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Are all red light districts bad and undesirable?

Times Square in New York has, as we all know, a checkered past. For much of its history, it has served as an important civic gathering space for New Yorkers. But it has also alternated between being a place for New Year’s Eve countdowns and being a place for salacious entertainment. This was the case as far as back as the late 19th century when prostitution from New York’s entertainment and red light district (then known as the Tenderloin) started moving northward.

But it was also the case during the economic fallout of the Great Depression and again the case from the 1960s to 1990s when the area become a symbol for a more broadly decaying New York City. The area was seedy, dangerous, and according to tax records, fairly vacant, notwithstanding all the sex shops. Most would probably agree that this was not a high point for the area. As a rule, cities are generally better off when their buildings aren’t vacant and decaying.

But are all red light districts bad and undesirable?

Last year, Amsterdam voted in favor of closing down its famed city center red light district and moving it to some kind of new “erotic center” on the outskirts of the city, in a location that is yet to be determined. Not surprisingly, this decision hasn’t been without some controversy. Local sex workers seem to be generally against the idea and petitions are now circulating, such as this one here from Failed Architecture, asking the building industry not to participate in the build out of this new center.

In some ways Amsterdam has the opposite problem compared to what Times Square experienced between the 1960s and the early 1990s. Amsterdam is too popular. Back in 2019, prior to COVID, the city saw some 22 million unique annual visitors. And I am guessing that more than a few of these visitors probably got drunk, wandered through the narrow streets of De Wallen, and peed on the side of a few buildings. Is it unsafe? I don’t know. I’ve never been. Is it immoral? Depends on who you ask. Is it annoying for locals? Probably.

The city has been clear in that it views this as over-tourism, and also the wrong kind of tourism. Rather than rely on sleaze, Amsterdam wants to “reset” its tourism approach and focus more on highbrow things like art and culture. This is an understandable objective. Because presumably the tourists who actively seek out art and culture attractions are, you know, a bit less reckless and a bit less likely to pee on the side of buildings. Of course, you never know.

But is this really the right city planning approach? Is there any cultural value to these historic uses? And what does this say about the city’s famously liberal attitudes? More specifically, does wanting to move your red light district from the middle of the city to some less conspicuous location — in an effort to dissociate your city brand — a reflection that you’re becoming maybe a little less tolerant towards the activities that take place in said district? It certainly seems like it.

But I don’t know, maybe that isn’t entirely the case. Maybe there’s a tenuous argument that the city is just as liberal and permissive. After all, the city is still generally okay with this kind of debauchery. It just wants this debauchery to take place in a different area outside of the overcrowded city center. In other words, the activities themselves aren’t the problem. It is arguably the negative externalities that come along with them that need to be managed. And a suburban “erotic center” is simply better for that.

What are your thoughts? And what would you do if you were the mayor of Amsterdam?

Photo by Joan Oger on Unsplash

3 Comments

  1. As someone who lives in Amsterdam and having once lived in the center I completely understand how over tourism damages the quality of life in Amsterdam. But relocating the red light district to a factory like big building outside the ring road of Amsterdam may cause more problems than it solves. Virtually all of the prostitutes are against the plan primarily because they will not feel safe going and doing their business in such a location in the outskirts. Let alone all the dubious people and activities that will surround such a “erotic center”. They are in effect just relocating the problem, creating then discomfort for the (poorer) people that live in the proximity of this new erotic center. The real problem is the quantity of people walking around the red light district not the quality. Which is the real argument the mayor of Amsterdam uses to justify this relocation. If we can only just have high cultured, well educated and wealthier tourists everything will be alright again in Amsterdam, the argument goes. She even wants to prohibit selling weed to foreign visitors. It is truly a dilemma for any city grabbling with the economic advantages of mass tourism at the expanse of the quality of life of the locals. Is there a danger that the city center gets too clean and high end? Interesting enough the prostitutes in Amsterdam are legal, highly organised and networked for goal of self protection and autonomy. They are also argue that the red light district is part of the historical cultural heritage of the city and should be protected under the law. Long ago European cities were walled off for protection but also control the amount of visitors entering. Much like buildings and fair grounds have a maximum of occupants due to fire and safety regulations maybe cities like Amsterdam should have similar regulations but for the city. If Amsterdam wants to truly be an inclusionary city as they claim that includes unfortunately enough a bit of riff-raff as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Burton, good to hear from you. These are great insights. I have never been to Amsterdam (though I’ll be there in a few weeks), and so I was trying to avoid taking a firm position on this issue. But I agree with your comments.

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      • Hi Brandon, thanks for your reply. Glad to hear you are coming to Amsterdam. If you need any inside information on building projects here in Amsterdam, like the Sluisbuurt I am involved in or just meet for a coffee. Happy to make time.

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