AMSTERDAM – A narrow, dead-end street located just outside of Amsterdam’s city centre seems an unlikely recipient of its own public work of art. However, this row of diminutive dwellings hidden behind a blank wall has a prominent place in the city’s rich history of social housing and following a major 2012 upgrade, a celebration was in order. Amsterdam-based Studio Wessels Boer took up this challenge.

The housing scheme was initiated by BVEW, a society founded in 1868 with the aim of providing the workers and their families with a more dignified accommodation in the rapidly-growing, industrial city. The first units were ready by 1870, with the promise that – if they could save up an additional dime a week – the tenants would become the proud owners of their dwellings within 20 years, earning the houses the nickname Dubbeltjespanden (the ‘dime houses’).

Although the promise of ownership remains unfulfilled to this day, the little street developed a distinctive character of its own. ‘The houses are very small (26-sq-m on average) so the street became an open living room, which the inhabitants furnished with seats, plants and funny decorations. You can still sense the collective life; these people are strongly united by diversity’, says the artist Marjet Wessels Boer.

It Started With a Dime takes the shape of a printer’s type case superimposed on the blank wall at the end of the row of houses. Wessels Boer comments: ‘In order to unite workers, BVEW started printing their own  newspaper and pamphlets in 1868. The project takes the shape of a so-called 3/4 type case common at the time. In the 1960s, type cases became obsolete and it became fashionable to hang them on your wall and to collect all kinds of things in it.’

During the course of the project, the artist spoke with the street’s inhabitants and collected their stories, represented by aluminium silhouettes of various objects. The tales range from socio-historical to endearingly personal and curious passers-by can visit a website dedicated to this artwork (available in Dutch) to find out more. In the meantime, the empty compartments are patiently awaiting new stories as the life in Dubbeltjespanden carries on in its slightly unusual way.

Photos Hans Peter Föllmi