The extremes of Dutch tolerance and liberation are made explicitly clear to anyone who passes through Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal , or, “De Wallen”, also known as the Red Light District. Obviously this area is more than a tourist-trap money-machine when you stop to think about it: Why would a world-class center of cultural heritage like Amsterdam place it’s main area for prostitution, drugs and gambling in the very heart of its capital? In most cities in the world this kind of area is a place for the especially interested people to seek out in the dark corners and dangerous areas, rather than an unavoidably central, beautiful 17th century UNESCO-listed streets separated by canals. These streets are among the original first streets of Amsterdam, with the Oude Kerk (Old Church), the swans, the brothels and coffeeshops, casino’s and sex clubs, bars and, surprisingly enough, quite a lot apartments. Expensive apartments.
An incredibly intriguing TV-documentary called “Wonen op de Wallen” (living on de Wallen) sought to show how it is for people to live in this particular area, since it has long been a place of both national and international controversy, especially in the 80’s when the brothels and soft-drugs were just legalized, it was not as safe as it is today. But since then it has had close attention and care from the city council and the local council (consisting of the people who actually live there) and apparantly, today, it is an incredible place to live. I gathered some of the statements from the interviews in the documentary that I found the most interesting.
- People who have lived there since the 80’s and early 90’s remember when the brothels were legally established and it officially became the original “Red Light District”. Apparantly then, because it is not such a vast neighborhood, most people knew each other, including the prostitutes who worked and lived there. It was a cosy and relaxed neighborhood, “iedereen deed z’n eigen ding” (everyone did their own thing) – prostitution was just a more peculiar way of life. People find the freedom and independence awesome. Today, sadly, the relations with the prostitutes are different as almost all of them are foreigners, often from Eastern Europe and non-Dutch speaking, so the communication is not the same.
- When the neighborhood went through it’s toughest times, many people left. But the people who stayed were really die-hard “dit is MIJN buurt” (this is MY neighborhood) and so the remaining people became closer.
- The locals wouldn’t mind if there also popped up a normal grocery store among all the sex shops, just for convenience.
- The councils have always stressed in their plans to avoid a mono-culture of tourism, which would be 100% sex and drugs. They try to fit in galleries, cinemas, designer shops and they really appreciate the fact that they have a school situated there. Whenever they get the rare opportunity to buy an empty or bankrupt house in the area, they have so many plans for renovating and using it that they can hardly agree on a final decision.
- Apart from the English and Italian tourists who shout a lot and want all the attention, it’s actually a nice and peaceful neighborhood, surprisingly enough, not too noisy in the weekends.
- It seems that still more swans are immigrating to these canals.
The Dutch have a collective idea of openness, of leaving your curtains open because you have nothing to hide. By not only legalizing but also centering what is the main cause of crime in evolved societies, the problems have been solved – by simply deconstructing what was earlier perceived as problematic. People want sex and drugs, so they should have legal access to it. Not a bad way to create one of the leading societies in the world.
PS: I regret that the photos from the most colorful place in this city were taken on a B&W-film.
PPS: If you understand Dutch you can watch “Wonen op de Wallen” on Uitzendinggemist.nl for free.