Splendid weather yesterday, a late September saturday afternoon, it made my friend and me decide to walk to the Lindengracht market at the other side of the town center. So, the Red Light district, the major shopping streets and one of the soft-drug tourism arteries, the Haarlemmerstraat had to be crossed. These are areas which I always try to avoid when going by bicycle, but now we were on a social-geographic survey of these parts of town, which I had not seen for quite a while.The streets were bustling with tourists and their non-directional pace of walking: halting to study their maps without concern for the other pedestrians and cyclists – often in the middle of the road; whimsically crossing as if the streets were empty; framing their camera pictures while forgetting about the world outside their viewer – causing frequent near accidents; being absorbed in consuming their walk-about-lunch; trying to keep group cohesion despite the fragmented Amsterdam public sidewalks with their thresholds and anti-car parking poles. A mixed aroma of exhausting fumes, hashish and the smell of cheap pizza touches our nostrils as we manage to proceed slowly in the direction of our evening meal shopping market in the Jordaan neighborhood.
As this walk was meant a survey as well, I scan the street fronts of the houses and shops for apparent changes, and there were many. The main trend is not typical for the inner town of Amsterdam, but maybe more outspoken and dramatic than elsewhere. Most of the surviving shops that had some direct function for the life of the locals are gone: grocery and green grocers, the traditional coffee-burning and grinding shops, tobacconists, hardware shops, dry cleaning and the like, with one exception, the bakery shops, the last ones seem to survive all modern massification and monopolization and are thriving with new tourist customers. Venues like the open front walk in ‘coffeeshops’ are examples of replacements. Coffeeshops (the Dutch way of spelling it) whose business is in fact selling hashish and offering smoking facilities for those who claim to smoke it pure… (so the anti-smoke law for public spaces does not apply). Waves of loud music pour from these establishments and there seem to be no more local residents left at the floors above who could rightfully protest against the reproduced sound levels. Shops specializing in ‘recreational drugs’ paraphernalia pop up with regular intervals along our trajectory, also tattoo and piercing studios, male and female lingerie boutiques and sex cinemas. The condom shop is still there (called ‘Condomerie’) it exists already for twenty years in the Warmoesstraat, once started as a fun idea in one of the groundfloor shops of the then squatted housing block ‘Blauwlakenblok’, developing into a regular business enterprise soon after. A bit further on, in the direction of the train station, many gay bars, hotels and ‘darkrooms’ (mainly male) have settled in the last two decades. A historical function one may say, as the Warmoeststraat has done the sexual catering for both the sailors and local inhabitants for centuries. What is different though – compared to the past – is the density of such facilities now, and the fact that homosexual services are openly promoted. House after house in the Warmoesstraat and surroundings have been taken over by a ‘troika’ of the recreational sex and drug industry combined with what we Dutch call ‘horeca’ (snackbars, restaurants, cafés). The ‘horeca’ is there mainly to supply the armies of ‘lurkers’ – those who are just watching – with an alibi to have a drink and snack, wander around and stare. Step by step this troika has pushed out services providing for the daily needs of local residents. I still remember the area as a mixture of cafés, restaurants, sex business, small workshops and family living. I have not seen statistics yet on the dwindling number of normal resident houses or apartments in the Red Light district and adjacent areas, but that it is strongly diminishing is something anyone “can feel with their wooden-shoes on.”
