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.