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Sun, Dec 14, 2008 - Page 12 News List

Chic vs shady in Amsterdam

Brothel windows will not disappear altogether, but the plan is to ensure better control and address criminality

By Alix Rijckaert  /  AFP , AMESTERDAM

A German prostitute called Eve waits for clients behind her window in the red light district of Amsterdam last Monday. Under a plan called Coalitions Project 2012 unveiled on Dec. 6 by the city council, Amsterdam plans to halve the number of prostitution windows and cannabis-vending coffee shops in a revamp of its historic center aimed at curbing rising crime.


In the shadow of a 14th-century Gothic church and a stone’s throw from a day care center, prostitutes flaunt their bodies in red neon-lit windows that Amsterdam city leaders now plan to shutter.

The port city’s brazen red-light district is also one of the oldest and most picturesque areas of famously liberal Amsterdam, and draws hoards of tourists — although most come mainly to gawk.

But Mayor Job Cohen hopes to close all 35 of the legendary “windows” on the historic Oudekerksplein (Old Church Square) by 2011, and some 200 others in nearby streets over the next 10 years.

“Things have become unbalanced,” said Cohen, lamenting the spiraling organized crime attracted by the trade in soft drugs and sex, which in themselves are not illegal.

The city’s blueprint calls for replacing brothels, cannabis-vending coffee shops, sex shops and peepshows with cafes, boutiques and specialty stores.

“If we don’t act now, we will never regain control,” the mayor said. “At the heart of this project is our desire to drive back criminality.”

Though prostitution has long been tolerated in the city — and the “windows” long touted in guidebooks — the Netherlands only legalized the world’s oldest profession in 2000. The consumption and possession of under five grams of cannabis was decriminalized in 1976. It is sold in coffee shops with special licenses, but its cultivation remains illegal.

Both “vices” became major drawing cards for tourism, and Cohen conceded that “there is no way” the brothel windows would ever disappear altogether.

But after much deliberation, city officials confirmed this weekend that cuts would be made — announcing plans to halve the total 482 prostitution windows and 76 coffee shops in a multimillion euro revamp of the city center.

“They must remain, but they will be concentrated in a special area for better control,” Cohen said.

Today by the city’s quaint canals, men — and groups of snickering adolescents — amble along the red brick facades where bright neon lights scream the names of sex shops.

In one window is Josje, a Dutch prostitute who has plied the trade for 20 years. Her ample bosom threatens to spill out of her tight corset as she sits by an array of wigs, corsets and whips.

“In my street, we take our work seriously. Most of our clients are regulars and we have no pimps,” Josje said. “If they start closing windows, it will be very hard on the girls of the smaller alleys. Some will end up on the streets.”

The crowd here swells as the night grows longer. Prospective clients stop to negotiate a price then disappear into private rooms behind the display windows.

“The neighborhood has become hardcore,” said Marten van der Kriek, a pensioner who has lived in the red light district since 1971.

“The coffee shops, the windows, the junkies, the snack bars squeezed between sex shops and the endless souvenir shops — it has become a monoculture,” he said.

This is the complaint the city council wants to address — resetting the balance between chic and shady.

But the owners of targeted establishments fear that tipping the scale too much will cause them to lose out on tourist revenue.

“I will go to court,” said the owner of a 30-year-old coffee shop, The Old Church, who would not give her own name. “I have six employees. If my coffee shop is turned into an ordinary cafe I will not be able to survive.”

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