Europe

Amsterdam's Red Light District Revealed

Filed Under: Amsterdam
She stands proudly in a public square at the heart of Amsterdam, her hands firmly planted on her bronze hips in provocative defiance. She is Belle, the world's first-ever monument to workers in the oldest profession, and she was erected in 2007 to remind everyone that this—Amsterdam's De Wallen neighborhood—is their realm. "Respect sex workers all over the world," commands the plaque on her pedestal.

Amsterdam
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Long famous as a bastion of social tolerance, Amsterdam actually has 3 red light districts (the other 2 are in the city's De Pijp and Singel neighborhoods), but it's the one in De Wallen at the city center that's best known to the world. With its roots stretching back centuries to a time when this was a harborside anything-goes zone full of lonely sailors and friendly working women, De Wallen's red light district (or rosse buurt, as it's known to locals) took its modern shape in the 1930s. Prostitutes were forbidden from soliciting in the streets or from doorways, but were unofficially allowed to set up shop in a number of tiny storefronts along the narrow alleyways south of the Oude Kerk (Old Church), so long as the curtains in their windows were kept drawn. Ladies would peer out through small openings in their drapes and give quiet raps against the window panes when potentially interested parties passed by. As Dutch moralities relaxed in the '60s and '70s, the ladies flung open their curtains to let it all hang out—often quite literally, and all in the suggestively naughty glow from red light bulbs.

Though it was quietly tolerated by Amsterdam authorities for decades, prostitution was formally legalized in the Netherlands in 2000. Working girls now have their own union and can access medical care, and their working conditions are closely monitored by the government. Just north of Oude Kerk, the Prostitution Information Center now welcomes "tourists, prostitutes, their customers and students" to educate themselves and talk openly about the world's oldest occupation, and even features a mini museum (open Saturdays only) with its own historical brothel room.

In all, some 365 red light windows currently operate in De Wallen—but that number is on the decline thanks to a far-reaching neighborhood clean-up effort by the city. Alarmed by a sharp increase in organized crime activity in the area (and moreover wanting to distance Amsterdam from its "anything goes" image), in 2007 civic leaders implemented a long-term plan to make the district safer for everyone involved. "It is not that we want to get rid of our red light district," Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen explained at the time. "We want to reduce it. Things have become unbalanced, and if we do not act we will never regain control."

More than 100 windows have already been removed from service under Project 1012 (named for the neighborhood's postal code), and the city plans to shut down nearly as many more—as well as about 1/3 of the area's drug-selling "coffee shops"—in the coming few years. In 2008, with an eye on attracting higher end visitors to De Wallen, the city invited fashion and interior designers to live and work in some of the windows rent free for a year. Since then, trendy shops, restaurants, galleries and a micro-brewery (Brouwerij de Prael) have also set up camp in the district. The hip Red Light Radio began broadcasting from a former prostitution window in 2010, and even Oude Kerk itself has gotten into the act this year firmly entering the 21st century by becoming a contemporary art space.

Amsterdam
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There's long been much to see just beyond De Wallen's red glow. Amsterdam's Chinatown is next door, a remnant of bygone days when Chinese sailors and shopkeepers settled near the city's harbor. Today, the several-block area is also home to immigrants from many other parts of Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Don't miss the Zeedijk Buddhist Temple, also known as Fo Guang Shan He Hua, the largest Chinese-style Buddhist temple in Europe. Just steps away is the bustling, café-encircled Nieuwmarkt square, which hosts an organic market on Saturdays and a flea market on summer Sundays. A few steps in the other direction is Our Lord in the Attic, a fascinating little museum honoring the secret 17th century Catholic church that was once here. Around the corner is Warmoesstraat, hub of the city's gay leather scene.

But if, like the hoards of the curious every year, you're still drawn to De Wallen for its red lights and its ladies, a few things are worth bearing in mind. Photographs are strictly forbidden, unless you'd like to lose your camera to an angry security guard. Pickpockets are also somewhat commonplace in the area, so mind your belongings while you window shop, especially at night. And lastly, the girls take being tourist attractions in stride, but don't bother them unless you're seriously interested. After all, they're here to make money—usually starting at around 50 euros for 15 minutes.



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