The surprising connection between prostitution and architecture

The surprising connection between prostitution and architecture

Red light districts preserve historical architecture

The topic of red light districts is a fascinating one, and it can take you in some pretty unusual directions. For example, in cities where prostitution is illegal, flourishing red light districts have in many cases preserved historic architecture that was lost to development in other parts of the city. 

Here's how it happens. Red light districts are, as a rule, located in low-income areas. A given city's scuffed-up, under-utilized neighborhoods provide the cheap rent and inclination to look the other way that a red light district needs to thrive. Police and city officials tend to abandon these neighborhoods in favor of keeping the nicer, more affluent neighborhoods free of open prostitution, adult bookstores, and all the other accoutrements of a red light district.
 
In many cities, the cheapest and poorest neighborhoods are also the oldest. These are the neighborhoods with the ratty old buildings that can't be caulked against the drafts. The SRO hotels that still have cast iron steam heat systems. The overgrown empty lots, chipped plaster and woefully out-of-date infrastructure.

But guess what? One era's "shabby old apartment building" is another era's "charming building with valuable historical merit."
 
Historical architecture has been preserved through civic inattention in many current and former red light district. The lack of interest in development not only allowed the red light district to exist, it also kept its architecture unaltered. Elsewhere in the city buildings will be knocked flat every ten years and rebuilt, but the poorer bywaters remain untouched.
 
This phenomenon can be seen in many cities. Seattle's Pioneer Square, Vancouver BC's Gastown, Portland's Pearl District (formerly "Oldtown"), and New Orleans' Bourbon Street all spring easily to mind. 
 
Of course, there is a flip side to this architectural preservation. As the buildings' historical value becomes known, the first beachheads of gentrification are established. Young urban professionals, avid for the combination of cheap rent and historical architectural detail, are often the first wave. Soon the cycle of gentrification shifts the red light district away from the neighborhood it once preserved. Flophouses are transformed into loft spaces; streetwalkers' alcoves become bike lockers.
 
It may be hard to see the value in the strip mall suburban byways that serve as many red light districts today. But people thought the same thing about the old red light district, once upon a time. Maybe forty years from now, hipsters will be exclaiming the virtues of the cement brick peep show bunker.