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  • For Business and Pleasure: Red-Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890–1933 by Mara L. Keire
  • Alecia P. Long
For Business and Pleasure: Red-Light Districts and the Regulation of Vice in the United States, 1890–1933. By Mara L. Keire. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Pp. 231. $60.00 (cloth).

In For Business and Pleasure Mara Keire contributes a synthesis to the study of vice regulation in the United States of the Progressive era. Her major focus is on the numerous and evolving methodologies that Progressives used to combat urban vice. Though their earliest efforts focused on the creation of segregated vice districts, by 1910 virtually all Progressives had eschewed this strategy. As Keire notes, the “strength of their early acceptance fueled the virulence of their later rejection” (21).

The first two chapters focus on the years between 1890 and 1917. Chapter 1 examines how reformers developed vice district commissions and persuaded or pushed local politicians whom they considered corrupt to get a handle on urban vice. The machine politicians agreed to go along with these reforms, initially at least, since both they and the reformers made gains: Progressives achieved their preferred solution, while city leaders made connections with vice district power brokers who were willing to facilitate payoffs and deliver votes. This and other unforeseen outcomes of vice district concentration set Progressives on a different course.

Chapter 2 focuses on the sporting subculture that emerged within the boundaries of urban vice districts. The author notes that “geographic confinement did not equal cultural containment” (23) and spends most of this chapter exploring how district inhabitants established a sporting subculture that challenged the propriety and gender divisions valued by respectable Americans. Kiere argues that sporting people “welcomed outsiders, but its denizens had no intention of assimilating the values of its visitors” (40). The author does not consider the possibility, for which there is also considerable evidence, that some prostitutes eagerly pursued respectability, employing its forms in their brothel interiors and advertisements or pursuing that status for themselves or their family members not tainted by open participation in vice.

In chapter 3 Keire argues that the race riots in Atlanta in 1906 and in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 convinced Progressives that vice districts were no longer a viable solution. She reminds readers that until about 1910, segregation was understood, especially among reformers, to refer to vice districts. The more modern understanding of segregation as the social and residential separation of whites and blacks prevailed only after Progressives abandoned the strategy of vice district segregation. Keire’s work here is instructive. Scholars who focus on single cities or regions might well miss how the aftermath of those two riots heightened racial fears among whites, led to more intense and discriminatory policing of blacks in and near vice districts, and drove the search for new kinds of legal strategies all across the nation. [End Page 134]

In chapter 4 the author offers a novel and convincing interpretation of how reformers used the white slavery scare to develop new arguments about the dangers of urban vice. Although it might seem counterintuitive, Keire shows how well-heeled Progressive reformers developed a critique that focused on the economic organization of vice districts, comparing them to the “corrupting powers of [corporate] trusts” (69). In the process, reformers shifted their focus away from prostitutes and toward those who directed the business of vice. They also hammered away at the connections between successful vice district entrepreneurs and local machine politicians. Their hope was that if they could “convince people of the government’s complicity in economic misdeeds, the public, in moral outrage, would give reformers a mandate to change the system” (73).

Progressives managed to close the majority of the nation’s vice districts by 1917. In the dozens of cities where they succeeded, Keire makes the important point that the disaggregation of vice districts inhibited the ability of former clients to locate and obtain illicit goods and services. Still, some cities like New Orleans and San Francisco refused to budge. Ultimately, “it took an actual war to eradicate tolerated vice districts from America’s cities” (90). World War...


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