The people of Amsterdam call the area between the Warmoesstraat and the Zeedijk the “Wallen”. The eastern part of that area is called the “Rosse Buurt” (Red Light District). This is the district where one can find the old medieval buildings, including the Old Church (1306) and the Waag (1425). The latter was originally a gateway into old Amsterdam. But it’s not so much the trees along the canals that invites to stroll along the scenic waterfront, but the famous windows on the ground floors with their red lights and scantily clad prostitutes waiting for their clients and some famous coffeeshops that attract tourists.
If you ever find yourself in Amsterdam, visit necessarily the Red Light District. You will be impressed by its charm – there are a lot of such tourist descriptions of RLD in the internet. But what is the truth?
“If you ever find yourself in Amsterdam, visit necessarily the Red Light District. You will be impressed by its charm ” – there are a lot of such tourist descriptions of RLD in the internet. “There are people who are really proud of the Red Light District as a tourist attraction. It’s supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it’s a cesspit. There’s a lot of serious criminality. There’s a lot of exploitation of women, and a lot of social distress. That’s nothing to be proud of” – this is the opinion of a former prostitute, acting as a counselor of Amsterdam. The truth is that colorful neon shrines advertising sex clubs and theatres, smiling and relaxed ladies in the windows (view shocking and embarrassing for those not used to it), small restaurants make only one side of the coin. But those who walk through the less decorative, small and ugly alleys like Zwartlaken-steeg, Leidekkerssteeg or Gooijersteeg, were many “windows” were operating until recently, can get suspicious about an elegant look of the legal prostitution in RLD. The picture: exhibition in the Museum of Sex in Amsterdam.
Prostitution in this part of Amsterdam – which is a city with a harbor – originates in the 13th century. The circumstances favoring prostitution was that the Damrak channel served as marina.
Amsterdam in the 16th century…
The first official document mentioning prostitution dates from 1413 and states that the brothels can be run only by the sheriff’s officials. Over the following centuries the rules and conditions of prostitution underwent many changes but debauchery has always been tolerated by authorities. The most important stages in the history of RLD are:
17th century – Amsterdam became ruled partially by Protestants – brothels become illegal and have to operate in secret, “the oldest profession in the world” is banned.
18th century – Prostitution moves to the casinos, which are converted into luxury brothels for wealthy public; poorer men have to ask for service prostitutes working in the vicinity of the church Oude Kerk
1811 – The French occupying Holland repeal the ban and establish red cards which allow to make sex only by the healthy women. During this period many French women are luring to Amsterdam for good job but then they are forced into prostitution
1911 – Prostitution is again officially banned with unofficial acceptance.
20s – The authorities eventually withdraw the ban for the control over prostitution.
30s – Sex is served unofficially in the beauty salons; women are not allowed to present theirselves to customers outside under the risk of being arrested.
50s – The beginning of the window prostitution.
60s – The first stores for adults are established. In 1965 the king of RLD Zwarte Jopie (Black Jopie) opens the famous “Casa Rosso”, a complex of gambling and live sex – the first one. “Casa Rosso” operates to this day, but after a fire in 1983 (caused by arson) moves to the new building situated in new place (50 meters away).
1975 – Opening of the first coffeeshop – “The Bulldog” (works up today).
90s – After the “iron curtain” fall also women from Eastern European countries can work in RLD. Currently the number of Bulgarian prostitutes outnumbers the Dutch ones.
1995 – Unsuccessful attempt to introduce a “male window prostitution” – male window has been closed after just a few hours!
2000 – Brothels became legal, prostitution is now recognized as a profession: according to the official nomenclature prostitutes are called “sex-workers”
2007 – Adoption of the so-called Coalition Project 1012 (the number is derived from the postal code), which aims to remove the misdemeanor from the area
2011 – Legal prostitution is permitted for women no less then 21 years old (previously it was 18); tax duty is imposed on “sex workers”
THE END? A NEW APPROACH
Since the first decade of the 21st century the atmosphere around the RLD began to deteriorate (the Netherlands at that time was under the rule of the Calvinist Prime Ministry Jan Peter Balkenende). But this seemingly charming, touted as the safest place in Amsterdam (due to the intense police scrutiny) district has long enjoyed a bad reputation. The first warning to the public opinion was a series of murders of prostitutes, which took place in the 50s and 60s. What is more, the authorities have long been aware that crime flourishes in the district, and many erotic clubs (as already mentioned “Casa Rosso” and “Banana Bar”) and coffeeshops are engaged in dirty money laundering.
Club for adults
For this reason in 2007 the so called Coalition Project 1012 was passed by the city authorities. Its aim is to “reconquer the heart of the city and bring it back to Amsterdammers” – as the counselor Lodewijk Asscher, in 2012-2017 the vice prime minister, said. The project envisages that within 10 years the number of “red windows” (in 2007 – 477) will be reduced to half, and that 26 coffeeshops will be closed up to 2015, as well as some clubs for adults. The plan of closing “Casa Rosso” and “Banana Bar” was finally left. Because the plan has been implemented systematically, and the city buys the property of many crime families, the zone of legal prostitution and distribution of drugs is shrinking significantly. In the picture” in the coffeeshop.
The area of the Oude Kerk is going to be totally free of “red windows”, as well as the periphery: De Pijp (totally) and partly the district Singelgebbied. Window prostitution is ultimately permitted in the area of Oude Nieuwstraat and Oudezijds Achterburgwal.
Red windows by the Oude Kerk
Many coffeeshops have turned into a drug-free restaurants and lounges. The Grasshopper, one of the world most famous coffeeshops, ended its drug service in January 2014. The change also concerns many of “red windows”. Several former prostitute’s windows in De Wallen have been transformed into exhibition spaces and studios for talented clothing, shoe and street wear designers. At Oudekerksplein 22 Red Light Radio has its residence. Also “Cafe Bar de Stoof” (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 114) replaced the former red window brothel. Many “windows” remain empty.
„Cafe Bar de Stoof”
This new approach is of course opposed by the coffeeshops owners. A number of them, gathered in the Platform 1012, took the City of Amsterdam to court, claiming that the “street-by-street” approach — instead of a case-by-case evaluation — was unlawful. They lost the case, because the judge recognized the right of the mayor to pursue such a policy, which is to ensure the safety of the city. Besides, in his opinion owners of coffeeshops have to reckon with the end of tolerance for the sale of soft drugs.
In the coffieshop
A part of the Coalition Project 1012 is also the plan of revitalization of Damrak, which is the main artery of the city, connecting Central Station with the Dam Square. Many of cheap and supposedly connected with dirty business bars and hotels are to be replaced by elegant hotels, restaurants and shops.
There is no worry however that the De Wallen will completely loose its unique character, which is, after all, a big tourist attraction. Amsterdam authorities do not intend to abolish prostitution (aware of impossibility of it), but want to keep more control over it and eliminate forcing women into prostitution. Reduction of the number of flashy neon signs of erotic clubs brings many opportunities to historic appearance of the district, whose lineage dates back to the 14th century, after all.
Published: January 21, 2015 / update: February 10, 2021
*Coffeeshops operate not only in Red Light District but in the whole Amsterdam.
Source: Amsterdam Red Light District History and others
Photo: Dorota Mazur, Wikipedia