Film explores history of red light district


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There was a period in Winnipeg's history when prostitution was allowed in a neighbourhood, but red lights were not.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/02/2011 (4306 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There was a period in Winnipeg’s history when prostitution was allowed in a neighbourhood, but red lights were not.

Now documentary filmmaker Aaron Floresco is hoping to shed some more light on a unique chapter of the city’s history.

The documentary, entitled The Oldest Profession in Winnipeg: the ‘Red Light’ District from 1909 to 1912, will be debuting soon on MTS On Demand.

PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Filmmaker Aaron Floresco and historian Rhonda Hinther stand on Annabella Street, where a red light district -- without red lights -- existed early last century.

Floresco said it marked one of the brief times in the city’s history where the city’s politicians, police, real estate professionals and brothel owners got together to form an area where prostitution could be carried on without legal repercussions.

“It was a unique time,” he said.

“But the area had rules and one of the rules of the area was no red lights were allowed. Also no piano playing and no soliciting on the streets.”

Historian Rhonda Hinther, whose past research forms the heart of the documentary, said there had been another legal prostitution area — Thomas Street, the present day Minto Street — but when resident complaints shut it down and the sex workers began plying their trade during the next few years at Portage and Main and other parts of the city, the police chief and the city’s board of police commissioners, which included the mayor and aldermen, decided a new area was needed.

After police chief John McRae was tasked to organize a segregated area, he and local madam Minnie Woods decided on two streets in Point Douglas: Rachel Street, now known as Annabella Street, and McFarlane Street.

“They wanted to have it in a place where the social reformers and social gospel people couldn’t see it,” Hinther said.

“They also wanted to get it away from the neighbours who had political clout.”

Women in the area were visited weekly by the morality squad and they had to have a medical examination and certificate issued every two weeks.

Before the area was shut down, again because of citizen outcry, it peaked with 58 houses devoted to prostitution, with up to 250 women living there.

A later royal commission heard that on a typical night, the district would see 292 customers in less than three hours.

Hinther said the irony is that it wasn’t the prostitution that made the biggest profits in the area.

“It was the sale of liquor instead of the sale of sexual services,” she said.

“What I also found most fascinating in the area was the kind of culture that built up. There was camaraderie and they took care of each other.”

Hinther said what really broke up the area was the other crimes that couldn’t be controlled.

“There were several assaults and shootings and murders. There ultimately was too (much) of that and the authorities couldn’t let it go on anymore.”

Floresco said the documentary uses several reenactments with actors playing witnesses at the royal commission hearings to tell the story of the district.

“I took testimony of actual testimony to the royal commission so we have the chief of police, the madams and people who lived in the area.”

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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