in Holland don’t flaunt it, just as the powerful don’t mention how much they earn. The Dutch once ruled one of the world’s greatest empires, but there is a certain pride that the prime minister rides a bicycle to visit the king and puts a padlock on the skinny in front of the palace.
There is a value in equality that has outlived the country’s struggles to assimilate immigrants and a gentrification boom that drives the middle and working class away from cities. This stems from a geographic fact that is difficult to ignore. A third of the country is below sea level, and citizens for centuries have had little choice but to band together to create an infrastructure of levees and drainage systems to stay alive.
“The Netherlands is based on cooperation”, explains Paul van de Laar, professor of history at Erasmus University. Participate. Mix it up. Do local ideals sound familiar to a country eager to go easy on a man with $140 billion and a $500 million boat?
The Rotterdam-Bezos duel made headlines in February, when news emerged that Oceanco had received approval to dismantle Hef — the cost of the operation was never disclosed. The opinion came from a civil servant who apparently saw no problems, and an uproar ensued.
“I thought it was a joke,” says Lewis, who learned of the permission from Facebook. “So I called the deputy mayor’s office and asked, ‘Is this real?’ It took them a day to get back to me.” When the news reached the public, angry residents began to appear frequently on the local TV news and a group was formed on the networks to organize the egg-throwing session.
Oceanco, which employs more than 300 people, did not publicly comment on the decision to cancel the order and did not respond to the report. Local media say the company was concerned about threats against employees and vandalism.
It is unclear how the yacht, known as the Y721, will be completed. In February, a local politician stated: it was impractical to move the mastless yacht to another location where it could be finished.
For van de Laar, the real villain of the story is not Oceanco or Bezos, who probably had never heard of Hef. It’s the City Council. “Emotions are important. The council didn’t understand that, which is incredibly stupid.”
The issue wasn’t just this particular billionaire or this particular yacht. It was this particular bridge. To outsiders, Hef looks like a clumsy brute that no longer works. That’s not what the locals see. When it opened in 1927, it was considered an architectural marvel. “There are poems about Hef. Anyone who makes a film about Rotterdam includes Hef. She is more than a bridge,” notes Arij De Boode, co-author of a book on the work.
Rotterdam is one of the few European cities where almost all the buildings are new because the site was devastated by the Nazis in World War II. It turned it into a city of the future—except for Hef. The bridge has become the city’s most recognizable landmark, seen as a symbol of resilience and one of the last links to the past.
When there was talk, decades ago, of tearing it down, residents protested. It was declared a national monument in 2000 and has undergone a restoration. Today, it is proof of the end of function over form, a monolith that cannot be altered even temporarily—no matter who asks, no matter what the price.