As the upscaling of Amsterdam’s famous De Wallen district creates a new, fashionably louche neighborhood, Dina Nayeri considers what’s been gained and lost.

Moulin Rouge
Credit: Miquel Gonzalez

I moved to Amsterdam in the summer of 2008 with my then husband, Philip, so he could take a job at a Dutch private-equity firm. We rented an apartment from an actor in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood named the Pijp, just south of the city center and the main red-light district, De Wallen. Our first cabdriver, oblivious to my Iranian roots, warned that the area was “full of Turks.” A few days later, Philip’s boss invited us to eat at a posh restaurant in the middle of De Wallen. Conspicuous in dinner clothes, I shuffled past dozens of half-naked women in windows to get to the restaurant, where I ate foie gras and talked finance with my husband’s boss.

Over the years friends visited, always asking to see De Wallen, though Philip’s affluent Dutch colleagues dismissed it as anathema to their culture—those streets were largely for tourists, not natives. But I soon learned that more creative circles didn’t see the sekswerkers and their neon-lit windows as a cultural drain. De Wallen was a home to the arts scene. It was also a symbol of the Netherlands’ inclusive and progressive values of sexual empowerment for all genders and a valuable piece of Dutch history.

Lately, the neighborhood has begun to attract even more cultural tastemakers and entrepreneurs. Stroll through De Wallen today and you might see tourists photographing the bronze Els Rijerse statue of a prostitute, Belle, near the Oude Kerk, the city’s oldest church. But nearby you’ll also see the Cheese Deli, selling Boska knives and artisanal Gouda. A café called the Proud Otter serves fair-trade coffee. At night, young Amsterdammers might gather at the newly opened Mata Hari restaurant for a drink, while in a small alley bathed in red light, a crowd will often be found rubbernecking at a lingerie-clad woman negotiating with her customer.

Afaina de Jong, a native Amsterdammer and co-owner of the gallery space Ultra de la Rue, says that she moved to De Wallen in 2012 because to her it was an authentic, diverse part of the city. The gallery now produces a guidebook called Red Light ABC that cheerfully documents the new additions to the neighborhood. “Ultra is actually around a square by the church, where men look for the lady they like,” she says. “But you also have young cool kids who are coming to have a coffee or check out our art exhibitions.”

It’s the kind of transformation that has played out in the red-light districts of cities such as Hamburg and Frankfurt, but it’s especially striking in De Wallen. Even before 2000, when running a brothel became legal with a permit, the district was dominated by an educated and well-organized sex industry. Women specialized in a variety of sexual offerings; they had panic buttons and regular STD checks. But as a shady, undesirable tourism industry sprang up in Amsterdam, based on drinking and drugs, De Wallen felt the effects. Drunken English stag partiers stumbled through, pissing in the canals. Henri Blommers, a photographer who lives in the neighborhood and has documented life there, says, “The kindergarten behind my apartment was checked every morning for needles. Addicts buried their drugs under our tulips. You can imagine what happens when you’re coming down and unsure where you left your drugs. Flowers everywhere.”

The city fought back against this seediness in thoughtful ways, installing blue lights in public bathrooms so addicts couldn’t find a vein, experimenting with three-day wait periods for magic mushrooms, and posting signs alerting tourists to the danger of heroin sold as cocaine. In 2007, the city launched the controversial Project 1012, named after the historic district’s postal code. The proposal involved buying up brothel buildings and leasing the spaces to high-end businesses, repealing many brothel licenses, and clearing out cheap souvenir stores, massage parlors, sex shops, and arcades. In their place have appeared upscale restaurants like Anna, studios from fashion designers like Edwin Oudshoorn, hotels including Art’otel and Hotel the Exchange, the vintage store Plywood, and bespoke clothier Catta. Many of these spaces in the district—located in historic buildings and consisting of little more than a small room, window, a shower—were suitable only for prostitution and costly to renovate. So the city began to invite artists and designers to move in—allowing more temporary projects such as Red Light Fashion and Red Light Art to pop up. These installations played on sex work as a theme, dressing models in the windows like prostitutes. The number of actual prostitution windows has dropped significantly, leaving hundreds of women out of work—a consequence of cultural diversity that I fear gets overlooked.

It is a tense and invigorating moment in Amsterdam’s history. Designers, chefs, artists, and prostitutes coexist relatively peaceably for now. But sex workers complain of losing income, and activists lobby the government, as they did in a protest this April, to stop overhauling the neighborhood into a place beyond recognition.

“We like that we have prostitutes—it’s very Amsterdam. We’re not that friendly with each other, but I think that over the years they have gotten used to us,” de Jong says. But she does worry what the next five years will bring. “Is it going to be like New York’s Meatpacking District, where all the big labels move in and we have to move out? Or will it take another turn, and prostitution won’t leave?” Project 1012 offers maps and renderings that illustrate its vision for De Wallen. “Their restoration plans make the streets look like Stockholm, just an old medieval city. We should protect the diversity of what cities offer,” says Laurens Buijs, an anthropologist and ethnographer at the University of Amsterdam.

One hopes that, amid such change, Amsterdam doesn’t lose its open spirit and gritty allure. Soon, I will be moving back to Europe after three years away, and I wonder if I should choose Amsterdam again. When I was a yuppie wife yearning to discover the artistic underbelly of the city, I longed to find the Amsterdam from decades-old magazine photos, a city at the forefront of fringe culture that welcomed experimentation, drugs, and sex—everything wild and creative. Now that the Dutch are giving the city a face-lift, the Amsterdam to which I return won’t be the one I knew or the one I craved to find. Still, I’m curious to see its newest incarnation.