Santa Rosa’s 1908 leaders faced a dilemma: They wanted to close the redlight district, yet still keep the prostitutes around – somewhere.

Following the city elections that year, the mayor and City Council were expected to crack down on prostitution (see the previous entry for more background). Trouble was, many of the most powerful men in town profited from the trade, either directly or indirectly. Some, like Con Shea, actually collected rent from the brothels; others made a buck because vice in the downtown area was a driving factor in Santa Rosa’s economy. There were never fewer than 30-40 saloons where gambling was common, particularly in horse-racing season. Before the earthquake Santa Rosa had the reputation of being a wide open town after dark, and little had changed; pre-quake Santa Rosa had eleven brothels, now slightly chipped down to eight. (For those curious how these numbers are known with certainty: The Sanborn Co. fire insurance maps in this period identified brothels as “Female Boarding,” or just “F. B.”)

It was decided – exactly by whom, it is not clear – that the brothels would have to close, or at least move away from the area of First and D streets, by August 1. Yet a debate over what to do about the redlight district stumbled on through the summer, and past the deadline. There were three possibilities being hashed out:

* THROW OUT THE CHINESE AND JAPANESE AS WELL It was proposed immediately that if Santa Rosa was to rid itself of its tenderloin, then the nearby Chinese and Japanese community also should be evicted. Most of the City Council and several prominent men quickly chimed in agreement, but it was a senseless display of pure racism; that tiny neighborhood – mostly the half-block of Second St. nearest D Street – was accused of no crime. And while all kinds of anti-Chinese rhetoric was common in that era (particularly in the Press Democrat), it’s surprising to find the Japanese were now lumped in as part of the “objectionable element.” The Santa Rosa papers usually portrayed the Japanese community with respect – a marked contrast to most Bay Area dailies. Just a few months earlier, the Santa Rosa Republican had reported a warm-and-fuzzy tale of a Japanese woman from Geyserville who nearly died before reluctantly seeking medical help in Santa Rosa, and a followup article expressed the family’s deepest gratitude to her caregivers; now the same paper was offering a letter headlined “Proposition to Clear Away Filth.” (The letter’s author was John Robinson, the former proprietor of the quake-destroyed Eagle hotel that was on the corner of Main and 2nd, at the end of the same block as Chinatown.)

* BUILD THE MAYOR’S PARK The final dirty trick of the election of 1908 was the last-minute announcement by the “Good Ol’ Boy” candidate for mayor that he was making deals to buy up the properties in the tenderloin district, level the buildings, and transform the area into a park (Santa Rosa’s first). Little had apparently happened since the election, except for rumors that a Catholic order might be interested in building a hospital in the area, and an offer from Luther Burbank to donate an adjoining parcel for the creation of a “Burbank Conservatory” where some of his plants could be put on display. Although the PD gushed that the “project is now assuming definite shape,” it was all just big talk. The area remained mixed residential/commercial/junkyard until after WWI, when this section of town became the local “gasoline alley” for the repair of cars and trucks.

* RELOCATE THE REDLIGHT DISTRICT TO THE ITALIAN NEIGHBORHOOD The craziest idea emerged less than a month before the deadline for the prostitutes to leave: Create a new tenderloin on West Sixth Street, in the Italian section of town. Something like that was apparently discussed a few weeks earlier: “T. C. Johnson offered it to purchase a tract and erect the necessary buildings for the occupants. This would leave them within the city limits and thus under police control, and yet they would be away from practically everybody.” Nothing came of this idea for a planned community (or theme park?) and the next we heard of a plan to relocate the ladies was a denial that the City Council wanted them moved to West Sixth. Then on August 3 – after the deadline for them to leave their current digs – the Republican reported, “Arrangements have been underway during the day to lease a piece of ground on lower Sixth street from Max Reutersham, where all of the houses of this character will in future be assembled, if the proposition now being worked out is carried.” Probably needless to say, the Italian community had a fit. In two days, they collected 293 names on a petition and presented it to the City Council. Nothing came of this plan, either.

The plan to dump the prostitutes on the Italian neighborhood showed there was no plan whatsoever, and no city leadership. It was one thing to posture and make fine speeches about cleaning up the town, but not so easy in practice. Apparently several madams owned their houses of ill-repute, and were not about to evict themselves. Even Sadie McLean, the infamous madam whose brothel was closed after being sued by a neighbor, only moved a couple of doors down to 710 First street, which was an even larger building. A year later, the newsletter from the prohibitionists decried, “We would like to ask with all due respect for Mr. Gray, what has been done while in office? He was going to clean up the notorious ‘red light district.’ He has not done anything in that line. The town is going on in the same old way.”

