When attorney and potential Detroit mayoral candidate Geoffrey Fieger floated the idea of a local red-light district as an alternative to “streetwalkers” in a TV interview, some metro Detroiters might have been left scratching their heads: With all of the city’s many intractable problems, would setting up a prostitution corral make that much difference?
So-called red-light districts — areas set aside for prostitution, strip clubs, and other adult businesses — have a long and colorful history around the world. Robin Boyle, professor of urban planning at Wayne State University, says that while the idea is as old as the oldest profession, the idea of making them official isn’t.
“Red-light districts traditionally haven’t been planned or coordinated,” he says. “They’re a market response to demand.”
Take any city with an oversupply of young, single men with an eye out for a woman, in other words, and you’ll likely have a few square blocks to serve their special needs, which is probably why the most well-known such districts are in such port cities as Amsterdam, Hamburg, San Francisco, and Boston.
Sin centers in European cities are so well-known that they’re essentially tourist attractions, Boyle says, adding that civic officialdom’s response to sexual-vice activities generally splits into two camps: head-in-the-sand and organization/management/taxation. Most American cities fall into the first camp, but a few places, most notably Nevada, are in the second. Former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young made rousting vice a campaign issue, using the police to send them down the road. Still, strips of adult businesses took root along Eight Mile Road and Woodward Avenue south of Eight Mile.
Technology has removed the need for many vice businesses; home video killed adult-movie houses, and much prostitution moved from the streets to beepers, cell phones, and the Internet. But as long as men seek the pleasure of ogling women in the flesh, there will be strip clubs, and cities will need a place for them.
Other recent trends are moving such businesses out of cities entirely. Witness the billboards along interstates advertising “adult superstores” located off major freeways, in places where zoning is lax or non-existent.
But in a political climate where the cleanup of red-light districts builds reputations (former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani transformed Times Square from squalid to Disney-rific), Boyle puts very long odds on any chance of Detroit establishing such a zone. “The value of having such a district is alien to North American culture today,” he says. “One would never have political support. Quite the opposite.”