Why Should We Care About the Red Light District of Amsterdam?
The coronavirus lockdown in Amsterdam has re-introduced a nostalgic narrative about the city’s Red Light District. If the narrative gains enough popular and political traction, the district could be on the brink of its most fundamental metamorphosis in centuries. With this potential change, the sex worker communities and the inclusive character of the neighbourhood are under threat.
There’s nothing like a global pandemic to highlight the dire inequalities and power differentials that exist within society. Even in Amsterdam, one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, it didn’t take long for the already vulnerable to teeter on the edge of collapse during the lockdown of March and April 2020.
Amsterdammers, like everyone else, have adapted to a new reality: keeping a physical distance of 1.5 metres away from each other. Yet, this has been devastating for the sex worker community in the Red Light District whose entire livelihoods rely on close bodily proximity. Rough estimates are that about half of the sex workers in Amsterdam have returned to their origin countries, the other half are barely surviving on social grants and charity. The transgender community, many of whom are undocumented, are one of the worst hit.
Rough estimates are that about half of the sex workers in Amsterdam have returned to their origin countries, the other half are barely surviving on social grants and charity.
Moreover, with the tourists gone and the brothel windows closed, a nostalgic narrative about the district (known as de Wallen) is gaining momentum. It’s a familiar story about returning de Wallen to a pastoral idyllic version of itself. Now, during corona — without the smell of weed, the sounds of music or too many people — de Wallen presents an ideal to strive for, a place reclaimed from mass tourism. Yet, with this nostalgia comes a homogenizing effect. The diverse and inclusive culture generated over decades in de Wallen , as a place for any subculture or fantasy, is at risk of being flattened, worse still, completely gentrified.
Now, during corona, de Wallen — without the smell of weed, the sounds of music or too many people — presents an ideal to strive for, a place reclaimed from outside forces.
Over the past few months I’ve been writing, exploring and spending time in the Red Light District as part of our research project Take Care 1012. We’ve been researching the sight, smell, touch, sound and taste of the district to understand the relationship between the senses and city life. For this, I have relied on conversations with the Prostitution Information Center (PIC), an organisation founded 26 years ago by the former sex worker-turned-activist Mariska Majoor. It runs (in part) on donations and with the help of volunteers, who care deeply for the rights of sex workers and the district. The PIC community are the embodied living archive of this part of Amsterdam, many of the (her)stories of de Wallen rest with them.
Members of the PIC community have been incredible raconteurs and co-researchers in our project. Sunny, who manages My Red Light, a not-for-profit brothel where sex workers are paid salaries, gave me a private tour of their buildings on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in March this year. She described the olfactory landscape of these intimate spaces allowing me a small glimpse into the sensory dimensions of her world. However, as the lockdown was announced, backpackers, coffee shop customers and tourist numbers dwindled, and so did the sex workers.
By April, priorities shifted and the focus for many workers in the district turned to the difficult few months that lay ahead. Despite the social grants that some of the sex workers were able to access, I heard stories of others returning to Eastern Europe or turning to other (illicit) and more dangerous ways of meeting clients. As the pandemic neared its peak, the Prostitution Information Centre even advertised a food charity for its community. Homeless people appeared in the district, huddling in spaces where rowdy bar patrons would normally gather. That we could still pursue our research, in the context of corona, was a privilege. Suddenly we had a whole new focus: de Wallen not as a unique part of Amsterdam and the world, but as a unique space whose subcultures and communities are at risk of complete erasure.
Suddenly we had a whole new focus: de Wallen not as a unique part of Amsterdam and the world, but as a unique space whose subcultures and communities are at risk of complete erasure.
During this time, my project partner Bob van Toor commented that the neighbourhood was no different to any other in Amsterdam during Covid-19. Emptied of crowds and without its open-air museum feel, de Wallen was just an “ordinary” place where neighbours walked their dogs and cats lazed about lethargically. It was in fact animals, foremost the ducks, who seemed most shocked and confused, chasing after the few pedestrians still left, baffled at the lack of crowds feeding them.
…the Red Light District was no different to any other in Amsterdam during Covid-19.
Yet, a lot has changed in a stunningly short amount of time in de Wallen during the pandemic. For one, the soundscape of the district has completely shifted. I associate a certain repertoire of sounds with de Wallen: it’s a raucous, highly charged, unbridled soundtrack. By contrast, during corona sounds include a collection of domestic acoustics: the sound of Netflix drifting from the windows, the whirring of electric food delivery bikes, the clipped sounds of dogs claws walking on the cobblestones, and joggers’ feet pounding the pavement. (The Red Light District is usually so crowded that walking, let alone jogging, is a challenge.) I noticed amplified bird song and the weirdly pervasive drone of air vents. Ordinarily, both of these sounds cannot compete with the din of the crowds, but with a silence descending on the neighbourhood, a gentle new soundscape emerged.
I associate a certain repertoire of sounds with de Wallen: it’s a raucous, highly charged, unbridled soundtrack.
I spent an evening with the Dutch sound artist Arnoud van Traa as he and I collected recordings in the area. We shot the breeze with neighbours. Many loved the new silence. One resident told us that he was sleeping well, for the first time in a year. In contrast, his neighbour across the street, who worked as a bar manager in the area, missed the vibrant atmosphere of his neighbourhood.
with a silence descending on the neighbourhood, a new soundscape emerged.
