Red Light District Becomes Historic Site

Posted by Daniel on Oct 15, 2011 - 1 comment

This week the federal government declared Vancouver's Chinatown a National Historic Site. Which is nice. But the background information neglected to mention that a portion of the designated area along Pender Street was the city's first red light district.

By the first decade of the 20th century, the north side of Pender east of Carrall, then known as Dupont St., was lined with brothels, their red lights glowing. Initially the houses were tolerated by the police, who accepted bribes from the madames in return for leaving them alone. But in 1903 the mayor, Thomas Neelands, launched the first attempt to "clean up" the street and evict the prostitutes. "These women certainly have to go. The location of these houses is far too central to be allowed to remain," Neelands announced. But as long as no one could agree where the businesses should move, little was done.

Finally, in 1906, police moved against the Dupont St. brothels, closing many of them. (At this time there were 41 houses occupied by 153 prostitutes.) But the red light district did not move very far, simply shifting around the corner into Shanghai Alley, also part of the new designated historic site. It was not until 1912 that city authorities succeeded in shifting the women out of this neighbourhood and a new red light district opened for business along Alexander Street north of Powell.

It is interesting that the historic site was designated in the same week that Wally Oppal's investigation into the missing women began hearings because the treatment of the Dupont Street prostitutes -- shunting them from back street to back street -- set the pattern for the way Vancouver would deal with the issue of prostitution for many years to come. Out of sight, out of mind. As witnesses testifying at the Oppal inquiry have argued, this policy of marginalization, both social and geographic, created the circumstances in which predators like Robert Pickton could operate.

Also last week, the federal minister of citizenship and immigration, Jason Kenney, mentioned that Ottawa is interested in reinvigorating Canadians' interest in their own past. Apparently the Harper government's sense of history is broad enough to include all Canadians, even the often neglected workers in the sex trade. I wonder if the plaques that will inevitably be mounted to describe the new historic site will include this part of the story.