Monday, February 11, 2008

Curtains for the Red Light District?

It looks like Amsterdam is about to pull the plug on its famous (or, perhaps more accurately, infamous) Red Light District:

Arguing that too many brothels and sex bars are linked to criminality, the authorities plan to all but erase the Red Light District. If the plan goes through, the peep shows, sex shops and prostitute windows that line the small alleys and canals will have to go, giving way to galleries, boutiques and upscale restaurants and bars. Goodbye to the big neon signs advertising every possible form of sexual indulgence.
Amsterdam without the Red Light District? Wouldn't that be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower? Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen, and his aldermen have demonstrated little nostalgia for the district, which has been the world's most famous home of sexual permissiveness since the 15th century. They first unveiled the plan to close it in December; last month they revoked the licenses of two widely known sex venues, the Casa Rosso and the Banana Bar. The next step is to buy out the real estate owners. Last fall the city struck a deal with a powerful brothel owner, Charles Geerts (known as "Fat Charlie"), to buy 20 buildings.

This reminds me of some of the conversations I had with people here in Houston a couple of years ago when I mentioned to them that I was traveling through Amsterdam on my way to Dubai: "You have a long layover in Amsterdam? Cool! Are you going to go to a coffeeshop and smoke some pot? Are you going to go to the Red Light District and find a whore?"

Well, no: those are not things I would have any interest in doing (aside from the fact that coming into contact with illegal drugs before traveling to Dubai is a very, very bad idea). But it did reinforce a perception that Amsterdam has developed an international reputation as some sort of wild, drug-and-sex-crazed hippie utopia. And that reputation is undeserved.

Amsterdam is a truly delightful city, with its charming architecture and picturesque canals, its bicycles and its trams, its quiet cafes and multi-ethnic dining options, its museums and its squares. The coffeeshops and the brothels might be part of its charm, and they certainly say something about the legendary tolerant and liberal attitude of the Dutch.

But when the pot and the prostitutes themselves begin to define the city - and, for that matter, the Netherlands as a whole - in the eyes of the rest of the world, something unfortunate happens. A caricature of the Netherlands emerges, one which reduces the country to little more than an anything-goes emporium of drugs and sex. The country that literally reclaimed itself from the sea, the country that gave us Van Gogh and Rembrandt, the country that originally settled what is now New York City, the country that gave us one of the most heart-rending narratives of Nazi brutality is all but forgotten as Amsterdam and the rest of the Netherlands become regarded by outsiders as little more than a destination for sex and drugs.

Little wonder, then, that Dutch authorities have started to crack down:
But here those anxieties are exacerbated by alarm over the international crime organizations that have infiltrated the country's prostitution and drug trades, the increasing prevalence of trafficking in women and children across its borders, and dismay over the Netherlands' image as an international tourist destination for drugs and sexual debauchery.
"There is an uneasiness about globalization that the Dutch don't have control over their own country anymore," said James C. Kennedy, professor of contemporary history at the Free University of Amsterdam. "There is a more conservative mood in the country that is interested in setting limits and making sure things don't get out of hand."
(Amsterdam city councilmember Frank) de Wolf said he is fed up with the planeloads of British thrill-seekers who take cheap flights to Amsterdam each Friday evening for weekend binges of sex, drugs and alcohol in his city's red-light district, where scantily clad prostitutes stand behind plate-glass windows beckoning to potential customers.
"Amsterdam has a reputation that you can do everything here," de Wolf said. "That's not the way I want people to look at Amsterdam."
Those same concerns have prompted some cities to bar tourists from their marijuana and hashish shops. Some localities now require patrons of the shops to show Dutch identity cards to gain entry, and a new nationwide law forbids the sale of alcohol in shops that sell pot and hash. Some lawmakers have proposed requiring the shops to warn their customers about the dangers of cannabis, mimicking the warning labels on tobacco and alcohol products.
Ivo Opstelten, the mayor of Rotterdam, the second-largest Dutch city, announced this month that he will close all marijuana shops within 250 yards of a school -- nearly half of the city's 62 shops.
This crackdown, it would appear, is now extending to Amsterdam's Red Light District. Speaking personally, I would hate to see the Red Light District disappear completely; for all its sleaze, I do believe it is one of the things that makes Amsterdam unique, if only marginally. But for Dutch authorities who are intent on reclaiming their country's image, it might be a small price to pay.

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