Without the crowds, the smellscape of the Red Light District transformed almost overnight too. The overpowering scent of sugar, often pumped through air vents on the Warmoesstraat no longer enticed stoned tourists into the candy shops. And the scent of ripened cheese from souvenir shops disappeared altogether. The public pissoirs no longer reeked of pee but were suddenly redolent of disinfectant soap. The smell of weed had disappeared. Interestingly, construction work continued unabated in de Wallen and the smell of dust and paint wafted down the small alleyways. The scent of newness was pervasive.
In April one evening, a woman who passed me on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal with her pug and remarked: “This is how the neighbourhood should always be, this is the best version of de Wallen”. Newspaper reports confirmed her sentiment. On the 1st of May the NRC newspaper ran the headline: “The Red Light District without puke and joints: suddenly there’s hope” [De Amsterdamse Wallen zonder kots en joints: plots is er hoop]. For us as researchers, it seemed as if the senses played a large part in shaping and even fuelling this nostalgic narrative. The lockdown version of the Red Light District became a sensorial space of longing with its gentle domestic acoustics, the scent of disinfectant and freedom of movement.
In early May I watched the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, on livestream via Facebook. Halsema seems to be a well-respected figure amongst the Prostitution Information Centre community, despite some of their differences. In the broadcast of a book launch, filmed in de Wallen, the mayor was a guest of Mariska Majoor (founder of PIC). During her speech, Halsema turns to the near-empty street behind her with outstretched arm and muses: “Maybe we should hope that the soul of de Wallen returns […] as it was taken over by hordes of tourists, who also somewhat obscured how beautiful it is here […]. [I’m] homesick for how the Red Light District was, how it was before the crowds.”
But, when exactly was this mythical time that the mayor and others dream of? The 1990s? 1980s? 1970s? I can’t imagine it’s the 1960s, which sociologist Raoul Serrée describes through quite sobering first-hand accounts in his book De Wallen in de jaren ’60. It doesn’t always make for light reading. One account by a resident who lived in de Wallen during the 60s details how sex workers, beaten black and blue by their pimps, cowered on the streets of the Red Light District. Or what about medieval Amsterdam? Very few amongst us would even survive de Wallen around that time. Historian Geert Mak describes Amsterdam as a stench-filled brutish place where children were drowned in the IJ river for stealing. According to the Dutch urbanist René Boer, the 1980s were a mess too: “even the mailman had police escorts in de Wallen so he could do his job”.
So in which period do we find this mythical urban nirvana that “we” are supposedly harking back to? The point is, that for many, not only the mayor, this vision of de Wallen only exists in the mind’s eye. We can’t turn back the clock on globalisation, mass tourism, let alone capitalism. A nostalgic vision is a subjective, naive take on the neighbourhood that has never existed in such an idealised form, even in the best parts of history.
A nostalgic vision is a subjective, naive take on the neighbourhood that has never existed in such an idealised form, even in the best parts of history.
“The feel of de Wallen under corona is like that of a beautiful old Dutch village” says Boer, who is also a resident of the district and closely follows the developments there. Boer, though, firmly dispels any nostalgia: “It’s not like these good old times ever really existed in de Wallen. This has always been a chaotic complex neighbourhood with a lot of challenges. This is a bit of a fake nostalgia”.
While nothing is certain yet, Boer theorises that, “the municipality might use the opportunity to take the sex workers out of the area. Rather than supporting this economic sector like many others, such as the national airline for example, they might seize the moment to displace them permanently. That is quite infuriating”. [In late April 2020 the Dutch and French governments announced they will bail out Air-France-KLM during the coronavirus pandemic with €10 billion of taxpayers money.]
“This has always been a chaotic complex neighbourhood with a lot of challenges. This is a bit of a fake nostalgia” - René Boer
As I write this essay (in June 2020), the city council of Amsterdam is (again) debating the future of the Red Light District. While hairdressers and even masseuses are back in their salons, sex workers are not legally allowed to work until the 1 September 2020. That’s equates to about 6 months of unemployment. Some in the PIC community feel they are being “smoked out” of de Wallen. If they don’t return to work earlier than September, it’s unlikely they ever will. What will it mean for a city and for the history and character of this neighbourhood to lose one of its most defining communities? And more importantly, what does say about city makers when a community are stripped of agency and marginalised in one of the worst possible times? If we care, for others and for the city, will our hopes be attached to the nostalgic ideas of what de Wallen once was, or what it is: a space of inclusion and diversity?
Dr. Natalie Dixon is the co-founder of affect lab and researcher for Take Care 1012, a project about sensory urbanism and the ethics of care in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. This essay is written with thanks to the Take Care 1012 team Roelof Petrus van Wyk and Bob van Toor.
Debates about the Red Light District are complex. To add further context and background to this essay I conducted an interview with the Dutch urbanist and writer René Boer, who lives and works in de Wallen. His thoughts and perceptions of de Wallen add a clarion voice to the debates about the area. This interview will resonate with anyone who is interested in city life and what it means to care for communities and the urban environment - Natalie Dixon
The Dutch Emergency Fund provides financial relief to sex workers during corona. The fund is collaborating with a number of other foundations to enable their work, including Belle Hulp & Ondersteuning, Trans United Europe, Door2Door, Stichting Rijnstad, GGD Gelderland-Zuid en PMW Hart voor Brabant. If you want to make a donation to the fund go to the DUTCH EMERGENCY FUND website.