What was – only forty years ago – a very much needed sexual emancipation of suppressed gay people, has grown into an industry concentrating to such a level in certain areas of town, that other social and economical functions are marginalized by it, or cease to exist. In a very instructive little book “De roze rand van donker Amsterdam” (the pink margin of dark Amsterdam) delivered by Gert Hekma of the University of Amsterdam in 1992, one can read about the very slow rise of “a homosexual bar-culture” in the period 1930-1970 and the inventive ways of gay people to congregate in times that homosexuality was a thing not even mentioned. It is only in the fifties that the worse forms of police prosecution are over and several membership clubs start to offer some sort of safe heaven for (mostly male) homosexuals to meet, like the drab DOK cellar at the Singel (in ‘gebouw Odeon’) seen – once forty years ago – as the biggest gay dancing in Europe. The Warmoesstraat and its surroundings do have over half a century of history in supplying gay entertainment. A pioneering place was Hotel Tiemersma, once a tobacco shop at number 20 of the Warmoestraat, started by a sailor man Sako Jan Tiemersma. From the early fifties the hotel also had a tiny bar (without a permit at first) with a permissive barkeeper that allowed some forms of intimacy. The hotel rooms had no lock and the clientèle also behaved with little restrictions and a kind of ‘darkrooms’ avant-la-lettre existed there. The hotel was a meeting point for the early leather scene (‘leerwereld’ in Dutch, which is a funny word as it also means ‘world of learning’), a scene that heralded the shift from the feminine tot the macho-type of homosexual behavior. The Amsterdam homo community before WWII had its division in active penetrating males (called ‘tules’) and passive receiving feminine males (called ‘nichten’). It was a community in which sexual partners from the twilight zone of heterosexuality also participated as ‘tules’. With the advent of the leather scene this attitude changed, as Hekma puts it “The ‘homos’ now could fornicate each other and horniness, to be satisfied, needed the outside world much less.” [my free rendering of his sentence on page 73; tj.] Any nowadays sex tourist can find the new gay-meeting points by a quick search on the internet, zooming in at leisure to specialized areas like the Warmoesstraat and reads about: – Argos at number 95 “The oldest and possibly most famous leather bar in Amsterdam. Sexy, cruisey and heavy. S.O.S. (Sex on Sundays)”; – Dirty Dicks at number 86 “A late night leather bar. This place really lives up to it’s name”; – Stable Master at number 23 “Bar and Hotel famous for it’s jack off / wanking / masturbation parties in the downstairs bar held regularly.”
When emancipation of homosexuals ends up in a commercialized segregation of leisure and pleasure with expanding specialized zones clustering around Amstel-Rembrandtplein-Utrechtsestraat-Reguliersdwarsstraat, Warmoestraat-Zeedijk, and Kerkstraat-Leidesplein, I am tempted to ask what about “equality” as one of the important substances of my own idea of what emancipation is about? Why not have fun all together, beyond the tender and gender divide? Why this self-imposed social Apartheid? Also, what about the level of, say ‘homosexual’ emancipation and ‘tolerance’ of drugs in all the countries of origin of the hordes of sex and drugs tourists filling the Amsterdam inner town? Did they vote Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Merkel, Putin and thus can’t they smoke a joint at home or in a pub in peace? Is it the Pope, an imman, a rural evangelic fundamentalist that keeps them from doing or at least inquiring about unknown sensual territories at home? And … most important for us locals, is the blunt commercial exploitation through which the tourists are paraded in Amsterdam, – with some side-tripping to Anne Frank and Vincent van Gogh – something we should be proud of? Is that what we want to present to the world? Or is it this, what is most typical Dutch after all, only about making a good buck… on anybody using any opportunity?
