From sex to smoothies: reforming Amsterdam’s red light district

Photo: Graham Dockery

The city of sleaze is cleaning itself up. Fed up with brothels, low-rent snack bars and sex shops, Amsterdam city council is busy trying to gentrify the red light district. But not everyone is happy, particularly police and the sex workers themselves, as Graham Dockery finds out.

Is the city losing a central aspect of its identity? Or is this a long overdue clean up? Either way, the effects are already visible. Tourists walking through the district a couple of years ago would have seen far more red lights for a start. There are now just under 300 window brothels in the district, down from 486 in 2006.

In alleys where working girls used to ply their trade, indie art galleries and barber shops now occupy the windows. The strip clubs and peep shows still operate, but they share the street with upscale boutiques and thrift stores.

Diversity

‘I want some more diversity in this area,’ said Annabelle van Dijk. Annabelle works in Koko Coffee and Design, an achingly hip establishment that wouldn’t look out of place in Williamsburg or Shoreditch.

‘The red light district is a part of Amsterdam’s history, but shops like this keep things mixed,’ she said.

All of this change is the result of the local government’s ongoing Project 1012 initiative. Named for the district’s postcode, Project 1012 aims to slash the number of red lights and coffee shops, and drive out the tackier and seedier businesses that the area is known for.

Underway since 2007, the project’s stated goal is to ‘reduce crime and degeneration in the city centre…[and] make the area more attractive for residents, visitors, and other businesses.’ However, before the concept stores and cafes can open, the brothels have to be shut.

Closing the shutters

This has proven difficult. Some brothel owners have been bought out by the council, but others don’t want to sell.

Brothel owner Willem Van Der Meulen, who at one point operated 13% of the district’s windows, refused to sell and found himself targeted by the law. The authorities claimed that Van Der Meulen – a former police officer and one time associate of notorious brothel kingpin ‘Fat Charlie’ Geerts – did not do enough to ensure that his employees were not victims of human trafficking, and tried to revoke his brothel license.

‘Van Der Meulen’s buildings are owned by Chang and Cirkel [two Amsterdam criminals], and those guys were a pain in the ass for the authorities for a long time,’ says Mariska Majoor.

Majoor is a former prostitute and sex-worker’s rights activist. She sees the charges faced by Van Der Meulen as a flimsy excuse to further the 1012 agenda. ‘Taking away licenses is a cheap way for the authorities to get rid of someone they don’t want in the Red Light District,’ she says.

Van der Meulen fought the charges and still operates window brothels in the red light district.

Going underground

While fighting human trafficking is an understandable goal of the city government, few people see closing window brothels as the solution.

‘Every idiot knows that pushing things underground only makes it easier for criminals to get their hands on,’ read a blog post from working prostitute Felicia Anna. Where prostitution is illegal, Felicia argues that ‘justice is at the hands of those who’ve got the most muscle. And I can tell you right now, the prostitutes aren’t the ones with the most muscles.’

Photo: Graham Dockery

In the window brothels, working girls have access to an alarm button and the area is regularly patrolled by police. Working illegally, the girls don’t have this protection.

‘They try to sell the clearing of the brothels as a solution to do something [for] the women, and we all agree here that it’s not the right solution,’ says police officer Ron Beekmeijer. Beekmeijer is the former chief of the Amsterdam police vice squad, the unit tasked with policing the city’s sex trade.

In the underground market, the safety and welfare of sex workers is even less sure than in the current window system, the sergeant says.

Window closures were halted in 2015 after local residents and sex workers protested. But for many, the character of the area was already irreversibly changed.

Gentrification in action

In Amsterdam, the government owns all land and leases it to landlords. According to government statistics, the percentage of property values based on location is much lower in the red light district than in surrounding neighbourhoods. By virtue of location alone, property in the red light district is valued up to 10% lower than in neighbouring areas.

Clearing out the seedy elements and gentrifying the area is therefore a lucrative project for the city.

While there are some clear signs of a shift, young, drunk and mostly male tourists still make up the bulk of the weekend crowd in the district.

‘Everything has a sleazy vibe at night here,’ said Anna Kopitar, who works in a cannabis seed shop in the area. ‘Walking around as a young woman, everyone thinks you’re in the sex trade, and I’ve had drunken English tourists approach me like that. Very low vibes in this area.’

But Anna shrugs it off. ‘There’s a lot of lost, sad and frustrated people who come here, but I’m cool with it all. They come to see something they can’t see at home, and they’re shocked by it all.’

Smoothies

Gabija Damalakaite works in a brightly-lit café on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal, one of the red light district’s main thoroughfares. Open since last summer, the premises used to house a porn shop – the change a visible illustration of the project at work.

The scuzzy porn cassettes have been replaced with brightly colored macaroons and lactose-free smoothies, but the clientele is mostly the same. ‘I have customers who ask ‘what kind of sex do you sell here’,’ said Gabija. ‘And I’m like, dude, I sell crepes and muffins!’

Gabija is happy however about the authorities’ crackdown on street dealers, which began last October. ‘There were always those guys whispering ‘cocaine, cocaine’ in your ear, and I don’t notice that anymore. It definitely makes the area better, and I feel safer.’

While public safety and crime reduction are goals that most people would agree with, opinion on the overall direction that the neighbourhood is going in is divided. Most critical of the gentrification of the area are longtime residents and well-known community figures like Mariska Majoor.

‘In 10 years all these alleys will look as decent and boring and hip as the rest of the city,’ she says with a sigh.