Amsterdam's Red Lights ... about to go out?
Amsterdam's famous – or infamous – Red Light District looks likely to become slightly less 'blue' in the near future if the Dutch capital's municipal authorities get their way. Valerie Kierkels reports.
The city council wants to put an end to criminality and trafficking in women in this notorious, yet highly popular part of town.
The process has already started, but people who run local bars, brothels and souvenir shops are not impressed at all by the council's plans to bring new life to 'their' part of town and have got together recently in a group named Platform 1012 (the district's postcode number) to do battle with the municipality.
Wim Boef (his surname also means 'villain' in Dutch) is chairman of Platform 1012, and he describes the area in which the Red Light District is located – the narrow streets and canals that once lay just behind the main harbour area – as 'the best in the world”. He continues: “Just look around you, such an enormous variety of people. And they're all enjoying the place, whether they're grabbing a bit to eat, or going to a sex theatre or sex shop. If you want to see paintings by Rembrandt, you go to the museum; for a visit to a prostitute or sex show, you come here.”
That's something which three young men from the Irish capital, Dublin, are happy to confirm. For them, like many other tourists, a trip to Amsterdam isn't complete without a visit to a 'coffeeshop' - where marijuana and hashish can be bought and consumed – and to the Red Light District. “This is really unique. All these women sitting there openly, almost naked, in the windows, that's something you can only find here.”
Yet, Amsterdam's council has decided to take on the local sex industry and those who run it. The number of 'women at the windows' must be reduced – in other words: the sex industry's hold on the district is to be lifted. Only recently, the well-known Yab Yum sex club – located outside the Red Light district proper – was forced to close its doors, and just last week it was announced that the authorities plan to withdraw the operating licence of another prominent industry location: live- sex theatre Casa Rosso. The reason: the operator of the theatre doesn't meet the requirements of the so-called BIBOB law, a piece of legislation specifically aimed at tackling criminal activity. This law requires that the authorities carry out thorough checks on people who run businesses to ensure they have no connections whatsoever with criminal activities before they get the licences or permits they need for their operations. In the case of Casa Rosso, the authorities say there is a threat that criminal activities could take place on the premises at some time in the future.
Wim Boef is furious. "All the business people in the Red Light district support the BIBOB law, because it's meant to separate the good from the bad. But what's happening now? It looks like Casa Rosso may be shut, purely on the basis of 'findings' and rumours. It's a disgrace.”
As he sees it - and what annoys him the most - is that the council is managing to stigmatise an entire neighbourhood: “Everyone with a business in the 1012 postcode area is now regarded as a potential criminal. It's scandalous.”
From sex to sewing
Boef also thinks that local 'porno king" Charles Geerts didn't sell his properties to the council on an entirely voluntary basis: “They made it as difficult as possible for him, so that he ultimately caved in.” The Amsterdam authorities purchased eighteen properties from Charles Geerts – a well-known figure in the local sex industry – and now plan to put fashion designers into them.
It's a most welcome development for the two designers behind the 'And Beyond' label. One of them, Jolanda van de Broek, explains, “We're getting the space to do what we want in stimulating and creative surroundings.”
The And Beyond duo is part of a group of fifteen fashion designers who are taking part in the Red Light Fashion Amsterdam project, set up by the city council and fashion recruitment and 'matchmakers' HTNK. Under the scheme, the designers will get the use of the premises for a year, and only have to pay for gas, water and electricity; no rent.
Wim Boef reacts thus: “Nice initiative, but still strange that these properties have been bought with taxpayers' money and that the designers get to use them for a year for mere peanuts. While other business people in the Red Light district have to struggle to pay their rent.”
What about the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the district each year? Wim Boef is sure they'll stay away if the area loses its distinctive character. "Look at Casa Rosso. That theatre alone attracts thousands of people from all over the world. Just imagine what'll happen if Casa Rossa has to close.”
But Jolanda van den Broek and Brigitte Hendrix of And Beyond are more optimistic. While they can understand the criticism from Platform 1012, they think the Red Light District can go on being a lively, popular area with slightly less sex and slightly more fashion. “ And for us, it's nice to be among the pioneers, the first ones to try to make the Red Light District be more than just coffeeshops and prostitutes.”
However, the three visiting 'experts' from Dublin are clear why they're here: for the sex and the soft drugs... “Clothes we can get back home.”
23 January 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands 2008]