“DROOG, here in the Netherlands, is the most important word.” All the coffeeshop signs with cannabis leaves, in the streets we passed through – this saturday afternoon September 2009- made me think back at that sentence which starts a brilliant and humorous discourse by Amsterdam’s city shaman Robert Jasper Grootveld back in 1977. Grootveld (1932 – 2009) spoke about Amsterdam’s historical role as a market for spices, dried plants and herbs – from far away places like the East Indies – in a documentary movie by filmmaker Louis van Gasteren: “Allemaal Rebellen” (all of them rebels) about Amsterdam radicals of the fifties and sixties. Droog in Dutch is ‘dry’ in English and most lexicographers point to the possible origin of the the word ‘drugs’ in English, ‘drogue’ in French, ‘droga’ in Italian, ‘Drogen’ in German and so on, from the Dutch word ‘droog’. ”Dry, here in the Netherlands, is the most important word, a land that had to be drained from a swamp (…) that did send its sailors to the other part of the world – whereby half the crew did not make it back- which was a human offering! … why all that? What you could find there, was something extra, to give some spicy jolt to life: pepper, mace, nutmeg and other plantlike products … and there was only one way to get that from there to here, namely by keeping it: dry (droog).” In this lively interview Grootveld reminds us of the staple-market economy of Amsterdam in the 17th century and the importance within that constellation of – what he properly calls – the “drug-trade” (drugshandel). Grootveld is not an academic, his associations and actions do have a strong persistency nevertheless. The Dutch involvement in opium trade from 1613 up to 1942, during the 19th century even a monopoly of the state from the beginning of the 19th century onward, is something Grootveld certainly knew, but does not mention during this interview. In 1928 the law curtailing the use of opium and other narcotic drugs is proclaimed in the Netherlands, though at the same time keeping the opium trade in the colonies of the Dutch East Indies outside of these regulations. Ewald Vanvugt has written an extensive book on this matter “Wettig Opium” (Lawful opium) in 1985, no translations exists in English, but there is a short interesting online English reference by Dirk Teeuwen (2007), about Dutch state opium trade.
Back from sidestepping and continuing our trip.. As we walked the streets and struggled through the tourist crowd, I had a short fantasy of my own, being a telepathic guide, able to impress my views of the town and its history on each of the leisurely wandering tourists that catched my eye:
“What you see is the product of Double Dutch standards, moral sermons at home, covering up far away exploitive practices. Like our prime-minister Jan Peter Balkenende who does not get tired to preach about the Golden Age and the ‘spirit of enterprise’ of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) which we should try to regain today, forgetting to mention the black pages of history of the trading and maltreatment of black slaves, let alone the life of the 17th century poor in the Low Countrries. The historical ‘freedom of trade’, which found once in the city of Amsterdam one of its important bases, was nothing more than the freedoms one can allow oneself when making bad deals – for the natives – backed up by warships with canons. Half the number of poor souls that were crimped into VOC service as sailors died on their voyage to the east. Recruitment officers would round up bums in taverns and on the street, even imprison them, till the moment their ship sailed away. The Dutch that nowadays like to praise themselves for their development aid to poor countries, still fail to recognize that they were fighting colonial wars up to 1961, officially called – to this very day – pacifying ‘police actions’ (“politionele acties” in Indonesia 1945 – 1949 against the Indonesian War of Independence)… “
As it is just a fantasy, I do not get out of breath and my audience does not walk away from the historical hootch their guide is offering, I even manage – for myself – to make a desperate link between things of the past and the present, between the historical void in the brains of the oversized tourist crowds and my own agitated feelings of having lost something, the town I knew, the town I liked… and I explain to my imaginary audience once more, before taking a side street out of the Red Light district:
“The 17th century Dutch trade mentality still lingers on in the veins of the city, sips through the pavement, leaks into the cellars, pollutes the drinking water, but its object has changed. It is is not any more wealth gathered in faraway countries brought back to the Netherlands, instead, there is a progressively developing reversal: tourists flying en masse to Amsterdam and trading the city away. The wooden shoes, once the trademark of this country, its firmness, its endurance in the fight against wind, rain and sea, have grown to an absurd size and – as in a fairy tale – they fit only the tourists, who have great fun banging around in them, not on purpose, just unconscious of the fragility of the city’s civil structures they encounter.”
