Amsterdam's Weird Culture War

Conservatives want to power-wash the city of its intrinsic character—which includes pot shops and sex shows, but also a uniquely Dutch balance.

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Amsterdam's famed red light district. (Jaroslav Moravcik/Shutterstock.com)

Amsterdam is “dirty, filthy, and too full." Such is the damning verdict of Wim Pijbes, director of the city’s Rijksmuseum, who feels so strongly about the state of Amsterdam that he published an open letter last weekend about it in the Dutch Newspaper NRC Handelsblad. A diatribe attacking both Amsterdam’s tourist business and its basic services, Pijbes list of targets was long: Segways, short-stay private accommodations, scooters, canal cruisers—“the most polluting form of tourism”—and pedal-powered beer tourers all got it in the neck, as did Amsterdam’s soft-drugs market and red light district. Pijbes also criticized the city's “medieval way of dealing with rubbish. In the wealthiest areas of the land trash bags are regularly ripped open, eaten by seagulls, rats, and other vermin."  Making the city sound like a plague ship, Pijbes concluded that, "The charm and spirited character of Amsterdam has long since faded."

This is all fighting talk, but there’s a problem with it: Many people don’t think it’s true. Snapping back, Theodor Holman, columnist at Het Parool, noted that Amsterdam has actually continued a tradition of tidiness stretching back to the Dutch Golden Age:

When I’ve come back to Amsterdam in recent years, what’s stuck me is the cleanliness … [And] culture, including Amsterdam, benefits from some decay. Why do I love Victor Hugo? Because he described the filthy Paris so masterfully.

Amusingly, several commenters supporting Holman’s piece have accused Pijbes of the dire crime of wanting their city to be like Rotterdam. Elsewhere, a spokesperson for city-promotion body Amsterdam Marketing has noted that, rather than being especially dirty, canal cruisers now overwhelmingly run on electricity and gas. Meanwhile, Michael Veling of the Dutch Cannabis Retailers Federation has not unpredictably branded Pijbes a killjoy. “Given his age, Pijbes has probably smoked a joint,” he said. “Too bad that he now puts us in a lineup with trash overflow and other nuisances."

It’s understandable that Pijbes’ feels strongly. Museumplein, the square outside the Rijksmuseum, receives five million visitors a year and frequently bears the brunt of the masses' mess after national holidays like King’s Day. His rant is nonetheless just one blast in an ongoing culture war in Amsterdam, a debate about the city’s core and its proper future. Conservatives insist that Amsterdam is paying too high a price for its anything-goes culture, degenerating into dirt and sleaze. Liberals maintain that there’s an attempt to manufacture a sense of crisis in order to push gentrification, property speculation, and its associated social cleansing.

The focal point for this debate has so far been Project 1012, a regeneration plan so named after the zip code of Amsterdam’s red light district. The project is shutting down many of the area’s famous sex-worker windows as well as a clutch of coffee shops (where marijuana is also sold and publicly smoked). As this video shows, the idea is to hand the premises over to artists and other creative workers. For opponents, this process is little more than artwashing. With the fresh batch of creatives all on temporary contracts, the arty tenants are really being used to sanitize the red light district to prepare it for a new breed of wealthier occupant.  For defenders, it’s an essential step in reclaiming part of the historic city for people who the sex industry discourages from visiting.

This isn’t a clear-cut issue. Wanting a tidier, cleaner city is no crime, nor is disliking the sight of beered-up visitors honking past you on a glorified go kart. If most Amsterdammers want their city scrubbed from top to bottom, then it’s a goal they should be free to pursue. But there is a certain honesty deficit in the arguments of the pro-cleanup camp. Amsterdam has certainly transformed recently, but it isn’t really getting dirtier or sleazier. In fact, the city is a fair sight tidier, primmer, and richer-looking than it was 20 years ago, its beauty primped and burnished despite the odd garbage-collection mishap.

It now seems implausible that the pretty, chi-chi Jordaan area was once a working-class area, while gentrification has also extended its tentacles into former proletarian strongholds like De Pijp and the Old East. Further out, the formerly squatted docks of Amsterdam North are gradually transitioning from hip to pricey, while city satellites like the polder town of Almere are growing fast, though thankfully along well-planned lines. These changes have their discontents, but they’re not a sign of a city going to the dogs. 

And yes, Amsterdam gets its fair share of rowdy tourists, many of whom may not be classy enough to file through Pijbes’ Rijksmuseum, observing the raucous, drunken times recorded by Dutch masters like Jan Steen in appropriately decorous silence. I personally make sure I give a wide berth to crass tourists spots like Rembrandtplein (or Times Square, or Leicester Square, or La Rambla) and don’t blame others for doing the same.

Still, if Amsterdam loses its sense of license, its aura of permissiveness, and its immaculate order held in delicate balance, then it will lose some of its delight, its uniqueness—even its Dutchness.  Some locals may want to tidy up, but they shouldn’t forget that there’s still a baby splashing around in Amsterdam’s dirty bath water.

(Top image via Jaroslav Moravcik/Shutterstock.com.)

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