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Amsterdam's Weird Culture War

Conservatives want to power-wash the city of its intrinsic character—which includes pot shops and sex shows, but also a uniquely Dutch balance.
Amsterdam's famed red light district.
Amsterdam's famed red light district. Jaroslav Moravcik/Shutterstock.com

Amsterdam is “dirty, filthy, and too full." Such is the damning verdict of Wim Pijbes, director of the city’s Rijksmuseum, who feels so strongly about the state of Amsterdam that he published an open letter last weekend about it in the Dutch Newspaper NRC Handelsblad. A diatribe attacking both Amsterdam’s tourist business and its basic services, Pijbes list of targets was long: Segways, short-stay private accommodations, scooters, canal cruisers—“the most polluting form of tourism”—and pedal-powered beer tourers all got it in the neck, as did Amsterdam’s soft-drugs market and red light district. Pijbes also criticized the city's “medieval way of dealing with rubbish. In the wealthiest areas of the land trash bags are regularly ripped open, eaten by seagulls, rats, and other vermin."  Making the city sound like a plague ship, Pijbes concluded that, "The charm and spirited character of Amsterdam has long since faded."

This is all fighting talk, but there’s a problem with it: Many people don’t think it’s true. Snapping back, Theodor Holman, columnist at Het Parool, noted that Amsterdam has actually continued a tradition of tidiness stretching back to the Dutch Golden Age: