Most people think of Amsterdam’s Red Light District as a den of iniquity, full of high-heeled prostitutes and seedy shops and cafés promising a good time.
Those people haven’t been to Amsterdam lately.
The district — famed for the red lights that illuminate its many windows, signaling the sex trade — dates as far back as the late 1200s and is located in the oldest part of the city, De Wallen. The drugs and prostitutes are still there, but change is brewing, literally, as a wave of young entrepreneurs sets up new businesses in the area, including posh cafés and upscale shops.
“We are very happy to bring the focus back to this beautiful area for something other than prostitution,” says Karlijn Timmermans, co-owner of KOKO, a café and fashion boutique.
Hers is one of a number of shops that have opened in De Wallen in the past two years, with an eye toward turning it into a hipster wonderland. Already in the mix: Cut Throat, a barber shop serving specialty coffee; a meticulously curated art gallery called Ultra de La Rue; a stylish Korean restaurant, Yokiyo; and De Prael, a microbrewery.
It was quite surreal at first, seeing the prostitutes all the time. But now we’re friends.
The owners are attracted to both the district’s beauty and its rough edges. “It’s like a postcard, but I like its dirty side,” says Hugo van Heijningen, from Red Light Radio, an online music station that broadcasts from a window where prostitutes used to flaunt their goods. When Van Heijningen asks artists if they’re willing to come play in an old brothel, he usually hears: “Hell, yeah!”
Some of the businesspeople have even bonded with their new neighbors. “It was quite surreal at first, seeing the prostitutes all the time. But now we’re friends; we chat and give them coffee,” says Tony Michiels, co-founder of Ton Ton Club. Michiels traded a peep-show carousel for a dozen game machines, turning a sex shop into a popular arcade. “I think it’s working well in the area because it’s fun,” he says.
So far business seems to be going well for the newcomers. “When we opened, we didn’t know what to expect,” says Manook Zorab, owner of the exotic Mata Hari restaurant. He acknowledges that people haven’t always equated the Red Light District with fine food. ”But we are doing great. We’re fully booked every weekend and breaking even after just two years,” he adds.
Other businesses, like delicatessens and art galleries, are scheduled to open soon, helping to attract a different type of visitor to the area. Fashionistas, coffee connoisseurs and artists can already be spotted among the usual flocks of drunken, thrill-seeking tourists.
“Locals never came to De Wallen, but this is changing. Most of our customers are either from Amsterdam or expats living here,” says Erik de Kock, the manager of Quartier Putain. As its French name indicates, this coffee shop and hip-hop record label used to be a brothel and, after just a year, has managed to amass a regular stream of respectable patrons.
The objective is to fight crime and decay. We want to give this area back to the people of Amsterdam and also help visitors appreciate its historical value.
The district’s hipster renaissance is no accident. Amsterdam’s city council is helping launch most of these businesses through its contentious 1012 project. Named after the area’s zip code, the initiative has been trying to revamp the district’s battered image since 2007.
The goal is not to attract more tourists — Amsterdam receives 4 million visitors a year, a number that’s been growing steadily for the past decade. Instead, the council wants to make the area more appealing to locals. “The objective is to fight crime and decay. We want to give this area back to the people of Amsterdam and also help visitors appreciate its historical value,” explains Edwin Oppedijk, a city council spokesperson.
The project initially focused on law enforcement but recently shifted its efforts to real estate. The council is now providing subsidies to help private contractors buy out brothel owners and rent the buildings to up-and-coming creatives.
The number of prostitution windows has since plummeted from 500 to 350, and the council is looking to introduce higher-end cafes in place of the seedier variety. “It will always be a red light district,” says Oppedijk. “We are just trying to diversify it.”
Needless to say, the 1012 has the sex industry up in arms. “They’re going to destroy the neighborhood,” says Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute and founder of Amsterdam’s Prostitution Information Center. “They are not doing it for the prostitutes. They buy the brothel owners out, and the hipster shops pay very low rents, but the prostitutes get nothing. Where can they go? They will go underground.”
The ever-evolving nature of prostitution is a reminder of the dark side of the demeaning business, which is often unsafe both for the women who trade in it and the areas of town they occupy.
Pro or con, the wheels of gentrification are already in motion, and stopping them seems unlikely, if not impossible. On Majoor’s street, near the Oude Kerk — Amsterdam’s oldest church turned art gallery — three new shops have replaced brothels, and the council says the area will soon be prostitute-free.
Even some newcomers, who appreciate the area’s history, are expressing concern that gentrification may go too far. “It’d be a real pity if we ended up with just Starbucks and fancy shops. I really like the combination of old and new,” says Michiels. Van Heijningen agrees. “I think it’s already perfect. It wouldn’t make sense to have a Red Light Radio surrounded by only coffee shops,” he says.
Hipsters might diversify tourism in the district and encourage locals to frequent the infamous yet beautiful heart of Amsterdam. But as more windows turn off their red lights, the pursuit of respectability risks blunting the sordid edges that have long attracted people to the area.
After all, says Majoor: “Window brothels with a church in the middle — that’s life!”
Why you should care
Because Amsterdam’s X-rated neighborhood is aiming for A-list status.