Tourists visiting Amsterdam for the first time will no doubt visit the Red Light district – to see what it’s all about. In recent years, slow change has been effected in this area, due to the decision by the city authorities to close down a number of legal brothels and cannabis cafes in order to revamp the beautiful real estate these establishments operate from, and revitalise the more high-brow attractions.
Amsterdam has a total number of 6,800 historic buildings dating back to the 16th, 17th and 18th century and virtually all of the houses in the Red Light district are among these listed buildings. Many of the homes are converted warehouses, consisting of several storeys. This is a treasure that the city authorities wish to preserve. But the drive to bring about change in the Red Light district is more than that.
Amsterdam’s Red Light district revamp clearly corresponds with large-scale refurbishments of the city’s prestigious museums – the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum and the Van Gogh museum have spent one billion euros between them in sprucing up.
“It is an extremely exciting time,” says Axel Ruger, the director of the Van Gogh Museum. “All the institutions around us have invested a lot of money.” A different breed of tourist is targeted.
The Rijksmuseum’s refurb took ten years, and the Stedelijk museum of modern art and design has introduced a world-renowned glass extension for its collection of modern art. All this shows that the city is undergoing change. “I think there are lots of efforts to make the city attractive,” Ruger comments.
The gentrification of the Red Light district is also not entirely a luxury issue; the area had become more dangerous in recent years, when organised crime started to take off.
Project 1012 — the number refers to the district’s postal code — initially entailed the closure of almost half of Amsterdam’s window-front brothels, but recent elections in the city have shaken things up a bit, and the latest news is that the plan will be scaled down.
Having spent tens of millions of euros on cleaning up the Red Light district’s monumental buildings, the authorities are now pouring more money into social housing further away from the city centre, and are setting up a 30 million euro energy fund to make the rest of Amsterdam’s real estate more energy efficient.
For the time being, safety of tourists visiting the Red Light district is a priority for the city authorities. “It’s a vision issue. We think the historical city centre has to be open and accessible for everyone,” Amsterdam’s deputy mayor Carolien Gehrels told media recently.
The prostitutes themselves are not so sure that this is the way to go about it. “In the window it is safe, open. You can see your clients. You can see everything,” says Metje Blaak, who worked in the sex trade for 25 years before turning to film making. She believes closing down legal brothels will push women out onto the streets.
On the whole, however, Amsterdam is a much safer city than for instance London or Paris; according to the recent Quality of Life Survey from William M. Mercer, the consultancy, Amsterdam ranks 22th out of 215 world cities for personal safety. Cities like London and Paris did not even make the top 50.
In case you are wondering why so many of these lovely buildings are tilting forward dangerously; it is because they were designed that way for a practical reason. The warehouses stocked goods imported to Amsterdam from far away places like Indonesia, and in order to prevent damaging the merchandise as it was rope-hoisted to the third floor from the canals, the facade tilted forward slightly. That said, some buildings tilt way too much – their foundations have been damaged.