Crossing the main streets to the Central Station, The Damrak and Nieuwe Zijds Voorburgwal, brings us out of the Red Light district and the number of sex facilities decreases, though the occurrence of coffeeshops only diminishes when we reach the more classy areas of what is called ‘de grachtengordel’ (the girdle of canals). This has a historical reason as the old city ordinances prohibited the construction of alleys and houses of the poor in this area. Also here something has fundamentally changed lately: terraces have sprang up at the most odd and unhandy places, leaving even less space to walk as in the traditional sidewalk layout of this part of town. Where from the fifties onward cars had invaded the inner city and lined all the canals to supply the needed parking space, a new and more profitable development can be noticed: tiny terraces scattered on the sidewalks, along the waterfront and at the sides of bridges. As it was a very warm and sunny September afternoon, all terraces were filled to the brink and so the glasses of the customers, making what was once a quiet zone into yet another bustling boulevard, a scenery even further enlivened by a parade of private pleasure boats in the canals with their ostensibly wealthy and joyful drinking passengers and the traditional big tourist boats maneuvering in between them…
It can not be helped, describing the scenery of the overcrowded inner town of Amsterdam, ends up in a discouraging and irritating litany … we did arrive in the end at the Lindengracht market and that was not a happy ending. I could have known it, the gentrification of the Jordaan neighborhood have downgraded the variety of foodstuff and upgraded the prices. It did not compete in any way with our regular trip to the Albert Cuyp Market in the 19th century neighborhood of De Pijp. “It looks like a market, but it is only a visual suggestion of it” was my friend’s comment.
On our way back – this time evading the Red Light district – I pondered over the question whether there is any limit to which extend a town can be consumed? What it is that needs to be done to alert people about the negative effects of oversized tourism. A comparative study of mass tourism might be an idea. Paris, Rome and London certainly are not a model because they are much bigger in size and city layout than Amsterdam. Venezia, Firenze are smaller but have a much more cultural oriented clientèle. The Amsterdam city authorities are far from even envisaging such a studious exercise, they may try and shift away the focus from sex and drugs to culture (there are many reports about that), but whatever their fancy, growth of the number of tourists is their uncontested prime policy. Debating tourist policy is anyhow a very unpopular subject with many of my fellow citizens. There are those who do not care because they do not live in the city center or are fortunate enough to find themselves in some of the non-tourists corners. Next comes the economic argument, that it brings a lot of necessary income for the town. As I do not sell beer or drugs and do not own a hotel or restaurant I can see very little direct profit coming my way and indirectly I only notice the rising of municipal taxes over the years as I am supposed to live on what is called a A-locations and taxes are determined by real-estate market value. Nobody has seen it fit yet to study the nuisance of the tourist and party-industry in the inner town and translated that in a tax reduction equal to the level of suffering inflicted on the inhabitants. Is it unacceptable egoism that makes me wish to exclude all those suburbia prisoners that are craving for a real city experience and buy a temporal escape ticket to Amsterdam?
Is there some hope in recent developments of Dutch cities next to the Belgian border, that have closed all coffeeshops and organized even a kind of razzias against cross-border drug tourism? No, in spite of all my observations and negative appreciation of the Amsterdam drug tourist scene, I dislike this abrupt and oppressive option. Like the homosexual emancipation there has also been an emancipation of the drug user, from a persecuted criminal to a tolerated recreational consumer. The liberating mind expanding aspects of soft drugs as formulated by idealists of the sixties may have long faded away and turned into hard core business, but the basic assumptions remains valid: to be master of one’s own mind and body and decide by one’s own reasoning instead of external coercion.
There are many options and levels of steering, controlling, and arguing which could bring the transborder soft drug users and the international leisure industry back to acceptable proportions and some sort of balance with the social environment they share with others. When only those who are profiting have a say, when authorities are deaf for the complaints of their citizens and turn a blind eye on the degrading effects of mass tourism, one has to wait for the occurence of some sort of tragic incident before the extravaganza of oversized tourism, of Klompenmania, will be countered.
Maybe it is time for the ‘emancipation’ of city dwellers, recognizing their ”equal rights” on the use of the city, not treating them anymore as Disney actors in their own town, appreciating them for their living knowledge of their house, their street, their neighborhood, their city. The first step toward a city dwellers emancipation is the recognition that injustice has been done, that it is time for measuring tourism, to fit it to the existing scale of a city and not the other way around.
