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How do you find the red light district?

If you can't bring yourself to ask, learn to recognize the signs.

It's easy to find the "red light district" in countries where prostitution is legal. Just check your tourist guide book! But what about countries (like the United States) where prostitution is illegal in most areas? Aside from a few counties in Nevada, prostitution is illegal. But every city in the U.S. has its own red light district where porn stores, adult movie theaters, street prostitutes and cheap hotels abound. Maybe you're curious to check out a new city's seedier side, or maybe you want to be sure to avoid that area when you are booking a vacation. (I don't judge!) But the question remains: how can you locate the red light district in an unfamiliar city?

The easiest way is obvious: ask a local. Cab drivers are often a good bet. Not only does a cab driver have a broad knowledge of their city as a whole, they also probably get a lot of fares in and out of the red light district. This conversation can be as awkward or as casual as you make it. Just remember, the cab driver really doesn't care. Cab drivers aren't judgmental; they can't afford to be. They work on tips!
 
If you can't bring yourself to ask someone face to face, turn to the Internet. You can ask a general-purpose forum like Ask.Metafilter.com or search out a city-specific forum if the city is large enough to support one. If you want, frame your question as "What parts of the city should I avoid? I'm particularly concerned about avoiding red light districts, because the last time I booked a hotel in an unfamiliar city, I ended up smack in the middle of Streetwalker Central!" 
 
What if you don't or can't just ask someone? A little bit of sleuthing can often provide valuable clues. Obviously you can't just check the phone book under "Prostitutes, Street Corner." But you can search for a cluster of likely indicators:
 
  • Low-income neighborhoods. If you are driving around, look for areas with a lot of run-down apartment buildings, pawn shops, check cashing stores, faded store signage, etc. 
  • Adult video stores, adult book stores and adult movie theaters. These legit businesses are found throughout most cities, but they tend to congregate in a city's red light district. Skim the addresses and look for street names that seem to reoccur often.
  • Cheap, non-chain hotels and motels. Look for places that advertise weekly rates and free HBO. (I don't know why these places always tout their free HBO, but they do.)