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But in some windows, women have recently been replaced by plastic mannequins in designer clothes. What may appear to be a new form of street theater is, instead, the most visible sign of an ambitious new gentrification plan that may take years to complete.
The city council has voted to clean up the historic but notorious district, which has become bloated with expanding sleaze. The city is buying up brothels, and it has lent the first 18 windows and boudoirs for one year to young designers and photographers. The elders of the Dutch capital, long known for its broad-mindedness, insist they have not been seized by a wave of prudishness. They say there is new evidence that criminal gangs, including East Europeans and Russians, have encroached on the area, making it meaner, more violent and more in the grip of the underworld of international sex traffickers.
It is not that city officials believe the sex trade here was ever benign. But the business has expanded rapidly and, along with violence, it has spawned cheap hotels, gaudy souvenir shops and greasy snack bars along once-elegant nearby boulevards.
The national government has also given cities more leeway to revoke licenses. Once, prostitution was confined to a small area near the port. The brothels were usually run by older women who had retired from the trade. Tourism, the spread of pornography and changing mores also worked to turn the old center into a vast, lewd bazaar.
On most days the district, covering less than half a square mile, has a parade of men moving along the canals and the alleyways, lined with peep shows, live-sex theaters, legal marijuana cafes and enough shops with erotic films and sex toys to equip an entire battalion. Brothels were legalized in , and according to city statistics, there are now , with some display windows for prostitutes. Many more, who work with illegal immigrants, operate around town secretly. We pay taxes. He and his friends say city leaders are being hypocritical in demanding change in the district.