The Secret History of Milwaukee’s Former Red-Light District

The hidden history of Downtown’s old sin district.

For more than 50 years, the goings-on of Downtown’s red-light district, known simply as The Line, were an open secret. In a few square blocks between present-day Red Arrow Park and the Pabst Theater, on the east side of the river, across to where the UWM Panther Arena and Wisconsin Center sit today, prostitution was illegal only in the technical sense. Along this corridor, the number of places a man could go for “companionship,” including plush mansion brothels, dressed-up apartment flats, and dingy saloons, numbered nearly 100. However, this all came to an end in 1912 when a crusading district attorney, Winfred Zabel, shuttered The Line in an attempt to restore an aura of respectability to the area.

Or so goes the standard history of the area, repeated most recently in the 2008 edition of John Gurda’s Making of Milwaukee. But the archives of a 1914 state investigation into vice tell a different story: that of The Line burrowing underground to survive Zabel’s campaign, and largely thriving.

By the time of Zabel’s election in 1910, The Line was a well-known haven for vice, but Zabel didn’t launch his attack until his Socialist Party sustained heavy losses during the 1912 spring election.

Needing publicity before the fall race, Zabel announced in June that Milwaukee’s sex industry had two weeks to change its ways, or he would begin the most aggressive crackdown on vice in city history.

At first, Zabel’s threats seemed to work, as dozens of madams closed down their houses. But less than a month later, they began to reopen, and the state vice commission hired a gaggle of private investigators to sneak into the city and take copious notes. With police now asked to enforce the existing laws against prostitution, many took bribes instead and looked the other way. The sin district didn’t completely fade from view until the 1940s, and prostitution remained a common part of life Downtown until the 1980s, when urban renewal finally pushed it from the area and into other sections of the city.

‘Vice Everlasting’ appears in the January 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the January issue on newsstands beginning Jan. 4. 

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