A multi-storey “erotic centre” proposed to replace Amsterdam’s red light district has a big problem: nobody wants it in their back yard.
Last year the mayor and city council agreed plans to move and reimagine Amsterdam’s infamous red light district after years of worsening nuisance, criminality and dangerous crowd levels in the ancient centre.
An architect was paid to design a snazzy building hosting 100 rooms for sex workers, bars, restaurants, entertainment spaces and a health centre, while the city announced eight possible locations, from the RAI conference and business district to the Haven-Stad harbour development.
But there’s a problem: strident opposition from local residents, as well as sex workers who do not want to leave their brothel windows in one of the most beautiful parts of the inner city.
Femke Halsema, the mayor of Amsterdam, has gone back to the drawing board to find three new possible locations for the erotic centre due to fierce local opposition.
Halsema told the Observer that – while she recognises the concerns – she is determined to improve the quality of inner-city life, reduce the influence of organised crime in sex work and improve the rights of sex workers. An upmarket erotic centre inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is her solution.
“I hope it’s possible to create an erotic centre that has some class and distinction and isn’t a place where only petty criminals and the most vulnerable women gather,” she said.
“But I also realise there is a long road ahead of us because most people associate sex work with crime and with the vulnerability of women, with human rights being violated. So in most neighbourhoods, most people are not very enthusiastic about the erotic centre.”
Councillors are also determined that the sex trade, which is legal in the Netherlands, must change to combat ever-present human trafficking, improve sex worker safety and reduce nuisance in a city centre that is once again an “urban jungle” suffering the return of mass tourism.
“The red light district is one of the oldest and smallest parts of our city, but it is currently spilling over with bachelor parties and tourists dressed up in penis suits, harassing sex workers,” said Ilana Rooderkerk, head of the local D66 party.
“We want the men and women working as sex workers to be able to do their work safely, but we also want the ‘monkey watching’ to be a thing of the past. The erotic centre needs to put an end to nuisance in the red light district… without causing nuisance somewhere else.”
This, though, is what other areas fear. Some of the strongest opposition is from eastern Amsterdam where Mireille Westfa, an empowerment coach, co-organised a mass petition against choosing Amstel or Arena Poort from the initial long list.
“There are vulnerable young men who can easily be drawn into recruiting young girls, there are vulnerable young women with no money,” she said. “We see what is happening in the city, and women who are forced into prostitution. We have complete respect for the women: it’s what happens around it and things are difficult enough here.”
An estimated 200,000 people frequent sex workers each year in Amsterdam, some visiting the city for other purposes. However, there is also consternation about the idea of opening an erotic centre near the RAI conference centre.
Bart Vink, chairman of the Zuid district council, worries that it would increase the size of the prostitution sector by attracting more visitors via car, and damaging the existing economy. “If someone has a conference like IBC [International Broadcasting Convention] and can choose from Berlin, Barcelona and Amsterdam, this doesn’t help to attract it,” he said. “This is the function of the RAI and you should not undermine it.”
A proposed location in the Eenhoorngebied family neighbourhood provoked intense opposition from residents, while in Nieuw-West, the local PvdA Labour party told the Observer that a centre would increase “petty criminal activity”, exacerbated by inadequate street policing.
An estimated nine in 10 sex workers do not want to move either. Violet, a sex worker and representative of the Prostitution Information Centre, said: “We are not against the erotic centre: more sex worker spaces would be great. The problem is closing the windows: the erotic centre would only have 100 spaces instead of 250, in our opinion, making sex work even less safe.
“The [first eight] proposed locations are in places where there are no tourists hanging around and it’s commercially dead after 6pm. For many years we have had sex work in cohesion with other businesses in De Wallen. We are very much against it in the proposed form.”
Vink pointed out that similar plans in the Dutch city of Utrecht ended in stalemate after prostitution boats were closed in 2013 over human trafficking concerns, but no other location has been found.
Halsema, however, said she was still optimistic. “I hope before Christmas to choose the final location and make it known – the shortlist is three, but I hope we can narrow it down to one,” she said.
And how much will it cost the city? “No, no, no, we are not going to pay for an erotic centre,” she said. “It’s a private initiative. Tolerance has its limits.”