The association in the article with Robert Jasper Grootveld and his discourse on ‘droog’ and ‘drugs’ may seem somehow beside the point for those who have not witnessed the rise of the recreational drug tourism in Amsterdam from the early sixties onward. So I feel a need to explain why it is essential for me. Grootveld has played an important dual role in the history of Amsterdam as a soft drug tourist center, both as one of the first street campaigner against the smoking of tobacco and the dangers of cancer, and as a propagator of the smoking of marihuana, instead. Tobacco was for him not only a health danger, but also an example of of consumer manipulation. He aimed his playful actions at first against the big tobacco industries and their psychological tricks – their “hidden persuaders” – that lured people into satisfying needs constructed by the advertisement industry. His utmost primitive duplicated magazine “De Hippe Zweter” was pointing to the book “Hidden persuaders” By Vance Packard (1957). His actions – an odd mix of dadaism and ‘urban shamanism’ – were aimed at “the liberation of the addicted consumer of tomorrow.” Grootveld’s actions fell in fertile ground. The Amsterdam scene of the sixties was a constant turmoil in which dissidents from the artistic, political and esoteric realms mixed. The people involved came from different backgrounds but still had something strongly in common: egalitarian and communal principles. This has laid the basis for all kinds of social movements that – over the years – freed Dutch society from its authoritarian straightjacket. It is unfortunate that by now this heritage has been spoiled and the former liberating principles only remain as an “imago”. Grootveld’s vision of 1962, a “Magic Amsterdam” as a center of the “Western asphalt jungle”, was already taken over by KLM and the Dutch Tourist Agency (VVV) in the mid sixties and started the influx of beatniks and hippies and other ‘sleeping-bag-tourists’. Only an echo of it rings in the 21st century advertisement agency slogan “I Am Amsterdam” commissioned by the municipality, a faked tourist industry imago that is eagerly consumed by a new generation of ’addicted city hopping consumers’.
Almost four decades lay between the “Lowland Weed Comapny” of Kees Hoekert, Robert Jasper Grootveld and others, run from a crummy houseboat, a little bit offside the town center, and new cannabis businessmen like Arjan Roskam and Olaf van Tulder. The businessmen own a chain of enterprises with different outlets: coffeeshops, a clothing and accessory line and luxurious rental apartments in the town center (several coffeeshop owners have started to diversify their businesses, in case the tolerance policy will change). There is a Youtube movie of the opening ceremony of their sumptuous coffeeshop at the Haarlemmerstraat (opposite the historical building of the Dutch West Indian Company). First speaker is August de Loor, a former street-corner worker helping hard-drug-addicts for decades, now presented in the movie as a “Drugsexpert”, his speech is about the legal front door for the customers, the half legal shady back door where the drugs come in and the threat of a possible change in the liberal soft drug policy of the government. The proud owners explain the decorations in the different rooms of their new establishment, including their own depiction in Delft Blue tiles, dressed up as “King of Cannabis” and “Lieutenant Admiral of Greenhouse.”
(*) The two KLM posters that have been fused in the left hand part of the Klompenmania collage can be found on the web site of the “Urban Nebula” study group. The site has some flash animation installed which does not allow me to make a precise link, you have to search the checkerboard of poster details to find your way.
(**) Warmoesstraat pictures by “urbandiscount” posted on Flickr.
(***) “Some guys and a Sexshop on the Warmoesstraat, reflected in a puddle in Amsterdam”, artistic photographs of Amsterdam reflexions in rain puddles by “AmsterS@m – The Wicked Reflectah’s photostream” posted on Flickr
(****) Web site of photographer of Cor Jaring, a must for anyone interested in Amsterdam history as seen form the margin.
(*****) The website of Huis ten Bosch Nagasaki can be found here.
This by the way is the second time that this building (Amsterdam central Station) has been replicated in Japan, Tokyo Central Station, dating from 1914 is somewhat freely modeled by the Japanese architect Tatsuno Kingo after the creation of P.J.H. Cuypers from 1889, though ther are archiecture historians who deny it; I personally know both station well and must say that I was struck by their ananlogies from the first moment I entered the Tokyo version.