I don’t remember how I first came across De Zeven Steegjes (The Seven Alleys), but somehow I always missed going to see them, even when I had plans to go see them. I know I’d hoped to see them in past years while at the kerstmarkt on Twijnstraat, since they’re nearby, but I guess I always got distracted by the gluhwein and the live nativity donkeys and sheep. Early this past November, however, I did finally get to see them, although purely by luck! I was just wandering around and found myself in an area I hadn’t visited before, when lo and behold, there they were!
I’m sure by now you’re wondering why I’m blathering on about alleys, so I’ll try to get to the point. These alleys were the result of a housing shortage in the 1800s, particularly housing for the poor. By the mid 1800s, the Catholic Poverty Organization began building simple homes for Roman Catholic children and families who were dependent upon charity. Eventually, with pressure from the government to provide more housing, 100 homes were built. With demands that there be no blind alleys and that the streets be straight to allow the wind to blow through (perhaps to avoid any stagnancy that might lead to a cholera outbreak), the result was the zeven steegjes.
The buildings were simple to the extreme, containing no kitchen or toilets, but they were still fairly modern for their time. In 1952, approximately 100 years after they were built, they were sold by the Roman Catholic church and purchased by the city of Utrecht. Families still lived there, but because of the lack of kitchens and toilets, there was always talk of demolishing the buildings. In 1972, some basic renovations were done, but it wasn’t until 1992 that comprehensive renovations took place.
There are now 166 homes spread out down Korte Rozendaal, Lange Rozendaal, Kockstraat, Brouwerstraat, Boogstraat, Moutstraat, Suikerstraat and Fockstraat. The homes and streets have retained some of their working-class neighborhood feel, yet they’re also attractive and charming streets just a few steps from the Catharijnesingel, part of the canal that rings the old city center of Utrecht. There’s a strong sense of community, encouraged by a traditional three-day block party held at the end of August each year. The party celebrates both the neighborhood, where many of the buildings are now considered municipal monuments, as well as the birthday of the (former) Queen Wilhelmina. In fact, I think it may have been a mention of the annual party that first brought de zeven steegjes to my attention.