Femke Halsema, mayor of Amsterdam, poses for a photograph in her office in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)

Amsterdam Brothels to Get a Review by City's First Female Mayor

(Bloomberg) -- Amsterdam’s first female mayor is rethinking its centuries-old red-light district.

The Wallen district sits in the oldest part of the city and at its creation in the 14th century was where free women, mostly Dutch, served sailors and traders without shame. Now, with more than 370 windows displaying scantily-clad women jeered by drunk tourists and photo-taking oglers who dehumanize them, the area, one of the biggest tourist draws in the city, is no longer fitting for a modern city, says Femke Halsema.

“Too often now we see vulnerable foreign women behind windows being booed by hordes of drunken tourists,” the 52-year-old mayor, who’s five months into her job, said in an interview in her offices in the city hall building overlooking the Amstel river. “Our inner city is one of the oldest in Europe with an enormous culture historical significance, which is obviously deteriorating. We would like tourists to see the cultural value.”

While the city intends to keep prostitution above-board and safe, the review of the district is part of a broader effort to spread visitors across the city, and owners of the window brothels are increasingly willing to consider it. With the city of about 850,000 drawing 18 million tourists in 2016 -- the latest available figure -- Halsema says redefining the red-light district will both de-congest the canal city and revive the Dutch capital’s historic zone.

Amsterdam Brothels to Get a Review by City's First Female Mayor

The Amsterdammers

Managing tourist flows is just one of the issues on Halsema’s plate as she contends with everything from an influx of people from Brexit-driven changes in London to keeping Amsterdam housing affordable amid sizzling property prices.

Locals have expressed concerns about rising visitor numbers, pointing to the need to keep the city livable. Amsterdammers got the mayor’s support to scrap a planned jetty that would have allowed commercial boats to moor in a canal a few meters from the famous Anne Frank house.

“What’s of great importance to the city is that Amsterdam is a place where people live,” the mayor said. “This is not a frozen tourist spot where life becomes difficult. We need to think about what kind of tourists we want to attract, as we shouldn’t have any illusion that the number of tourists in the city will go down. It will keep on rising.”

Amsterdam Brothels to Get a Review by City's First Female Mayor

Brexit Refugees

The other influx Halsema is preparing for is Brexit-escapees. A first group of some 60 European Medicines Agency (EMA) employees is already working in Amsterdam after the regulator decided to move from London. Hundreds more are expected. The city is also working on attracting new-economy companies.

All that will mean rising demand for housing in a city already struggling with a severe shortage of roofs. While Amsterdam plans to build 52,500 houses for low-and- middle income families by 2025, the issue is going to remain one of the biggest challenges for the mayor.

“Part of the city is becoming very rich, and housing prices are becoming very expensive as a consequence,” said the mayor, a former Green party leader in parliament. She’s concerned that home options are narrowing for ordinary people like teachers, nurses, police officers, and expats with modest incomes.

Testing Tolerance

Another issue Halsema said she’s contending with is trying to ensure that the city lives up to its reputation for tolerance. She was alluding to a recent attack on a drag queen.

“At times Amsterdam has been called too open,” Halsema said. “I think we should currently worry more about whether we are open enough.”

Halsema recently raised hackles by publicly suggesting she won’t follow a law banning burqas on public transport, in schools and government buildings. She later told councilors that Amsterdam will uphold the law, while stressing that the city and its police have more pressing priorities.

She also touched on what it means to be the first female mayor in the city’s more than 700-year history. She says she was struck by the front page of the local Het Parool newspaper in June with portraits of some previous mayors -- all male, except her.

“The Netherlands is a strange country,” Halsema says. “We create the impression that we are an emancipated country, but looking at the figures in public administration, in business, at our universities, we are lagging behind. The only thing you can do is being a role model, and making sure there are many women role models visible in the city.”

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