Mayor and Councilmen Declare Against Redlight District

An effort is in progress to get rid of the “red light” district in the city. Mayor Gray and the Councilmen have the matter in charge and they are hopeful of success.

Councilman Forgett stated that he was in favor of the plan, provided that they would take the Chinese and Japanese houses along with the sporting houses and this seemed to meet with the favor of all, and so the plans have been worked out.

Councilman Barham when seen about the matters stated: “They should go. That’s all there is about it. I have always said that. Is one of the finest parts of Santa Rosa and the removal will improve the property there. It’s a duty we owe to the people of Santa Rosa to remove that blot.”

Councilman Bronson was also interviewed and he remarked, “Well, I am in favor of removing them when the time comes and that time is pretty soon. And then force them to stop the selling of liquor. I believe that could be a little beauty spot along the creek instead of the present eyesore.”

T. C. Johnson offered it to purchase a tract and erect the necessary buildings for the occupants. This would leave them within the city limits and thus under police control, and yet they would be away from practically everybody.

It was also found that a number of the parties who are interested in the properties which are now occupied by the sporting women are in favor of the change and they would encourage the same by helping financially. Mayor Gray, in speaking of the movement Thursday, stated that while everything is not yet completed and no official action has yet been taken, it is so arranged that the plans can be carried out and that the council will doubtless make an order for the cleanup. There is also some talk of taking the liquor away from the sporting houses and allowing nothing of the kind to be carried out there.

The removal of the undesirable section from the vicinity of First and D streets and also along Second street between D and Main streets, will open to the public one of the most desirable locations for a residence section, and it is expected that the banks of the creek will then be available for a park, and with a dam in the creek below the new steel bridge, will afford one of the most beautiful natural pleasure spots to be found anywhere.

Mr. Gray has also interviewed Mr. Burbank regarding the project and it is understood that the latter has looked favorably upon a plan for the erecting of a conservatory on the rear of his property and near the proposed park, and in this will be kept a fine collection of his creations. This is to be open to the public and will be in charge of the city gardener. Thus the people coming here will have a chance to see the best of Mr. Burbank’s works, and yet not call at his home and bother him.

There is another move that may result from the plan proposed, and that is the probable location of the new Sisters’ Hospital in that section and it is stated that a large donation for a site can be obtained there after the other houses have been taken away. This will tend to enhance the value of all property in the vicinity, and the property owners will be anxious to have the hospital located there.

Con Shea, one of the property owners of the section, was seen about the matter and at first was not inclined to say anything about the movement, but when urgent exclaimed: “The sooner the better!” He then continued and stated that if the movement was to be a success he thought the Chinese and Japanese should be taken along too, and then he would be heartily in favor of the same. The presence of the foreign element there would leave the place in as bad shape as ever, even though the women were ordered out, and if there is to be a general cleanup there should be nothing left of the objectionable feature. That can be made a splendid section of the city if all will lend a hand.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 4, 1908

Indorses Proposition to Clear Away Filth

Your issue of the fourth contained very cheering news in relation to the removal of the “red light” district from First street. Mayor Gray and the council will certainly deserve and receive great credit for inaugurating and carryout such a desirable move. The councilmen who have so far expressed themselves in relation to the matter are certainly right and I heartily agree with the statements Councilman Forgett and Mr. Shea, that the Chinese and Japanese should also go; otherwise the good work would only be half done. After being in business close to that locality for more than 15 years I know of the surprise expressed by many that such condition should exist so close to the center of our beautiful Santa Rosa. If arrangements could be made to extend the park north along Main street to Second, and east to D street, it would be a good thing and very desirable and finally pay every laudable interest in Santa Rosa. Of course all know that Mr. Burbank will do everything in his power to make the move a grand success, and his aid, counsel and advice will be of great value. Mayor Gray and the council, assisted by those whose interests are directly involved, have a fine opportunity to do a great and lasting benefit to their city, our Santa Rosa, and at the same time do what will reflect credit on themselves for generations to come.

Let all give them encouragement.

J. Robinson.
Santa Rosa, June 5, 1908.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 5, 1908

Plan Includes Clean-up of First Street Section–Chinatown and Japanese Quarter to Go–Lake for Boating and Burbank Conservatory

Mayor Gray’s plan for the removal of the red light district together with Chinatown and the Japanese quarter, and the transforming of that part of town into a choice residence section, with a park and boulevard along the creek bank, and a lake with boating facilities adjoining, mention of which was made in these columns sometime since, appears to be rapidly assuming shape.

