After sunset, Amsterdam goes wild, sometimes so wild that the city needs a conciliator. Mirik Milan is the world’s first – but not only – night mayor. Our reporter met and accompanied him toward the end of his term in office
A man in a pink tutu stands in the middle of Leidseplein square, gazing helplessly at the dozens of tiny booze bottles, chocolate bars and condoms lying in a puddle at his feet. Swaying unsteadily, he bends down to retrieve them. His friends cheer him on as he sorts the goods into his vendor’s tray. It’s his stag party: His buddies want to watch him act like a crazy idiot before tying the knot. With its perimeter of clubs, bars and restaurants, its neon signs above doorways promising intoxication and good company within, Leidseplein in the center of Amsterdam is the right place to go.
A dark-haired man in red jogging gear blazes a path through the crowd, raindrops beading off the lacquer fabric of his suit. Mirik Milan has his hood pulled over his head, but is immediately recognized by the bouncer at the Jimmy Woo club, a woman with a blond quiff and a neckful of tattoos. Milan is Night Mayor of Amsterdam, after all, the patron saint of reveling bachelors, the representative of all creatures of the night – of locals desirous of a quiet life and club operators alike. Inside the Jimmy Woo, Milan marches over to the console and shares some news with the DJ. Beneath the flickering of hundreds of light bulbs, the dance floor resembles a large piece of jello with protruding arms and legs.
“The night gives everyone a sense of freedom,” says Milan, “because all night owls have one thing in common: They are looking for a great experience. It’s easier to let yourself go among like-minded people.” Milan is now 37 and doesn’t go out as often as he used to. He works mostly at his desk, in an old architects’ office overlooking a canal. This is where, back in 2012, Milan became the world’s first night mayor, with one coworker and a vision. “I come from the nightlife scene. It’s where I grew up, where I made my friends. The opportunity to represent the scene worldwide was like a dream for me,” he says. Many other cities have since followed Amsterdam’s lead, and now London has its Night Czar and New York its Office of Nightlife.
Over the past six years, Milan has done much to achieve peaceful coexistence in Amsterdam, but he will hand over the office to his successor this month. Like Milan now, his successor will not be getting very much sleep since Amsterdam, like Berlin, is a European party capital. Marijuana consumption and prostitution are both legal here, the festivals and DJs, notorious, making Amsterdam a magnet for the party crowd. Unfortunately, many revelers often feel so free in Amsterdam that they vomit in doorways, brawl on street crosswalks and urinate against mailboxes. Someone is needed to mediate between the nightlife scene and daytime business, between rowdy revelers and peace-loving locals, between light and dark.
Many people think Amsterdam is so liberal, but we actually have many rules
Over the years, the people of Amsterdam have grown a little thin-skinned. Small wonder, given that each year, 850 000 residents share their city with 17 million tourists. The canals are becoming congested, rents are rising, hotels are driving residents away. In an effort to establish a balance between visitors and residents, the city is constantly passing new laws. Since the end of 2017, no new souvenir shops are permitted to open in the center of town – no new gouda cheese shops, no frikandel snack shops. What’s more, residents are no longer allowed to rent out their private homes through Airbnb for more than a maximum of 30 days a year. On top of that, the city pockets a five-percent tourist tax on every booking.
After dropping by the Jimmy Woo, Milan runs on to the Rijksmuseum, where he’s organized a night dinner at the Rijks restaurant there in a bid to highlight another nightlife problem: “It’s hard to find a decent meal in Amsterdam after 9 p.m.,” he says. He’s trying to establish an area downtown where businesses can stay open round the clock. He regards as his greatest achievement the 24-hour license he managed to obtain for ten establishments in 2014. “Many people think Amsterdam is so liberal, a paradise for hedonists. But we actually have many rules and regulations,” he says.
The high point in the calendar of the city’s organized excesses is the Amsterdam Dance Event, which is held every October. “Around 375 000 people attend more than 300 events over five days – and still police and medics report business as usual, no more than on an ordinary Saturday night,” says Milan. Amsterdam has become organized, it’s a bit like Disneyland, a bit like nursery school. It has learned how to deal with hordes of high or intoxicated people: Provide simple access and exit points, clear directions – here’s the bar, there’s the bathroom –and illuminate the dark corners.
Shadows offer protection from prying eyes and exposure. They embolden people to do things they would not dare to do by day. In 1669, Amsterdam became the second city in Europe to install gas street lamps, blurring the boundary between day and night to this day, although the dark hours have asserted their special status. To Milan, the good aspects outweigh the bad: “The night brings people together. It’s where ideas are born and relationships begin and it’s tremendously important to the creative scene, but also to businesspeople like myself.”
Before completing his degree in communication science, Milan had already set up his own event company and organized parties until becoming Night Mayor – an honorary office at first. “Without an official structure, I would have remained nothing more than a merry fellow with his own ideas,” says Milan. In 2014, he became the world’s first full-time night mayor, and that office then became an independent NGO, financed in equal thirds by the city, nightlife players and what Milan earns from appearances and consultations. A total of 80 000 euros comes together each year that way. The “Prince of Darkness” is elected in an online vote by a colorful mix of people, including artists, club operators, festival visitors and residents.
If something goes wrong at night, the initial reaction is usually a ban, says a disapproving Milan. As Night Mayor, he sees it as his job to work out a satisfactory solution with everyone involved. “If a drunk beats someone up, it’s not the club operator’s problem, it’s society’s problem,” he says. He wants to wean society onto peaceful coexistence.
Milan had a close relationship with ex-Mayor of Amsterdam Eberhard van der Laan, who died in October 2017, even though they only met up once or twice a year. “Van der Laan had a huge influence on me over the past few years. I really admired his open, honest manner,” says Milan. The two men realized their most important project on Rembrandtplein square. Here, too, there are several night clubs and bars, and in the middle, 15 bronze statues of armed men in breeches, taken from “The Night Watch,” the Rembrandt painting hanging in the Rijksmuseum. Steadfast, they stand before their maker, unfazed by the people who drink, wrangle and hang out. Milan raised funds from the clubs around the square and van der Laan matched the amount. With that budget, they improved the street lighting, established a pedestrian zone and introduced “square hosts,” who patrol the Rembrandtplein to make sure everyone obeys the law. What’s more, residents can now contact their law enforcers via app. “The people who live here finally have the feeling that the city takes their problems seriously, and the partygoers feel safer too,” says Milan.
His successor will have his hands full too. Every year, five percent more tourists arrive, and 25 million are expected in 2025. “We can’t make Amsterdam less popular,” says Milan. He heads back via Museumplein, where the words “I am sterdam” bid everyone welcome in giant letters. He does feel that the city’s dance floors could be more open: “More diversity in our nightlife would be good both for the city and its residents.”
It’s been a good, lively night but now it’s getting late, even for Mirik Milan.
A tour of Amsterdam nightlife
Start with a meal
A good place for that is the De School, a gallery, gym and club serving great food.
Feel the heat
Check out a concert at the Paradiso, a live music club with a long tradition.
Keep your spirits up! The Vesper serves some exquisite drops.
Time to really let loose: Locals and tourists party together at the Claire.
Avocado toast and banana latte are sure to banish your hangover.