Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

17 December 2010

Two miles south of Chicago’s Loop, just east of Chinatown, in a neighbourhood known today as the Near South Side, stand the Raymond Hilliard Homes. Built in the mid-1960s as one of the city’s last major public housing projects, the complex was designed by renowned architect Bertrand Goldberg, whose most famous Chicago work is the iconic corncob towers of Marina City. Goldberg’s intent was to create something other than the warehouses-for-the-poor that typified other public housing projects, and so he came up with a futuristic-looking quartet of high-rises that even today are striking to behold.

The Bertrand Goldberg Archive boasts that “for many years this was the only public housing complex which needed no constant police supervision.” The Archive wants to attribute this to Goldberg’s revolutionary design, and the National Register for Historic Places seems to agree: the complex was added to the Register in 1999, claiming in its nomination: “even as public housing policy turned away from high-rise developments, the Hilliard Center has seemed largely immune from the problems of other high-rise projects.” Yet even the Goldberg Archive admits, “residents were chosen from records of model citizenry in other housing projects.” This hand-picking surely contributed as much to the success of Hilliard as did Goldberg’s “neo-expressionist” stab at the new urbanism; still, by the late-1990s, the project had succumbed to the same issues that plagued most other public housing and doomed this idealistic attempt. If not for the architectural significance of the buildings, by now they might well have gone the way of most other public housing high-rises.

The Hilliard site, spanning a two-by-two-block area between Clark and State Streets, Cullerton Street and Cermak Road, utterly transformed this landscape, and its curving towers are, to my eye, a little stark, a lot retro, and reeking of a misguided optimism. Don’t take this the wrong way—I like these buildings, in all their mid-20th-Century weirdness, and while I’ll never miss the rectilinear high-rise barracks of Cabrini–Green as they’re gradually razed, I’m glad that this project has seen a major renovation and will stand for decades to come.

Yet for all the talk of architectural significance and progressive ideals, there is little mention of what this site was one hundred years ago, during what we now refer to as the Progressive Era of American history.

In fact, the site itself gives no hint that Dearborn Street and Federal Street (formerly named Armour Avenue after the famed meatpacker) once passed straight through the site, cruising uninterrupted south from 18th Street and well beyond 22nd Street, now Cermak Road. A hundred years ago, this entire area, from 18th to 22nd, Clark to Wabash, and some of the surrounding environs, was known as the South Side Levee. It was Chicago’s most notorious red light district—and its most famous.

In the Progressive Era, prostitution was seen as a necessary evil, and it was widely believed that segregation—a separate, self-contained vice district—was an adequate means of regulation. As a result, the Levee contained dozens, if not hundreds, of “disorderly houses”: saloons, brothels, opium dens, and the like. Many of these were extremely disreputable, kidnapping young women fresh off the train and forcing them into a life of harlotry, employing “enforcers” to beat the girls, often quite severely, if they got out of line or attempted to escape. Knockout drops in drinks were common, and “panel rooms”—chambers with hidden, sliding panels—were used to rob unaware clients. Corrupt police and aldermen received massive payouts for “protection” and kept the whole thriving under the blind—or complicit—watch of various Chicago mayors.

Into this morass of sin came two sisters from Omaha, Ada and Minna Everleigh. Originally from Virginia and born with the surname Simms, the pair had run a brothel in Omaha that was financed, or so they claimed, by a $35,000 inheritance. It seems likely, however, that they had made this money the old-fashioned way. The sisters, above all else, were masters of self-transformation.

At a time when it was possible for a madman to abduct and murder dozens (possibly hundreds) of people and cause them to vanish with nary a trace, when young women were leaving their homes in droves for the first time in history to travel to urban centers and seek employment, when a woman could be drugged and raped and made to believe that she was “ruined” and thus resign herself to a life of prostitution—becoming, quite literally, an “inmate” of a brothel—

—And as moralizing preachers and prosecutors used these realities to foment a widespread fear of the “traffic in white slavery” and abolish the trade entirely, creating the Mann Act and turning the FBI from a tiny arm of the Justice Department into the enforcement juggernaut it is today—

—Ada and Minna Everleigh sought to turn a profit in the world’s oldest profession in an ethical and high-toned manner. Their “butterflies,” as they called their working girls, were all volunteers, working of their own free will, and free to leave at any time. Their clientèle were judiciously selected and held to rules of proper conduct. A doctor was kept on staff to give the girls periodic check-ups, and drugs were strictly forbidden. The rougher element, pimps, and panders were never welcome; and lower-class holiday-makers were asked to find recourse elsewhere in the Levee, something they could do with ease (but rarely as safely, given those knockout drops and panel rooms and pickpockets at other resorts).

For a dozen years, the Everleigh Club was the premier resort, and Ada and Minna the de facto Queens of the Levee. Its rooms were elaborately appointed even by the over-the-top standards of their late-High-Victorian era. The club was, quite literally, world-famous: captains of industry; important authors, poets, and athletes; and even a European prince could be counted among its patrons. And then it all ended, as the moralizers and temperancers gained traction and politicians courted the law-and-order vote. The club shut its doors in 1911 and the sisters retired into obscurity. The double building at 2131–2133 South Dearborn Street that housed the club was razed a couple of decades later.

The fascinating and titillating story of the Everleigh sisters and their lavish business—but not that of the housing project that stands in its place—is told in the delightful book Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.

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