Thursday, November 17, 2016

Voices from the Underworld: The Barbary Coast

By Ivy Anderson and Devon Angusrsovon Angus
In Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute (winner of the California Historical Society 2015 Book Award), we have brought to light the personal account of a sex worker’s life in Progressive Era California for the first time in over a century.  Alice’s story, which moves through various landscapes of vice across the state of California, reveals much about poverty, crime, and sex, and how people managed these aspects of life in the public sphere in 1913. While citizens around the state argued the benefits and drawbacks of the Red Light Abatement Act, a law that aimed to end the quasi-legal brothel system, which had flourished in California since the days of the Gold Rush, the voices of sex workers themselves were for the most part ignored or manipulated for use in propaganda. By publishing  sex worker Alice Smith’s memoir “A Voice From the Underworld,” and 114 letters written by other self proclaimed sex workers during the summer of 1913, the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper became a platform for society’s pariahs to voice their stance on a question that would significantly impact their lives and livelihoods: what shall we do with the infamous vice districts of California, such as the Barbary Coast? And what shall happen to the women of the vice districts?

The Barbary Coast, which today is the downtown district situated between Chinatown, North Beach, the waterfront and the Financial District, was San Francisco’s primary center for vice by the 1860’s. Named after a notorious stretch of North African coastline famous for piracy,  the Barbary Coast developed a reputation that rivaled any vice district in the United States, and like Storyville in New Orleans or New York’s Bowery, this jumble of gambling halls, brothels, and saloons was tacitly accepted as a necessary aspect of the urban landscape. But in San Francisco, this vice district made up almost the entirety of the urban landscape, which developed in a number of haphazard stages spurred by the immediate influx of money and single men during the gold rush years. Men seeking their fortunes, far from the social constraints of their families, spent freely on gambling and prostitution. Outnumbering women 50 to 1 in the early years of the Gold Rush, men would turn to the prostitutes of the city to fulfill important social roles, and for a few years prostitutes and madams could acquire both money and status, though this varied widely: women of color, especially Chinese and Native American women, faced exploitation in ways that white women simply didn’t. All of this happened throughout the city; gambling and prostitution could be found in almost any corner of San Francisco. This laissez faire approach to morality began to shift as “proper” women began moving in, serving their role as “civilizers” to the rough and tumble shantytown metropolis. During the 1860’s, as families and businessmen began conceiving of San Francisco as a city of global importance, moralizing forces attempted to sequester all gambling, sex, crime, and lascivious entertainment into the the newly segregated district of the Barbary Coast.

Interior of the Moulin Rouge nightclub in the Barbary Coast, 1911. SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY
The development of the Barbary Coast differed from other vice districts in other American cities. In other cities, vice districts were created to deflect the uncontrollable passions of male sexuality away from “proper” women towards the “fallen” women of the brothels and the street corners. According to popular belief, prostitutes were born flawed and irredeemable. They were to be kept in vice districts to serve as safety valves, keeping “proper” women safe from sexual assault. San Francisco, on the other hand, didn’t create a vice district so much as it shrunk the morality of the Gold Rush days into a district: the Barbary Coast. Thus the ‘Coast, as it was nicknamed, was both an unsavory symbol of the lawless days of ‘49 that had been “civilized” by the good people of the city and a center of nostalgia for those romantic and tumultuous early years. This nostalgia seems to live on even in today’s San Francisco; in North Beach alone, a number of new businesses have adopted names and decor reminiscent of that lawless time: the Belle Cora wine bar, for instance, and the Devil’s Acre, named after a particularly notorious stretch of the neighborhood.

During the Progressive Era, major changes in the American political landscape created new ideas about vice and how to manage it. A new concept of prostitution emerged informed especially by idealistic Progressive reformers, eugenicists, feminists, clergy, and journalists and the mass media, and prostitutes were suddenly seen not as a necessary evil, but as either victims in need of rescue or a disease in need of eradication. Supporters of the Red Light Abatement Act argued that dismantling the California’s segregated districts, like the Barbary Coast, would destroy the undesirable industry of prostitution while allowing its denizens an opportunity for a new reformed life. But what we find when we read the letters written by sex workers themselves, their relationship to the Barbary Coast was much more complicated than these reformers could have imagined. While many prostitutes that wrote into the Bulletin sought out assistance, several bristled under the label of “victim,” seeking to keep their own sense of dignity and agency within the confines of their life in the “underworld”. Alice Smith was one of these women. 
The following excerpt is from Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute. Having been a freelancer,  a brothel worker, and a madam throughout California, Alice Smith looks at the Barbary Coast through a critical lens:
I’m just going to draw a few pictures of what I saw in the San Francisco segregated district.
Never will I forget my first night in the house. My great memory is of the crowd that kept reeling and surging through the parlor, where we girls sat waiting. It was a morbid mob—boys from the high school, kids in their teens, who were probably office boys, well dressed men, hoboes, old diseased wrecks; failures and fun seekers, clubmen and criminals, the foul-minded young and the foul-minded old, all mixed together in one unhealthy, sickening mass.
Not one in twenty came to stay. Not one in fifteen came even to spend money on drinks. I felt that I had ceased to be just a prostitute, and had become an animal in a menagerie, to be stared at and called foul names.
Most of the men and boys would stand there in the doorway and stare slowly around at each of the girls in turn, with grins on their faces and that beastly look in their eyes that makes you hate all men. And the talk they would use! I was accustomed to hearing cursing and swearing, in a certain amount and degree, but before I had sat in that parlor an hour I heard things said that I had never heard before. When I had learned the filth that dropped from the lips of those men and boys—the boys hurt the worst, to hear mere kids talk that way—I began to understand a little more what prostitution really was. We were the men’s big show; put there by men; kept there for the use of by men, to be used as they chose and talked to as they chose, meant forever to be the satisfaction and the victims of their worst hours. Our business in life was to help men when they were at their lowest. Our trade was not our own; it wasn’t even invented by us; it was created by the men when they had a mind to be lower than animals.
And they were lower than animals. I don’t know whether animals have speech; but if they have, they don’t use it as men do. And animals don’t have prostitution. It took men to achieve that.
The house I was in wasn’t one of the worst in the district. We had a locked front door, and the men and boys had to knock before they could come in. many of the places in the district just have a swinging door, and the crowd that looks the girls over is, of course, just so much worse. I don’t like to picture what it is for the girls in those places.
Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus will be publicly presenting their research on two occasions this week. They will be speaking at UC Berkeley on Thursday, November 17th as a part of the California Studies Department Dinner Series. On Saturday, November 19th they will be leading a free walking tour through San Francisco’s Barbary Coast; this tour is hosted by City Lights Booksellers and Publishers. Both events require RSVPs. For more information on upcoming events, where to purchase the book, and more, visit

For more information, see this new article from the SFGate: 
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