Minneapolis Red Light Districts of Yesteryear

I get a charge out of place names that refer to the original landscape features of a place before they were bulldozed into oblivion for parking lots, roads, and buildings. Around here, we have suburbs with names like Maple Grove, Forest Lake, Eden Prairie, and so on—once you start looking, these names are everywhere. But it’s not just about the irony. Although these names don’t disclose a lot of detail, they do reference the historical character of a place at a certain point in time. Without having to do a minute of research, it is possible have a rough idea about a landscape before the sprawl.

I don’t know if there is a name for all of this, but I experienced a version of it about a month ago on my regular walk around the downtown riverfront. I was walking by a bar and paused a moment at its signage, which suggested a late 1800s-era saloon. The name—Mattie’s—was also curious. Considering everything together, I definitely got a bordello vibe. So I looked at the website and 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.

And it was THIS that got me to thinking about an author’s talk I’d recently missed about turn-of-the-century prostitution on the Minneapolis riverfront. So I got the book, Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront and to my surprise found that almost my entire daily walk touches on the city’s red light districts, which operated until about 1910.

In fact, it is the same unusual building I always begin at—212 Eleventh Avenue South—that spurred author Penny Peterson to begin her research on the book. Turns out it was originally built as a brothel (as many were back in the day) and is the only one still standing. It is now hemmed in by condos, whose residents are probably completely unaware that their neighborhood used to be a little spicier.

The book was fantastic and I appreciated the author’s take on the subject. Instead of approaching it with distaste (as so many Americans do), she explored the man’s world in which the madams lived and their role as tough and successful business women at a time when opportunities to work outside the home were dismal and underpaid. And she paints a wonderfully detailed scene of daily life during that era.

Mattie’s and 212 Eleventh Avenue are the only flickers left of this part of the story, but I think they both a good reminder of how much history we walk by every day without knowing it—but if we pay attention to the clues that linger, it can open up new worlds.

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