That question is perhaps too rarely posed by the millions of people who visit Amsterdam each year. For them, the city's liberal laws and attitudes offer a stark contrast to the heavy policing of sex and drugs elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S., and make this tiny neighborhood one of Amsterdam's most intriguing attractions. "Often people go to the museums and then to the red-light district," says the city's mayor, Job Cohen, sitting in his office with a sweeping view of the Ij River. "It is part of the image of tolerant Amsterdam."
Until now, that is. In a break with Amsterdam's "anything goes" attitude, Cohen and city officials have vowed to finally crack down on what they say are extensive criminal networks operating in the neighborhood. Their campaign won't bring an end to prostitution, which has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000; nor will they systematically uproot the red-light district's scores of coffeehouses, where the sale of marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms has long been allowed. But the easy tolerance of sex and drugs that has so long characterized Amsterdam is fading fast. In its place comes a growing concern over the criminal enterprises that have moved in on what were once cottage industries of vice.
The presence of these networks is hardly new to long-term residents. For years they have warned officials and police that the owners of the narrow 17th century canalside buildings were charging hugely inflated rents to the sole group of tenants willing to pay them: brothel managers. Buildings were bought and sold within weeks at steep profits, leading officials to conclude that millions of euros were being pumped through the area with little oversight — a perfect environment for large-scale money laundering. Police also say that more and more prostitutes now work for pimps, in violation of Dutch laws that require them to work independently.
Beginning last year, the city has intensified its pursuit of financial investigations into the neighborhood's sex and drug businesses. The officials' best tool is an anti-money-laundering law that obliges all business owners in Amsterdam's red-light district to disclose their financial records when they apply for permits and licenses; anyone suspected of criminal activity can have their application suspended or refused, whether or not the charges have been proved. The strategy has sent a chill through De Wallen, where long-time building owners — some nearing retirement age — have little stomach for long legal wrangles.
In a deal brokered by city officials last October, one of the district's biggest brothel owners, "Fat" Charlie Geerts, sold 18 buildings alongside one of Amsterdam's most picturesque canals to the semipublic property company NV Stadsgoed for $37 million. Officials immediately closed down the buildings' 51 brothel windows, and installed in 16 of them young fashion designers, who pay a token monthly rent of $220. That's just one small piece of a much more ambitious cleanup initiative. A wall map in City Hall shows a block-by-block plan that aims to halve the size of the red-light district over the next few years by shutting scores of brothels, according to Deputy Mayor Lodewijk Asscher, who has spearheaded the campaign. "People think just because the windows are transparent that the place is transparent," says Asscher. "But there is still a lot of abuse and trafficking of women."
Walk along Amsterdam's inner canals and you retrace the steps of centuries of sailors whose ships docked here after months at sea. These narrow paths long marked the water's edge, and they have drawn prostitutes since the 1400s. Many of them raised children upstairs in the canal houses and plied their trade below, much as did the neighborhood's butchers and bakers. While those old houses have been painstakingly preserved, little else remains the same. Many prostitutes (some of them men) still show off their bodies in about 400 display windows, wearing sliver-sized underwear and heavy makeup. But other traders of more immediate use to locals, like food stores, have largely vanished from these streets and been replaced by a profusion of sex shows, erotica stores, pornography cinemas and at least 150 brothels. Amsterdam's sex industry is worth tens of millions of euros per year, officials say. From this year onward, those funds are theoretically taxable, but Asscher admits that while prostitutes' income taxes could bring the city millions in revenues, few are likely to pay up — underlining the city's position that legalizing the sex industry has done little to unravel criminals' control over it.
Residents claim that the neighborhood has changed drastically in recent years, as the numbers of Dutch prostitutes dropped and thousands of women, many from Eastern Europe, arrived to take their place. "We used to know all the prostitutes, they were our neighbors," says Gerrit van der Veen, a management consultant who has lived in De Wallen since 1972. Van der Veen, like other locals, blames Amsterdam's government for ignoring the growing presence of traffickers and pimps, preferring instead to promote the city's open-mindedness. "The government just gave away the old center of Amsterdam," he says. Cohen admits that the city missed early warning signs of criminal involvement. "It took some time before we realized that there was so much trafficking and abuses," he says.
