Red Light Districts of Yesteryear
Glimmers of the past hidden in plain sight
I spend a lot of time in archives. Mostly they are digital newspaper and photo archives. Ancestry, too.
But sometimes the archive is one I’ve created myself, like the Evernote account I opened in 2009 that serves up long-forgotten things that caught my eye 12 years ago when I do a search. Or my Wordpress blog that is on a maybe-permanent hiatus. Or my Lightroom catalog that is about 13 years old and contains 333,854 photographs of a life that sometimes feels like a foreign country itself.
It’s that Lightroom catalog where I’ve been spending a lot of time lately. It had gotten so big that my laptop couldn’t handle it and it had become unusable. I traded the laptop in for an iMac recently and here we are: me sifting through it all after a few years away. This is probably the first of at least a few finds from that new source.
In 2014 I drew this map of the now-gone red light districts of Minneapolis after finding out in a series of events that they existed.
This little story includes something that brings me a lot of joy—when glimmers of the past manage to hang on in the present usually with a lot of luck instead of through official channels like a plaque or an entry in a book.
In this case, I’d recently moved back to Minneapolis and had a new routine of walking around the riverfront every day. One building on the west side of the river at 212 Eleventh Avenue South always intrigued me. Not only was it an obvious holdout surrounded by high rise apartments, but the architecture was unusual for Minneapolis.
On the east side of the river, there was a bar whose signage and branding recalled a late 1800s-era saloon. It was called Mattie’s and the whole thing gave off a kind of bordello vibe.
When I looked up the website, sure enough it said that Mattie St. Clair’s House of Spirits is a “modern-day saloon” named after a madam who owned a brothel just down the street in the late 1800s.
It’s at this point that I made the connection to a recent book reading I’d missed about turn-of-the-century prostitution on the Minneapolis riverfront. I got the book, Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront and discovered that my daily walk was basically a walking tour of the city’s red light districts, which operated until they were shut down circa 1910.
Which brought me to drawing this map!
Thanks for reading and see you next time.