Two weeks ago a young Dutch fashion designer named Bas Kosters opened a new store. His colorful and sumptuous creations—skirts, handbags, sweatshirts—merit attention.
But the most striking aspect of his new venue is the location. Kosters’s work is on display in Amsterdam’s Red Light District behind two tall windows that until recently were used as a brothel. The ladies have vanished. The red lights and curtains have been removed and replaced by Kosters’s hyperfashionable clothes.
Kosters found this studio thanks to an ambitious plan by the Amsterdam city government. 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.
The driving force behind the cleanup is Lodewijk Asscher. A young star of the Dutch Labour Party and deputy mayor of Amsterdam, Asscher believes it’s time to deliver his hometown from sleaze—even if he’s scuppering a $100 million-a-year industry in the process. He is pleasantly surprised, he says, by the public support he’s gotten for the plan.
But not everybody is happy about the change. Jan Broers, owner of Royal Taste, a hotel in the heart of the Red Light District, and eight prostitute windows, has formed a protest committee called Platform 1012 (named after the area’s ZIP code). He claims to have collected thousands of signatures. This week the group staged a protest march, starting in front of the Casa Rosso and ending in Dam Square, where thousands of people shared a minute of silence. They carried pink balloons and signs saying “Hands off the Red Light District” and a poster of Asscher doctored to look as if he was with a street hooker.
Broers is afraid that fewer tourists will come to a sexless Amsterdam, harming legitimate, legal businesses. Most of all, he says, he feels “stigmatized” by the city government. “With all his rhetoric, deputy mayor Asscher is giving the district a bad name throughout the world,” he says. “People phone me up from abroad every day, worried we might be gone already.” Broers questions the city’s premise that prostitution leads to criminal activities in the area. Indeed, the city, which is acting under laws that require only a suspicion of criminal activity, can point only to studies from the mid-1990s. “It’s a shield. The city just wants to gentrify the neighborhood, so they can make some good money. And they’re using public funds to buy all the real estate.”
And what about the ladies? The Red Light District has about 450 windows where women offer their services. The majority of those will be closed down.
The Dutch Sex Workers Union fears that many women and girls will be forced to start walking the streets. On its Web site the union calls the city’s plans to certify pimps “bizarre.” Since prostitution has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000, it argues, sex workers don’t need pimps to find a place to work. Ruth Hopkins, a Dutch-English investigative journalist who has written extensively on prostitution in Amsterdam, says the city government overstates the extent of involuntary prostitution. “Even though there are gangs of pimps, a lot of women, mostly Africans and Latinos, do their work in complete independence,” she says. Hopkins fears that a cleaned-up Amsterdam will be a boring city.
– Source: Thijs Niemantsverdriet, Newsweek, Feb. 8, 2008
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