Balancing chic and shady in Amsterdam’s red light district

Balancing chic and shady in Amsterdam’s red light district

10th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

The mayor of Amsterdam has drawn up a new city plan that will close half the prostitute windows and marijuana-selling coffee shops in the city’s famous red light district.

In the shadow of a 14th-century Gothic church and a stone's throw from a day care center, prostitutes flaunt their bodies in red neon-lit windows that Amsterdam city officials now plan to shutter.

The port city's brazen red-light district is one of the oldest and most picturesque areas of the famously liberal Amsterdam and draws hoards of tourists -- although most come mainly to gawk.

But Mayor Job Cohen hopes to close all 35 of the legendary "windows" on the historic Oudekerksplein (Old Church Square) by 2011, and some 200 others in nearby streets over the next 10 years.

"Things have become unbalanced," said Cohen, lamenting the spiraling organized crime attracted by the trade in soft drugs and sex, which in themselves are not illegal.

The city's new blueprint calls for replacing brothels, cannabis-vending coffee shops, sex shops and peepshows with cafes, boutiques and specialty stores.

"If we don't act now, we will never regain control," the mayor said. "At the heart of this project is our desire to drive back criminality."

Though prostitution has long been tolerated in the city -- and the "windows" long touted in guidebooks -- the Netherlands only legalized the world's oldest profession in 2000.
Art and fashion projects replace prostitutes who used to work behind such windows in the red light district of Amsterdam on December 8, 2008. Under a plan called Coalitions Project 2012, unveiled on December 6, 2008 by the city council, Amsterdam plans to halve the number of prostitution windows and cannabis-vending coffee shops in a revamp of its historic center aimed at curbing rising crime. Prostitution was legalized in the Netherlands in 2000 .AFP PHOTO/ANOEK DE GROOT
The consumption and possession of less than five grams of cannabis was decriminalized in 1976. It is sold in coffee shops with special licenses, but its cultivation remains illegal.

Both prostitution and marijuana have become major drawing cards for tourism, and Cohen said that "there is no way" the brothel windows would ever disappear altogether.

But after much deliberation, city officials confirmed in December that cuts would be made -- announcing plans to halve the total 482 prostitution windows and 76 coffee shops in a multi-million euro revamp of the city center.

"They must remain, but they will be concentrated in a special area for better control," Cohen said.

Today by the city's quaint canals, men and groups of snickering adolescents amble along the red brick facades where bright neon lights scream the names of sex shops.

In one window is Josje, a Dutch woman who has been a sex worker for 20 years. She is wearing a tight corset as she sits by an array of wigs, corsets and whips.

Resetting the balance

"In my street, we take our work seriously,” said Josje. “Most of our clients are regulars, and we have no pimps. If they start closing windows, it will be very hard on the girls of the smaller alleys. Some will end up on the streets.”

The crowd here swells as the night progresses. Prospective clients stop to negotiate a price and then disappear into private rooms behind the display windows.

"The neighborhood has become hard core," said Marten van der Kriek, a pensioner who has lived in the red light district since 1971. "The coffee shops, the windows, the junkies, the snack bars squeezed between sex shops and the endless souvenir shops -- it has become a monoculture."

Previous project (Sept. 2008) Freedesigndom: Red Light Fashion

This is the complaint the city council wants to address -- resetting the balance between chic and shady.

But the owners of targeted establishments fear that tipping the scale too much will cause them to lose out on tourist revenue.

"I will go to court," said the owner of a 30-year-old coffee shop, The Old Church, who would not give her own name. "I have six employees. If my coffee shop is turned into an ordinary cafe I will not be able to survive. And if they close the brothel windows, that will mean the end of the tourists. That is what they come here for: to look at the prostitutes, not to eat in fancy restaurants or visit chic shops."

Metje Blaak of the sex workers’ representative body, De Rode Draad (The Red Thread), said the move would force the sex trade "underground."

"Women will have to walk the streets again," she said.

But Cohen countered that since prostitution was legalized, many abuses have continued. There is still trafficking, he said, “women who find themselves prostituted against their will. That is not acceptable."

And people like Van der Kriek are happy that citizens will finally get their district back. “Here one can experience things you cannot experience anywhere else, and that is great. But it is necessary that we redefine the limits."

Alix Rijckaert/AFP/Expatica

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