Amsterdam assails you from all angles, managing to be all things to all people, depending on where you go. It’s a living, breathing museum for international art and architecture connoisseurs. It's a druggie paradise for stoner backpackers. It's a bottomless well of live sex and no-holds-barred pornography for stag parties. And it's a sleazy, subterranean warren of darkrooms for S&M gay men. Phew!
While all of these different faces of the city are true, Amsterdam is also in a process of change. Certainly, those same things that the city is notorious for abroad are gradually being clamped down on: smoking cannabis is no longer a ubiquitous freedom and sex in the Red Light District is facing stricter new laws. The city’s tolerance has taken a battering too, first with the murder of Pim Fortuyn, then with the murder of Theo van Gogh and later, to a lesser degree, with the attack upon a gay American journalist in the city centre – events that led to plenty of soul searching, hand wringing and, unfortunately, mud slinging.
A city in progress
Things have settled down now, at least spiritually, because one look around town reveals that this place is quite literally rebuilding itself in a massive regeneration programme that has turned the centre into a huge building site. The main locus of this is the docklands, the new cultural quarter and the reason that, a few hundred years ago, Amsterdam originally sparkled in the Golden Age. In among the plate-glass high-rises you’ll still see old barques and spice warehouses, the building blocks on which the nation’s wealth was first founded.
It's all in the balance
In fact, it’s this same ability to find balance that makes this Janus-faced city so unique. Squalor sits alongside gentility in the Red Light District, the part of town that symbolises modern Amsterdam, for good or bad, to many, but which is also its historical heart. It was near here that the river was dammed in the 13th century; then came man-made canals, imprinting the city with a shape still seen in Cornelis Anthonisz’s 15th-century map, now in the Amsterdams Historisch Museum. Then came wealth, and with it expansion, including the addition of the Jordaan and the Pijp, residential areas lacking in major attractions but irresistible in their own funky ways. Less explored but up-and-coming suburbs include Noord, on the far bank of the IJ, and even the Bijlmermeer, a concrete ’60s experiment that houses immigrant factories, which comes alive with summer’s Kwakoe festival and is now getting some groovy galleries exploring the area’s unique heritage.
One thing’s for certain: whatever happens in the future, Amsterdam will continue to grow, as it has done since 1200, whether literally or metaphorically.
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