“We Are Already Standing Here a Few Hundred Years”: Negotiating Heritage and Identity in Amsterdam’s Red-Light District (EN)

The Amsterdam red-light district, De Wallen, is increasingly at the centre of debates about the city’s urban challenges concerning crime, tourism, and liveability. Plans for an ”erotic centre” outside the city have mobilized residents, municipal actors, and entrepreneurs to question who and what belongs in this urban district. On the one hand, mass tourism has led to feelings of “estrangement” and a loss of place-identity, resulting in demands for the relocation of sex work. On the other hand, long-term residents and entrepreneurs whose sense of place is linked to the red-light character of the district are contesting gentrification processes and the ongoing/ continued ousting of the sex trade. As the inner-city landscape is being remade to fit the city’s neoliberal aspirations, I will explore these ambivalent experiences of neighbourhood change by discussing the meaning and role of ‘heritage’ and ‘identity’ within broader urban developments. Contributing to the literature on the relationship between heritage, gentrification, and participation, the case study of de Wallen first exposes how heritagisation processes help to produce desirable spaces for middle-class residents and wealthy visitors. Municipal strategies to sanitize and upgrade the district are shifting the attention away from its reputation as a “sex-and-drugs theme park” towards the monumentality of a medieval town. At the same time, guided tours, museums, and other forms of culture-led regeneration further commodify the “red-light district” as a tourist attraction and turn window-prostitution into an object of the past. While some resident groups have emerged to fight touristification, the case study shows how class-specific notions of neighborhood/place-belonging are privileged participation processes, that mobilize the language of heritage and exclude alternative experiences of identity, especially as expressed by sex work organizations and other community groups. Given the ongoing stigmatization, spatial marginalization, and lack of political involvement in the planned redevelopment projects, it is these perspectives that are often being disregarded. Drawing on qualitative interviews with long-term residents and entrepreneurs, the lecture finally highlights the value of de Wallen for these communities in sense of place within the city. It urges us to ask whose heritage this historic urban swamp is, and who should be included in processes deciding on its future.