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PFOP red light district

The decline of the Moulton Street red light district, circa early 1960s, was captured by an unknown photographer using high-contrast, black-and-white Kodalith film.  (Photo courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History)

BLOOMINGTON — Bloomington has long enjoyed a reputation as a well-tended, orderly and at times cautious community. Such was not always the case. In fact, for much of its history, Bloomington was home to a small but well-patronized red light district.

Like many similar-sized communities, the city had a segregated vice district, the term “segregated” in this instance referring not to race but rather location. By confining “disorderly houses” (as brothels were called) to a few streets in a single worse-for-wear neighborhood, public officials believed they could keep better tabs on the sex-for-sale business and its unsavory entrepreneurial offshoots.

This tacit arrangement between city leaders and those whose livelihood depended on prostitution was the norm well into the 1950s, a state of affairs interrupted only by wartime and the occasional municipal election or periodic — though usually brief — crackdown.

In Bloomington, houses of ill-repute were grouped along the 500 block of South Wright Street, the 300 block of East Moulton Street (now MacArthur Avenue), and a stretch of Elm Street to the immediate south where there were several African-American “sporting houses” (yet another term for brothel). Locally, the red light district was referred to as the “line,” and well-known (as least to some) Bloomington madams included Bessie Smith, Florence “Flo” Hass and “Mama Coco,” the aunt of Peoria-born comedian Richard Pryor.

These blocks and the wider neighborhood were bulldozed in the late 1960s as part of the city’s urban renewal efforts, and were replaced by the Wood Hill public housing development.

During both world wars, in 1917 and again in 1942, there were efforts to shut down the brothels given their (shall we say) intimate connection to the good health and fighting readiness of draft-age men.

By World War II, Bloomington’s “line” was popular with those stationed at the Army Air Forces’ Chanute Field, located 50 miles away in Rantoul. On Jan. 7, 1942, shocked local officials received word that Chanute commanders had declared Bloomington “off limits” to its personnel. Such drastic action was rare, and Mayor Mark B. Hayes had little choice but to publicly announce closure of the “line.”

What apparently contributed to the ban were significantly higher rates of gonorrhea and syphilis among Bloomington men entering the military than the statewide average. For whatever reason, the system of registration and medical examinations for Bloomington prostitutes overseen by the Illinois Department of Public Health and local physicians had failed to check the spread of venereal disease.

For the Army, prostitution was viewed as an unavoidable evil, discouraged but tolerated. But what base commanders could not put up with were high rates of infection due to the inability or unwillingness of a nearby community to monitor the health of its working girls. The Pantagraph described the Army Air Force order as “the climax of a long story of community humiliation.” Some were happy to heap further shame on Bloomington. Social hygiene expert Dr. Bertha Shafer of Chicago, for example, scolded a local audience that the Chanute ban represented “the government’s last resort to protect the armed forces from a community lacking in interests of national defense.”

The ban also was a blow to the local economy, since visiting airmen flooded the central business district to patronize legitimate businesses such as department stores, restaurants and movie theaters.

Despite mayoral promises and the best efforts of reformers, the “line” soon returned to what it was before the Chanute uproar — an unofficially zoned vice district operating with the unofficial approval of city officials. It remained into the 1950s, and a scandal that decade relating to the shakedown of prostitutes even led to the forced retirement of a Bloomington police chief.

The end came with federally subsidized “slum clearance,” which literally wiped the district off the map. The “line” was one of several areas in the city targeted for wholesale bulldozing accompanied by a reconfiguration of the street layout. Today, Wright Street and MacArthur Avenue, as well as Elm and East streets, no longer run through this redesigned “superblock” as they did during the neighborhood’s wild and wooly heyday. The Wood Hill Urban Renewal Project got under way in 1967 when the city acquired 47 parcels of land for just under $360,000, a move that forced the relocation of 35 families.

Alas, for those interested in the more scandalous side of local history, the red light district — not only the houses but also the very streets — is no more.

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