The end of an era

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Written by Alisha Sims   
Wednesday, 09 June 2010 09:18

Alisha Sims
Sun Times

The city’s past “wasn’t all peaches and cream,” Carly Stewart, the Lethbridge Historical Society’s spokesperson, said in February 2009 when the society was seeking a green light from city council for a historical plaque  commemorating Lethbridge’s original red-light district. The city’s past “included warts,” he noted with a smile.
Like warts and other items not usually discussed openly in public circles for fear of making others uncomfortable, there’s a lot misinformation circulating. Belinda Crowson, the Galt Museum & Archives’ museum educator and president of the Lethbridge Historical Society, aims to set the record straight on a topic that might make some folks blush. The goal is to release “We Don’t Talk About Those Women! Lethbridge Red Light District 1880s to 1944” in September.

Alisha Sims
Sun Times
The city’s past “wasn’t all peaches and cream,” Carly Stewart, the Lethbridge Historical Society’s spokesperson, said in February 2009 when the society was seeking a green light from city council for a historical plaque  commemorating Lethbridge’s original red-light district. The city’s past “included warts,” he noted with a smile.
Like warts and other items not usually discussed openly in public circles for fear of making others uncomfortable, there’s a lot misinformation circulating. Belinda Crowson, the Galt Museum & Archives’ museum educator and president of the Lethbridge Historical Society, aims to set the record straight on a topic that might make some folks blush. The goal is to release “We Don’t Talk About Those Women! Lethbridge Red Light District 1880s to 1944” in September.
For the last two years, following the release of her book “Vice, Virtue and Lust: Lethbridge’s Cemeteries” in 2008, Crowson has been sifting through newspapers to gather information about the brothers that operated in the city from the 1880s to 1944.
“There were a lot of letters to the editor with letter writers arguing their positions. Even one of the madams wrote the newspaper.”
She’s also consulted other works, such as newspaper journalist James Gray’s books on women’s history.
“It was a lot of research. Every time, I found something, it would raise more questions,” she said.
Trouble is, there’s not a lot of information on the city’s red-light district readily available. Scanning the Galt’s archive photos, there appears to be only one photograph that includes The Point, the area on the west end of 4 Avenue South, behind the Lethbridge Lodge. In the 1900s, The Point was home to six brightly coloured brothels that were difficult to miss when one rolled over the High Level Bridge into Lethbridge on the train.
“There was no mistaking what those buildings were,” Crowson laughed.
In February 2009, city council voted to allow the historical society to go ahead with its plan to install a plaque at the area that was once known as The Point. The society covered the cost and quietly put on the monument last summer. The plaque tells the history of The Point and its role in the social life of the city. However, there was some displeasure voiced over the monument.
“It’s funny. Some people say it’s a part of our history and others say it’s disrespectful and want it hidden,” she said of brothels. “But it might as well just be out there and deal with it.”
Crowson stresses she takes her work seriously and in no way is her book sensational. “When you read it, the facts speak for themselves.”
Agree or disagree with the idea of brothels, there’s no disputing Lethbridge’s red-light district was unique. While it operated illegally, it remained in place relatively untouched until 1944, earning the Windy City the distinction of being one of the last cities in North America to have an openly recognized red-light district.
That’s not to say there weren’t attempts before then to shut the district down. At the end of 1912, when authorities were certain the red-light district had met its end, the Lethbridge Daily Herald ran an article with the headline “segregated Area is a Thing of the Past in Lethbridge.” And leaders were celebrating the fact Lethbridge was one of the few Western Canadian cities that had earned the title of being vice-free. After all, there was the belief the three vices — gambling, alcohol and prostitution — went together. Eliminate one and they all fall.
“That lasted about a month,” said Crowson.
While no one was brave enough to state it publicly, the red-light district was good for the economy.  “The business owners noticed a drop (in business), although they wouldn’t come out and say that.” The women working in the brothel would spend their money in the city, along with the men who visited them.
Keep in mind there was a difference between street walkers and the women who worked in brothels. The brothels were well run, often employed servants, and the women who worked there were considered elite.
But not all was rosy.
“Don’t get me wrong,” warns Crowson. “There was still alcohol and drug abuse and violence.”
However, in the 1880s, before women could vote or were considered persons under the law, brothels gave women an opportunity to own their own businesses and earn their own living.
Opportunities such as this were far and few between for women, especially those whose husbands had left them. The idea of divorce “soiled” a woman and made her an outcast of society.
“Women making money from other women was not a perfect thing but it really makes you understand the culture at the time.”
The fight against brothels served to create some of the social services that are still in existence today. In 1918, one of the local ministers said 30 children were born illegitimately in Lethbridge in a six-month period. “He didn’t link it to the red-light district and I hope that’s exaggerated,” Crowson said. But the result of that statistic was the development of a house for children.
And the Travellers Aid Society, which continues to operate in some places around the world, including Toronto, was created to alleviate the fear of white slavery, which Crowson said was unfounded.
The society has volunteers greet, meet and assist nearly travellers. In Lethbridge, volunteers met young women at the train station and gave them a safe place to say out of fear they’d be recruited to work in the brothels.
In 1944, the brothels met their end in the city following the province’s instruction to shut them down.
However, that hasn’t meant the end of prostitution.
An ongoing prostitution sting operation by Lethbridge regional police has resulted in eight more area men being accused of trying to buy sex in the downtown core.
The eight, who range in age from 30 to 77, have each been charged with communicating to obtain the sexual services of a prostitute. The charges were laid in connection with eight incidents in the past two weeks in which men solicited an undercover female police officer.
It’s the second time johns have been targeted and arrested since last October when police launched the undercover project aimed at deterring consumers and eliminating prostitution from the downtown area. The majority of those charged to date have been of retirement age.
“I think age is irrelevant. What’s important for people to understand is as long as there’s a clientele or a demand for the services of sex-trade workers, there,s going to be prostitution. It doesn,t matter if someone is in their 20s or their 80s, at the end of the day they’re contributing to the problem,” police spokesman Kristen Harding told the Lethbridge Herald.
“Our community doesn’t have a john school, and the resources to deal with sex-trade consumers to change their behaviours are very limited. By identifying the individuals we charge, the intent is to deter them and others from engaging in this kind of illegal activity,” she said.
Charged are Jakob Harms, 68, of Lethbridge; William Simpson, 69, of Lethbridge; Peter Wall, 48, of Burdett; Roberto Armando Gamero, 57, of Lethbridge; Ronald B. Parton, 72, of Lethbridge; Dick Pols, 65, of Lethbridge; Alex C. Hunt, 77, of Lethbridge; and Ryan Francis Beekman, 30, of Coaldale.
Harms, Simpson and Wall are to appear in court June 15, Gamero is to appear June 16, Pols and Hunt are to appear June 29, and Parton and Beekman are to appear July 7.
Four men were charged last December after the first round of arrests. Three of them were in their 80s.
It’s too soon for police to say whether the project is having the intended effect of deterring sex-trade consumers, Harding said.
In addition to laying charges, police seized six vehicles under a provision of the Traffic Safety Act, but two were subsequently returned to their owners. The act gives police the authority to seize vehicles used in the commission of prostitution-related offences. Vehicles seized are held pending the outcome of court proceedings against those accused.
Harding noted the project’s other objective is to help sex-trade workers get off the street.
When sex-trade workers are apprehended, they receive information and referrals to local outreach programs.

 

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