The members of the City Council, as well as many of the citizens most interested, have publicly announced themselves as being heartily in accord with the idea, property required for the change has been bonded, surveys have been made, plans for financing the undertaking have been discussed at length, and all that now seems necessary to ensure the successful fruition of the plan is for the public to do its part and get out and help push the project through.

A ten-acre tract inside the city limits, and therefore within the police zone, and at the same time so situated as to minimize most of the objectionable features, is under bond and available for the location of the interests that are to be abated at their present location. Luther Burbank has given his approval of a plan for the erection of a conservatory on one corner of his property, or in the park itself, where his creations can be shown. The location of the proposed Sister’s Hospital in that vicinity is also planned as part of the great work of transforming that part of the city into a thing of beauty and the home off refinement and peace.

As at present contemplated, the plan calls for the transformation of everything south of First street to the water’s edge into a park, together with certain properties on the south side, the construction of a dam and footbridge, and the abolition of both Chinatown and the Japanese quarter to the north. Where the most opposition is expected–from people owning property in that part of town rented or under lease to the Chinese, Japanese and other interests effected–very little has been encountered, most of those seen being quick to realize that their property would greatly increase in value by reason of the change, and soon become about the most desirable in the city.

Several plans have been suggested for financing the proposition. Private parties are said to be ready to look out for the initial necessities, which include the providing of new locations for the people who will have to move. The general opinion seems to be that the residents of that part of town would jump at the chance to subscribe a sufficient sum to start the project going, after which the Woman’s Improvement Club, or the Park Commission recently authorized by the Chamber of Commerce, or both working in conjunction, could carry it along until such time as the funds necessary for the completion of the work could be provided by bond issue. It is freely conceded that the bonds would carry by practically a unanimous vote as soon as the project is sufficiently well under way for people to see what a splendid improvement is contemplated, and help perfectly feasible is the plan for transforming what is now a disgrace and an eyesore into a beautiful park and pleasure ground, with handsome residence surrounding it on all sides.

– Press Democrat, June 5, 1908

The rumor that the tenderloin district would be located on West Sixth street has evaporated. A councilman stated Monday that while the redlight must go from its present location it will not go to West Sixth street or that part of the city. The city council is not interested in the future location, but that those women must move from First and D streets. A number of the women in that locality are preparing to move out, but several others who own their own property will remain and in a lawsuit will oppose any measures to remove them from their homes.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 10, 1908
Plan to Rendezvous Women on Sixth Street

The women of the tenderloin have been given until this evening to vacate their places of residence on First street under the notices recently served on them to change their location.

Arrangements have been underway during the day to lease a piece of ground on lower Sixth street from Max Reutersham, where all of the houses of this character will in future be assembled, if the proposition now being worked out is carried.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 3, 1908
Determination that Present Location Must Be Changed–Mayor Gray Makes Statement

Last night was the time set for the closing of the redlight district in accordance with the instructions given by the city council sometime since. It is understood that no drastic measures will be taken for a few days as some of the residents of the houses in the district have not been able to complete their arrangements for a place to locate, either here or elsewhere.

Mayor Gray stated emphatically last night that the city council has nothing to do, nor will have, with any proposed change location of the tenderloin. He said, moreover, that it had been fully determined that the present location of the district would have to be abandoned.

– Press Democrat, August 4, 1908
Do Not Want the Redlight District

A remonstrance bearing 293 names signed generally by citizens living west of the Northwestern Pacific railroad was presented to the city council on Tuesday evening protesting against the removal of the redlight district to that locality. It contain the following statement:

“We desire to call your attention to the fact that those residing within this district believe themselves to be as good as any within our city, and although not favored as a rule, with the wealth of other districts in our community, are entitled to a just and fair discrimination by those whom we have assisted in placing in charge of our city government. The depreciation of property values, in the event of the carrying out of the proposed action, would be as great to us as any other district within the limits of the city.”

Mayor Gray stated that he could not understand why the remonstrance was sent to the council as the city was not selecting a place for the redlight people or that any member of the city government was interested in choice of locality. The nuisance was to moved from the present location and if those women had any idea of occupying any other locality in the city the matter was up to those residents to object in proper form. Nothing was done with the remonstrance and the matter was laid on the table.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 5, 1908

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