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Amsterdam: this proud enclave of liberalism holds its own into the 21st century.

Amsterdam is one of the last honestly handsome cities in Europe. I return every spring to a 17th-century canal-front rental on the golden bend of the Herengracht. Despite the capital's tired sex and drugs reputation, my western side of the city feels as hard-core as a Hallmark card. This is where the real Amsterdammers live--at least the comfortable ones--under their bell gables and step gables, in their own quiet triangle of honeyed Dutch light, so dense that you could part it like a curtain. At night, when the lights line the canals' humpbacked bridges, the big city feels like a toy town, and it reminds me of the Dutch village we lived in once when I was a boy.

It isn't just the beauty and the nostalgia that keep me coming back Despite the ominous drumbeat of change, Amsterdam remains one of the world's most genuinely liberal capitals--but not in a dopey, louche way. By turns free spirited and disciplined, whimsical and unsentimental, earthy and sophisticated, the city founded by merchants has been a model of modernity from the start Always focused on making money and making art, golden-age Amsterdam didn't have time for the spiritual hysteria that captivated other 17th-century cities. Its own worldview favored the material over the transcendental, and Amsterdammers never worried about the kind of puritanical sins that still captivate Americans, making them the most reliable consumers of the city's sex-and-drugs ghetto.

While other countries are tolerant of homos, none is as blithe about them. Amsterdam is a distinctly 21st-century refuge and a likely forerunner of global gay life to come, Forget a few strips of queer clubs and a cloned subculture in the past decade the Dutch gay community has become an integrated part of a pomosexual ("postmodern sexual") majority. That doesn't just mean that native gays are bona fide citizens, free to marry, adopt, and claim full legal rights. It also means that the best gay clubs are mixed ones, that most younger middle class Dutch kids don't commit to any particular sexual camp, and that it's hard to tell where gay culture stops and progressive society begins.

There aren't many other places that feel so fully evolved--or mindful. This is the kind of city that allows my neighbor, a photographer laid low by Lyme disease, to cover her medical expenses without an epic struggle. This is a culture that offers subsidized studio space to the painter across the hall. The boy who works in the porn shop down the street (with full benefits) was recently giving his proud granny a tour of the store; they passed, hand in hand, under a poster advertising the classic video Camp Poke-a-Hiney.

Every utopia, though, is a fragile one, and the question is, How long can Amsterdam hold out? Holland, already sitting below sea level, will be the first country to slide quietly under water when global warming reaches its apex. Rents are shooting up, and gentrification is pricing Amsterdammers out of their own hometown. Then there's the growing Islamic fundamentalist minority, which, once it becomes a large voting bloc, may reshape the world's most proudly secular state.

For now though, all the dangers just make Amsterdam even more beautiful in its fragility, and I've finally started pricing local apartments, debating a semipermanent move. It seems, on bad days, like the worst time to make the leap. Maybe it is. But every future, after all, is a tentative one. And even if this second golden age doesn't continue, it's still close to perfect at this precise, exquisite moment in time.
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Title Annotation:Our Towns
Author:Kadushin, Raphael
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Oct 26, 2004
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