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  • Sin City North: Sex, Drugs, and Citizenship in the Detroit-Windsor Borderland by Holly M. Karibo
  • Dan Malleck
Sin City North: Sex, Drugs, and Citizenship in the Detroit-Windsor Borderland, by Holly M. Karibo. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. xi, 210 pp. $29.95 US (paper), $28.99 (e-book).

Sin City North explores interconnections of various vice industries, their relationship to national identity, and the important issue of place, space, race, and identity in borderlands. Whereas most borderlands studies in the United States focus upon the southern border, Karibo is looking north, and for good reason. The Detroit-Windsor nexus was and continues to be a powerful symbol of the relationship between Canada and the United States. Framed economically and culturally, Detroit and Windsor had intricate links, not only through the automobile industry, but also through tourism, distilling, and other economies that persisted under the surface. [End Page 373]

The focus of Sin City North is, of course, sin. Karibo unpacks several key vice industries in the first half of the twentieth century, an era when drugs, alcohol, and prostitution were being restricted, prohibited, and thrust into underground economies (if they were not already there, as in the case of prostitution). Prohibition of alcohol and drugs took place at different times in each country, with liquor prohibition in Ontario ending six years before prohibition in the US, and drug prohibition taking hold in Canada beginning in 1908 and 1911, prior to national laws in the United States under the Harrison Act of 1914. Hence a borderland study between Canada and the US at this time is especially rich for comparative purposes.

Karibo addresses borders in ways that go far beyond the geographical separation between Detroit and Windsor. Often vices are studied in silos. In some studies sexual transgression is connected to drug and alcohol use, but the focus is on sexual transgression. In others drug use may have connections to the sex trade, but the focus is drug use. John Burnham explored this in Bad Habits (New York, 1993) and historians often acknowledge the idea of a vice constellation in their work. But what Karibo has done is actively explored in a microcosm the interplay of drugs, sexual transgression, drink, and other forms of vice, how these vice economies influenced both policy, perceptions of space, and ideas of the physical borders and national identities.

Given these interconnections of vices it makes sense that Karibo divides her study into five interconnected chapters. She begins with the history of this borderland, moves into sex tourism, the trans-border drug trade, attempts to police vice on the border, and finishing with a fascinating chapter on the way vice was conceptualized in national discussions about the drug trade. Here Karibo moves from the local to the international, navigating with some considerable skill the complexities of senate committees and high-level political communications. In her analysis, Karibo explores how attempts to examine the drug problem with nuance and complexity often deteriorated into simply reinforcing the debased stereotypes of drug users, often racialized stereotypes of drug vendors, and the simplistic drug-prostitution connection.

Karibo draws upon a broad range of material to support her examination. These include a vast number of newspaper and magazine accounts, radio transcripts, government records, government inquiries from both sides of the border, and personal accounts of life in the business. One minor concern could be relying too much upon sensationalized accounts of life in the sex industry or the drug trade, but Karibo does her best to triangulate that material with less sensationalist evidence.

In the end Sin City North is a valuable and enjoyable examination of vice in the borderlands. Holly Karibo's writing is engaging, her reasoning is solid, and her conclusions make an important contribution to the histories [End Page 374] of drugs and alcohol, the sex industry, cross-border trade, tourism, and early twentieth century changes to national identity, racial politics, and transborder economies.

Dan Malleck
Brock University


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