Dutch Diaries: On Amsterdam

by Thea Byrd / Beacon Staff • February 27, 2014

Amsterdam is the city of dreams, and has been for centuries. When tourists walk through the Red Light District, ride their bikes along the canals, or visit a trademark coffeeshop, they may never realize how many centuries of history produced this city of freedom. Amsterdam’s roots of tolerance and liberality are the results of both the Dutch revolution, and the fact that the city was a hub of trade. Today, these roots are manifested throughout Dutch culture, although observers may just see the touristy hedonism associated with Amsterdam.

The Dutch don’t see their city as sinful; they see their policies and practices as realistic. They look at the way Americans sweep things under the rug, and laugh at our willingness to turn a blind eye. When discussing the legalization of marijuana in some states with my aunt in Amsterdam, she commented that it was about time the policies caught up with the realities.

The Dutch implemented freedoms long ago that are just beginning to be discussed in the U.S., like regulated prostitution, marijuana legalization, and same sex marriage. In America, these topics are still controversial, yet when talking with my Dutch family, they see these policies as common sense. Ignoring these issues won’t help those involved, and doesn’t make America more sophisticated.

Tourists have no right to look at the city and scoff at the freedoms afforded in Amsterdam. Instead, they should look at how the city is still wealthy, productive, and a center of culture. Throughout its history, Amsterdam has been a city to which people have flocked to be free and pursue opportunities closed in many other places. The city has welcomed travelers and immigrants with open arms, integrating cultures while respecting individuality.

When the Northern Netherlands wrestled control from the Spanish, they implemented a doctrine of freedom — religious, economic, and cultural. Consequentially, the persecuted and displaced began flooding into the blossoming seaport city, and rather than resisting, Amsterdam welcomed them.

Even the notorious Red Light District is built upon some of the oldest streets of Amsterdam, where women now stand in windows in lingerie. There the sailors used to look for the same services when Amsterdam became arguably the most important seaport in Atlantic Europe.

As commerce boomed, so did the city, growing quickly and developing the culture we still know and love today — one that isbased on an acceptance of others and the realities of human behavior. As a result, one has the freedom to purchase a prostitute for an hour, buy a few grams of marijuana, or marry whomever they want, without regards to gender.

The long history lives on in the Dutch culture today, even if the origins are unknown to most tourists coming to revel in the city of sin. Amsterdamers aren’t hedonists; the Dutch in general are very practical people, excelling as a nation in trade, banking, and the arts. The Dutch have built a city in which people can indulge themselves, yet are still productive and respected.

Every time I go to Amsterdam, I feel like the city becomes more complex. As I understand more and more of its history, I am proud of my Dutch heritage. When I hear the loud ring of a bike’s bell, see a red light over a window, or smell the distinct odor of marijuana, it represents so much more than modern day Dutch culture and the hedonism associated with it. Amsterdam is a city that is constantly advancing, while still standing on its foundational values of acceptance and progressivism.