For Maurits Van Brunschot, the breaking point came nearly 21 years after he first settled amid the cobblestone alleyways of De Wallen, Amsterdam’s red-light district. Van Brunschot began taking his infant daughter to day care. The neighborhood’s public nursery was squeezed between two brothels, where nearly naked women in the windows beckon adult passersby. “Can you imagine this is what she sees every day?” says Van Brunschot, a food-company executive.
That question is perhaps too rarely posed by the millions of people who visit Amsterdam each year. For them, the city’s liberal laws and attitudes offer a stark contrast to the heavy policing of sex and drugs elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S., and make this tiny neighborhood one of Amsterdam’s most intriguing attractions. “Often people go to the museums and then to the red-light district,” says the city’s mayor, Job Cohen, sitting in his office with a sweeping view of the Ij River. “It is part of the image of tolerant Amsterdam.”
Until now, that is. In a break with Amsterdam’s “anything goes” attitude, Cohen and city officials have vowed to finally crack down on what they say are extensive criminal networks operating in the neighborhood. Their campaign won’t bring an end to prostitution, which has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000; nor will they systematically uproot the red-light district’s scores of coffeehouses, where the sale of marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms has long been allowed. But the easy tolerance of sex and drugs that has so long characterized Amsterdam is fading fast. In its place comes a growing concern over the criminal enterprises that have moved in on what were once cottage industries of vice.
The presence of these networks is hardly new to long-term residents. For years they have warned officials and police that the owners of the narrow 17th century canalside buildings were charging hugely inflated rents to the sole group of tenants willing to pay them: brothel managers. Buildings were bought and sold within weeks at steep profits, leading officials to conclude that millions of euros were being pumped through the area with little oversight a perfect environment for large-scale money laundering. Police also say that more and more prostitutes now work for pimps, in violation of Dutch laws that require them to work independently.
Beginning last year, the city has intensified its pursuit of financial investigations into the neighborhood’s sex and drug businesses. The officials’ best tool is an anti-money-laundering law that obliges all business owners in Amsterdam’s red-light district to disclose their financial records when they apply for permits and licenses; anyone suspected of criminal activity can have their application suspended or refused, whether or not the charges have been proved. The strategy has sent a chill through De Wallen, where long-time building owners some nearing retirement age have little stomach for long legal wrangles.
In a deal brokered by city officials last October, one of the district’s biggest brothel owners, “Fat” Charlie Geerts, sold 18 buildings alongside one of Amsterdam’s most picturesque canals to the semipublic property company NV Stadsgoed for $37 million. Officials immediately closed down the buildings’ 51 brothel windows, and installed in 16 of them young fashion designers, who pay a token monthly rent of $220. That’s just one small piece of a much more ambitious cleanup initiative. A wall map in City Hall shows a block-by-block plan that aims to halve the size of the red-light district over the next few years by shutting scores of brothels, according to Deputy Mayor Lodewijk Asscher, who has spearheaded the campaign. “People think just because the windows are transparent that the place is transparent,” says Asscher. “But there is still a lot of abuse and trafficking of women.”
Walk along Amsterdam’s inner canals and you retrace the steps of centuries of sailors whose ships docked here after months at sea. These narrow paths long marked the water’s edge, and they have drawn prostitutes since the 1400s. Many of them raised children upstairs in the canal houses and plied their trade below, much as did the neighborhood’s butchers and bakers. While those old houses have been painstakingly preserved, little else remains the same. Many prostitutes still show off their bodies in about 400 display windows, wearing sliver-sized underwear and heavy makeup. But other traders of more immediate use to locals, like food stores, have largely vanished from these streets and been replaced by a profusion of sex shows, erotica stores, pornography cinemas and at least 150 brothels. Amsterdam’s sex industry is worth tens of millions of euros per year, officials say. From this year onward, those funds are theoretically taxable, but Asscher admits that while prostitutes’ income taxes could bring the city millions in revenues, few are likely to pay up underlining the city’s position that legalizing the sex industry has done little to unravel criminals’ control over it.