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Amsterdam's mayor gets tough with `get clean' campaign

By Gary YerkeySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 1986



Amsterdam

Improving the image of a city not long ago described as a modern-day version of Sodom and Gomorrah clearly presents problems. Yet Amsterdam city administrators have taken up the challenge, extending their mission beyond mere image-polishing to deal with substance.

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``We're talking about the complete revival of a major European city,'' says Gilbert van Stijeren, an aide to Mayor Ed van Thijn, who has spearheaded a campaign to revamp the city since taking office three years ago.

Many think of Amsterdam as an essentially decadent place where drug addicts roam the streets mugging tourists, police clash violently with ``squatters'' occupying abandoned buildings, prostitutes sit in every window, and vagrants and idlers litter squares and parks at will.

Amsterdam remains one of Europe's most tolerant cities. Much is allowed here that would be quickly suppressed elsewhere. A widely available book called ``Mellow Pages: A Smoker's Guide to Amsterdam,'' for example, lists shops where marijuana is sold openly. But in recent months, city administrators have had several successes in their campaign to clean up Amsterdam.

Under Mayor van Thijn's energetic tutelage, the city has clamped down on drug dealing in the notorious Zeedijk district, built 30,000 new houses and renovated 30,000 old ones, halted the escalation of squatter violence, strengthened the police force (the crime rate fell last year for the first time in nearly a decade), discouraged idlers and vagrants, encouraged business investment in the city center, and made Amsterdam a serious candidate to host the 1992 summer Olympic Games.

``We could have lost the battle,'' Mr. van Stijeren says. ``Instead, we've made a really new start.''

Most notably, city officials claim to have made major gains in cleaning up the Zeedijk district, traditionally one of Europe's main drug-trafficking centers. The remaining traffickers, they say, are spread around the city, making it difficult for users, especially those from abroad, to find them.

A Swedish narcotics officer who works in the Netherlands, however, says that the Zeedijk area ``remains in a state of anarchy.'' A recent walk through the area did nothing to discourage that view.

Mayor van Thijn's campaign is based as much on economic as moral considerations. Tourism is the city's largest industry. Last year, more than 3 million foreign visitors spent about $640 million in Amsterdam. Playing host for the 1992 Olympics would be a huge boost to tourism. A decision in Amsterdam's favor depends heavily on its success in polishing its tarnished reputation.

But even city administrators concede Amsterdam's troubles are far from over. Analysts expect social tension to rise as the city's foreign population (mainly those from Turkey, Morocco, and the former Dutch colony of Surinam) increases in the next few years.