Is the Red Light District in Amsterdam really worth seeing?

    Night shot of Amsterdam's Red Light District
    Amsterdam’s Red Light District

    [dropcap]M[/dropcap]orning shift at a hostel starts early. No, I didn’t misspell “hotel.” And forget scary movies set in Eastern European countries. Hostels, for the most part, are clean, inexpensive, and social places where almost anybody would feel comfortable. Hostels have, as a matter of fact, become a worldwide industry that offers much more than just bunk beds in dorms that smell like dirty socks.

    And I got to work in one! I love world travel, I love meeting new people, and I love ministry. At the Shelter Youth Hostel in Amsterdam, Netherlands, the world actually came to me, and I worked with young people from a dozen different countries who loved Jesus and wanted to see his name spread among the nations.

    Of course, that also meant getting up early to relieve the night shift.

    So I’d crawl on my bike, Amsterdam’s most popular mode of transportation, and set off down the red-brick streets of one of Europe’s most famous cities. The sky would slowly turn a brighter blue as I passed the massive Central Train Station on my left while some of Amsterdam’s narrow buildings literally leaned over me on the right.

    And then I would enter Zeedijk, one of the oldest streets in Amsterdam. I’d bike the narrower avenue a bit faster. The sky seemed farther away. Figures in tattered clothes would still be sleeping on the stoops. And dark shadows would be hunched in corners with the shiny gleam of needles sticking out of dirt-smudged arms. I tried to look at them, just like I tried to ignore what I knew was going on just a few streets over. The one with red lights.

    Finally, I’d ride through Nieuwmarkt Square, still mostly empty of people that early in the morning, and turn right onto Barndesteeg Street. I’d try to keep my eyes away from the other end of the alley, waiting impatiently—a little nervously—after ringing the bell for the night man to let me in. I’d ring it again. Please let me in. I don’t like what’s pressing on me from the left.

    Amsterdam is what I dare to call a very honest city. You’ll immediately see that it’s beautiful. The people are beautiful. The streets are clean. Everywhere you look you’ll find culture, art, and history intermingled.

    But whereas other cities try to hide their seedy underbellies, Amsterdam wears its sin openly, blatantly. A mark of pride. In the year 2000, the Dutch government legalized prostitution, allegedly to protect women by giving them work permits. And many forms of so-called “soft drugs” such as marijuana are, if not technically legal, legally tolerated (a policy called gedoogbeleid). I remember walking every day past coffee shops (Dutch businesses where the sale of cannabis and other soft drugs are tolerated) with the distinctive smell of weed rolling out in waves. I can also tell you stories of dealing with guests at the hostel who would smoke their legally tolerated purchases within our building, which, as a Christian ministry, we did not tolerate.

    When you work at a hostel, depending on what city you’re visiting, you get asked a series of predictable questions. In Amsterdam those might be:

    “Where is Anne Frank’s house?”
    “How do I rent a bike?”
    “What’s the best coffee shop in town?”

    But the worst was: “How do I get to the Red Light District?”

    Picture of Jason in Amsterdam
    Jason in Amsterdam

    Most of the guests who asked this question simply wanted to see Amsterdam’s most infamous part of town. Almost every tourist asked. My mom wanted to see when she came for a visit. And at the Shelter Youth Hostel, the answer was, “Go out the door, turn right.”

    Oh, yeah. The hostel was located only a few dozen feet from that area with the amber glow. Every evening a night receptionist might hear an alarm echoing through the streets. It sounded almost like an old-fashioned rotary phone ringing, and it meant a woman was calling for her pimp. She was having a problem with a “customer.”

    I honestly tried to avoid walking through the district, but sometimes it was unavoidable. I always felt dirty—and guilty—after seeing a woman with empty eyes press a hand against one of the windows that lined the street, beckoning me. Keep your head down, Jason. Don’t look at the poor women.

    So many images flash through my head as I remember the ugly part of Amsterdam: The non-Christian volunteer who cried in my shoulder when he was molested in the Red Light District after getting high. The refugee lured into prostitution by a “loverboy” who seduced her with promises of safety and money. The group of Korean businessmen who stopped me on the street to ask the location of the Red Light District (I pointed them in the wrong direction).

    How can these places exist? What could turn a man into such a monster that he would hurt a woman like that? Was he once like me? Oh, yeah, don’t forget to erase your browsing data before you turn off your computer, Jason.

    I honestly loved my time at the hostel in Amsterdam. I made friends. I enjoyed the city. Ignore the junkie in the corner. Keep your head down. Don’t look at the women.

    But I think maybe Amsterdam doesn’t really know what it means to be honest.

    Jason McFarland is a world traveler who now makes his home in Memphis, Tennessee. He’s a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and makes a living doing graphic design when he’s not trying to figure a way back overseas.

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    1. I wonder too! One thing people do not understand is images are powerful. They tend to remain plastered on the wall of your imagination till the moment idleness and temptation rear their monstrous heads. Why bother?


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