That slow-footedness gave criminals time to wrap their tentacles around the district, as the city's first high-profile sex-trafficking trial showed this summer. Two German-Turkish brothers, Saban and Hasan Baran, were charged with running a large-scale prostitution operation, assaulting prostitutes and forcing some of them to undergo breast-enlargement operations; they were convicted and sentenced to prison terms in July. Yet despite that victory, law-enforcement officials believe many other criminals are escaping prosecution. "Girls just will not go to the police, in case these men threaten their families at home," says a police officer who didn't want to be named. He says he has seen prostitutes beaten with baseball bats and burned with cigarettes; even then, they steer clear of cops.
Yet critics of the government's cleanup argue that shutting brothels will simply lead prostitutes to become streetwalkers, leaving them still more vulnerable to abuse. "If you want to help these women, this is the not the way to do it," says Mariska Majoor, who worked as a teenage prostitute during the 1980s and now runs the neighborhood's Prostitution Information Center. She and others are pushing for more public-funded campaigns to inform prostitutes of their legal rights against pimps and traffickers, and to help those who want out to find other jobs.
At City Hall, Asscher says prostitution and the use of soft drugs will still be widely tolerated under the new plan, but that criminals will not be. The neighborhood could boom once the sex industry is "substantially diminished," he says. "Real estate investors realize this is a beautiful part of the capital that has great potential."
Behind the brothel doors, the plan has sparked unease about the future. Slim Gharbi, 43, who runs a brothel company called La Vie en Rose, believes city officials have exaggerated the area's criminality and placed its entire sex industry under suspicion. "I make so much money I would be crazy to do anything illegal," he says, sitting at a computer in which he stores personal files on dozens of prostitutes — including the necessary proof that they are over 21 and allowed to work in the European Union. Gharbi can earn thousands of euros a day by renting out 32 rooms to prostitutes in three eight-hour shifts; he keeps 15% and gives the rest to the two absentee building owners. The women charge their clients a going rate of about $75 for sex; the rooms rent for up to $225 for the shift between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., when the tourist groups have left and the serious customers arrive. Says Gharbi, "I rent rooms just like Mr. Hilton."
Yet despite Gharbi's innocuous characterization, and La Vie en Rose's romantic name, the prostitutes who plunk down cash and collect their keys at the beginning of their shifts describe their work as tough, lonely and often sordid. Ivana, a 27-year-old Dutch woman, says she began working as a prostitute after spending two years in jail and finding no other employment when she got out. Now, she says, "I switch my mind to zero when I work." Irina, a petite Ukrainian, says she has made "a lot of money" after 10 years working in De Wallen and continues to attract steady business from "men who are alone and scared." Despite her long experience as a prostitute, she has kept her work a secret from her two children, ages 21 and 14. Monika, a 26-year-old Romanian, says she too earns well — sometimes as much as $15,000 a month — and can send money home to her parents. Yet she says her work has kept her from having a boyfriend and left her isolated from her family, who have no idea that she is a prostitute.
So far Cohen and Asscher have not explained which of these prostitutes or the thousands of others will survive the red-light district's transformation. But the city's plans have already jolted many into contemplating a different future for themselves. Monika says she thinks she will one day find a regular job — the kind she could tell her parents about. After a decade working as a prostitute, Irina has begun studying to be a Russian-language tour guide around Amsterdam. And Van Brunschot, the company executive, says he has grown tired of waiting for the city to change his neighborhood. Earlier this year he began looking for a new home, either in Amsterdam's western suburbs or in the seaside city of Haarlem. "I've told myself I'll be out by the end of this year," he says. He'll be one of hundreds leaving. But many of them have not the slightest idea where they'll end up.