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Neighbourhoods such as De Wallen have long attracted tourists seeking sleaze and drinking, but the mayor is leading a campaign to put upscale shops and art galleries there instead

A man walks through a red-light district in Amsterdam. The city's mayor has banned alcohol and guided tours in the main red-light district and plans to relocate sex workers to a new, still-to-be-chosen spot.Photography by Piroschka van de Wouw/ The Globe and Mail

Down tiny cobbled laneways, men of all shapes and sizes, ages and dress, peer into red-lit windows. Behind the glass, women in lingerie – or less – beckon would-be clients with seductive hand gestures and blown kisses.

It is midday on a Saturday. The pungent smell of marijuana hangs in the air. A door opens and a young man ducks inside. The curtain quickly zips shut.

This is a classic scene in De Wallen, the largest and most popular of Amsterdam’s three red-light districts. Millions of tourists come here each year to gawk at the out-in-the-open sexuality, and the glowing bulbs have become as synonymous with Amsterdam as bicycles, canals and van Gogh. But they may soon be turned off for good.

The city, overwhelmed with drunkenness, noise and other anti-social behaviours in or around its red-light districts, wants to relocate hundreds of sex workers to a yet-to-be-built “erotic centre.” Taking their place in these inner-city buildings – now worth millions of euros – would be hip art galleries, plus fashion and design shops. It’s all part of a plan to improve Amsterdam’s image and tourist demographic.

The idea is spearheaded by Mayor Femke Halsema, who, since her June, 2018, election, has introduced a raft of measures, such as bans on alcohol and guided tours in De Wallen, meant to clean up the area while weighing competing interests.

“We aim to reduce the dominance of cheap nightlife and make the city a better balance for visitors and locals,” her spokesperson, Marloe Boon, said.

Like other popular European destinations struggling with overtourism, Amsterdam – a relatively small city of about one million residents – is a victim of its own success.

In 2019, it had almost 22 million unique annual visitors, according to statistics provided by amsterdam&partners, which oversees marketing and tourism. (The pandemic provided some relief: Visitor numbers dropped to a little more than eight million in 2020, and similar figures are expected for 2021 and this year.)

As Amsterdam grapples with globalization and gentrification, accelerated by the advent of low-cost flights and cheap accommodation websites such as Airbnb, city officials see it as necessary to remove one of its major drawing cards: the red-light district.

In 2000, the Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalize prostitution. The country’s open policies toward sex work, combined with its progressive approach toward soft drugs – use by persons 18 or older is not a criminal offence – helped earn Amsterdam a reputation as an “anything goes” entertainment hub, a kind of theme park for adult fun and transgression.

At top, a sign warns visitors to keep the noise down; at bottom, a sex-work establishment is lit in red, the colour that 19th-century European brothel owners used to discreetly advertise their services.

City officials said tourists head to De Wallen, situated in one of the oldest parts of the port city, if not to use its services, then just to experience the atmosphere.

“It is unique, it is understandable why people go there, but it was not meant to be a party place, or an attraction,” said Geerte Udo, chief executive officer of amsterdam&partners.

Official tourism campaigns focus on Amsterdam’s high-end and diverse cultural offerings, whether they be architecture, green-living options or museums. When it comes to visitors, the city prefers a quality over quantity approach.

“We don’t want sleaze consumerism,” Ms. Udo said. “We want visitors to appreciate all of Amsterdam, not just one small part of it.”

Some of the red-light district’s sex workers see that as wishful thinking. “If they get rid of us, the tourists won’t come,” said one woman with waist-length blond hair. (The Globe has agreed not to use the sex workers’ names.)

“I could write 10 books about Amsterdam’s red-light district – I’ve worked here more than 20 years. I don’t think we’re going anywhere,” she added as her chihuahua, wearing a pink sweater, did its business.

This will not be the first time Amsterdam has tried to overhaul the sex workers' district.

It’s not clear how large the sex industry in Amsterdam actually is, and estimates of the number of sex workers vary. Advocates paint a moderate picture of 500 self-employed business women, while Christian activists claim there are as many as 8,000 women who are being exploited.

Sex workers’ safety is one reason behind the erotic centre, the mayor says.

“The aim is to improve the position of sex workers, combat illicit activity and reduce the nuisance caused by large crowds in the red-light district,” Ms. Boon said regarding the proposed erotic centre.

But a previous attempt to clean up De Wallen using a similar approach failed. In 2007, Amsterdam launched Project 1012, named after the area’s postal code. The public-private partnership bought a number of multimillion-euro properties where sex work was conducted, in what the city called an effort to tackle human trafficking and crack down on associated crime. But according to Dutch news media and several reports a decade later, the scheme failed, partly because of the 2007 global financial crisis reducing the city’s finances.

A woman who identified herself as Iris, and who acts as the co-ordinator of Amsterdam’s Prostitution Information Centre, said sex workers are regularly typecast as victims, or as vulnerable to violence and trafficking.

“But there is safety in being in the city,” she said. “It’s close to where people live. Not in some industrial zone where the council wants to move them to.”

A sex shop bears the name of Caligula, a famously debauched Roman emperor.

In November, 2020, Mayor Halsema suggested eight possible locations for the erotic centre, but where it will end up remains to be decided. All of the proposals call for it to be in or near an industrial zone to the north or south of the city. And that, some sex workers say, is the real heart of the matter.

“All this is about property and inner-city real estate,” said Brenda, a former nurse who is now a sex worker for clients with physical or psychological conditions.

Housing costs in the Netherlands have risen well above the European average over the past decade, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency. Buying residential property in 2021 costs 40 per cent more than it did in 2010, and renting was up more than 30 per cent in the same time period.

The central location of de Wallen, with its 700 years of history and famous architecture, makes for highly desirable property, well above the Amsterdam’s average price.

Brenda said locals can no longer afford to live in their own city.

“You need to be a millionaire to live here now – and when the new residents complain, the officials listen,” she said. “Last decade, they wanted to shut the windows because we were victims of violence. Now it’s because sex workers are blamed for bringing the nuisance and bad behaviour.”

Ilse van Liempt, a professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, has written about the changes to Amsterdam’s red-light districts. Her fear is that the city is trying to erase its history and overlook sex workers’ hard-fought political struggles.

“The city wants to upgrade its image under the umbrella of diversity, of making it a more family-friendly place,” she said. “They want to move it away from a masculine space, while at the same time exclude its working class or sex workers from the area.”

But, some sex workers argue, the red-light district is essential to Amsterdam’s true identity.

“Amsterdam is known for its sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Brenda said.

“Why change that?”

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