Red lights go out as Amsterdam mayor cleans up his city

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The Independent Online

The narrow streets of the Wallen have been a hangout for hookers and their clients in Amsterdam since the 17th century when the city was the hub of a global trading empire besieged by sailors and merchants.

But the scantily-clad women posing seductively in Amsterdam's red-lit windows will have to find another place to tout for business after a public housing corporation sealed a €25m (£17.5m) deal to buy 18 buildings and their 51 windows – a third of the total – from a brothel kingpin.

The writing has been on the wall for parts of Amsterdam's red light district ever since the city's mayor, Job Cohen, pledged to clean up the downtown back streets, swapping seediness for sophistication and replacing the neon lights and window prostitutes with stylish shops and eateries,

"There's just too much sex in this part of the city," Mr Cohen said. The mayor denies wanting to rid Amsterdam of prostitution altogether – a move which would create enormous headaches for tourism authorities, as well as denting the city's revenues. But he is concerned the surfeit of sleaziness is turning the area into a mecca of drug dealing and petty crime.

"It is not about chasing prostitution of the Wallen," the mayor said. "What we do want is to get rid of the underlying criminality."

Under pressure from Mr Cohen, the city refused to renew the brothel operating licences of "Fat" Charlie Geerts, one of the wealthiest sex bosses in Holland.

Mr Geerts launched a legal appeal over the licence renewals but when that failed, he agreed to sell the properties to a municipal housing association, and gave a legal undertaking not to invest any of the proceeds of the sale in "sensitive" ventures such as other sex businesses, soft drugs dens known as coffee shops or gambling halls.

However, the Dutch sex workers union has criticised the plans for "lights out" in a third of brothel's windows, where women show off their wares, paying €100 for half a day in rent.

"The more brothels there are, the less exploitation there is," a spokeswoman, Metje Blaak, said. "Cohen is playing into the hands of exploitation. Because the women ... will go and work somewhere we can't get to them. You're just sending them deeper into the woods." That would make it more dangerous for the women in terms of their personal safety, and more difficult to halt the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Political opponents accuse Mr Cohen's administration of being overly prudish. They say the mayor was behind a ban on public nudity during the city's annual Gay Pride festival.

Successive surveys have shown that the abolition of the general ban on brothels in 2000 has not improved the position of prostitutes in the Netherlands, as was hoped. The mayor hinted this week that more restrictions might be on their way.

"The legalisation of prostitution did not bring about what many had hoped," he said in a television interview. "We are still faced with distressing situations in which women are being exploited. It is high time for a thorough evaluation of the prostitution act."