Researching Historical Entertainment Culture across Port Cities: Why ‘Pleasurescapes’ Matter for ‘PortCityFutures’

Vincent Baptist

‘Where people have fun, encounter happens. Where encounters take place, change begins. Are pleasurescapes in port cities Europe’s true driving forces after all?’
The tagline of the HERA-funded projectPleasurescapes: Port Cities’ Transnational Forces of Integration’, which looks into entertainment spaces of European port cities throughout recent history, suggests that this research topic has been rather neglected up to now. The ‘Pleasurescapes’ project proposes to (re)discover this theme within a collaborative European framework. For a long time, historical research that dealt with port cities has favored traditional maritime-industrial perspectives in investigating these particular urban hubs. Over the past few years, however, more publications have come out that focus on the socio-cultural significance and legacies of ports, and that offer new, creative approaches to study port city identities and representations (see among others Van de Laar 2013; Mah 2014; Beaven, Bell and James 2016; and Milne 2016). The ‘Pleasurescapes’ project intends to further build on these research directions, while also incorporating a significant influence from the field of cultural studies, to put the spotlight on past public spaces of entertainment in European port cities.

‘Pleasurescapes’ have been underestimated and understudied in light of their capacity to facilitate transnational exchange, processes of innovation and intercultural encounters over the course of the long 20th century. In addition, making port cities’ pleasure districts the focal point of this project also entails a critical reassessment of the ‘notorious’ character that is still associated with past forms and practices of entertainment that occurred at or near the waterfront and around former sailortown settlements. The value of such historical re-examinations carries over to new research on the present and future states of port cities. It will help clarify, among others, how current hot topics such as cruise ship tourism and waterfront regeneration intersect with and relate to socio-cultural valuations of port cities and their heritage.

Bringing together researchers from Barcelona, Gothenburg, Hamburg and Rotterdam, the ‘Pleasurescapes’ team members delve into their respective port cities’ histories of entertainment culture and the transnational connections that were forged among them over time. In the case of Rotterdam, three neighborhoods are of particular interest: Zandstraatbuurt, Schiedamsedijk and Katendrecht. They are investigated by operationalizing different mapping approaches for various types of cultural sources and archival data. The objective of relating spatial analysis with (historical) narratives on ports’ urban identities is connected to spatial mapping initiatives that are currently being developed within the ‘PortCityFutures’ consortium (Hein and Van Mil 2019, Hein and Van Mil 2020). In the end, the ‘Pleasurescapes’ team envisions to turn its aggregated research outcomes into several creative end products. The research group will launch a project website and online database, and produce a theatre production, joint touring exhibition and accompanying book publication in association with city museums and theatre companies that act as associated project partners.

In this way, the ‘Pleasurescapes’ project can come full circle: research on port cities’ former entertainment culture will be transformed into cultural works, to reconnect with diverse audiences in maritime hubs across Europe whose histories and interests have always been intertwined transnationally. Ultimately, this output will also help establish more long-term perspectives and narratives. It can link the pleasure-seeking sailors from the past to the day-tripping tourists of today, and bridge the historically diverged dynamics between ports as economic driving forces and their adjacent cities as cultural melting pots in light of a future based on mutual understanding, as put forward in the themes of ‘PortCityFutures’.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team, and the HERA Pleasurescapes project. It reflects the evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Thanks for comments and reviews to Tianchen Dai, Paul van de Laar and Carola Hein.


Beaven, B., Bell, K., and James, R., eds. 2016. Port Towns and Urban Cultures: International Histories of the Waterfront, c.1700-2000. Palgrave Macmillan.

Hein, C., and Van Mil, Y. 2019. “Towards a Comparative Spatial Analysis for Port City Regions Based on Historical Geo-Spatial Mapping.” PORTUSplus 8.

Hein, C., and Van Mil, Y. 2020. “Mapping as Gap-Finder: Geddes, Tyrwhitt, and the Comparative Spatial Analysis of Port City Regions.” Urban Planning 5.2 (forthcoming).

Mah, A. 2014. Port Cities and Global Legacies: Urban Identity, Waterfront Work, and Radicalism. Palgrave Macmillan.

Milne, G.J. 2016. People, Place and Power on the Nineteenth-Century Waterfront: Sailortown. Palgrave Macmillan.

Van de Laar, P. 2013. “Shock Cities: Liverpool, Marseille en Rotterdam en de beeldvorming van de 19de-eeuwse havenstad.” Holland Historisch Tijdschrift 45.3/4.

Image: ‘Het Paard in de Wieg’, café in the Zandstraatbuurt (Adrianus Philippus (A.Ph.) de la Rivière; City Archive Rotterdam)