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Amsterdam’s female mayor considers pulling plug on red light district

  • Femke Halsema says city’s Wallen district should be famous for its history and not for drunken tourists ogling at sex workers through windows
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 10:34pm

Amsterdam’s first female mayor is rethinking its centuries-old red-light district.

The Wallen district sits in the oldest part of the city and at its creation in the 14th century was where free women, mostly Dutch, served sailors and traders without shame. Now, with more than 370 windows displaying scantily-clad women jeered by drunk tourists and photo-taking oglers who dehumanise them, the area, one of the biggest tourist draws in the city, is no longer fitting for a modern city, says Femke Halsema.

“Too often now we see vulnerable foreign women behind windows being booed by hordes of drunken tourists,” the 52-year-old mayor, who’s five months into her job, said in an interview in her city hall office overlooking the Amstel river. “Our inner city is one of the oldest in Europe with an enormous culture historical significance, which is obviously deteriorating. We would like tourists to see the cultural value.”

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While the city intends to keep prostitution above board and safe, the plan to move the business out of the canals district is part of a broader effort to spread visitors across the city, and owners of the window brothels are increasingly willing to consider it. With the city of about 850,000 drawing 18 million tourists in 2016 – the latest available figure – Halsema says redefining the red-light district will de-congest the canal city and revive the Dutch capital’s historic zone.

Managing tourist flows is just one of the issues on Halsema’s plate as she contends with everything from an influx of people from Brexit-driven changes in London to keeping Amsterdam housing affordable amid sizzling property prices.

We need to think about what kind of tourists we want to attract
Femke Halsema, Amsterdam Mayor

Locals have expressed concerns about rising visitor numbers, pointing to the need to keep the city liveable. Amsterdammers got the mayor’s support to scrap a planned jetty that would have allowed commercial boats to moor in a canal a few metres from the famous Anne Frank house.

“What’s of great importance to the city is that Amsterdam is a place where people live,” the mayor said. “This is not a frozen tourist spot where life becomes difficult. We need to think about what kind of tourists we want to attract, as we shouldn’t have any illusion that the number of tourists in the city will go down. It will keep on rising.”

The other influx Halsema is preparing for is Brexit-escapees. A first group of some 60 European Medicines Agency (EMA) employees is already working in Amsterdam after the regulator decided to move from London. Hundreds more are expected. The city is also working on attracting new-economy companies.

All that will mean rising demand for housing in a city already struggling with a severe shortage of roofs. While Amsterdam plans to build 52,500 houses for low to middle income families by 2025, the issue is going to be one of the biggest challenges for the mayor.

“Part of the city is becoming very rich, and housing prices are becoming very expensive as a consequence,” said the mayor, a former Green party leader in parliament. She is concerned that home options are narrowing for ordinary people like teachers, nurses, police officers, and expats with modest incomes.

Another issue she is contending with is trying to ensure the city lives up to its reputation for tolerance.

“At times Amsterdam has been called too open,” Halsema said. “I think we should currently worry more about whether we are open enough.”

Halsema recently raised hackles by publicly suggesting she will not follow a law banning burkas on public transport, in schools and government buildings. She later told councillors that Amsterdam will uphold the law, while stressing that the city and its police have more pressing priorities.

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Halsema also touched on being the first female mayor in the city’s more than 700-year history. She says she was struck by the front page of the local Het Parool newspaper in June with portraits of some previous mayors – all male, except her.

“The Netherlands is a strange country,” Halsema says. “We create the impression that we are an emancipated country, but looking at the figures in public administration, in business, at our universities, we are lagging behind. The only thing you can do is being a role model, and making sure there are many women role models visible in the city.”