Winnipeg used to have its very own red light districts

For decades, prostitution existed mainly in designated red light districts in Winnipeg.
In this picture taken Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, actors playing interested tourists, shown as if seen from the perspective of a sex-trade worker working behind a window at the 'Red Light Secrets' museum in Amsterdam. On any given evening, thousands of tourists stroll down the narrow streets of Amsterdam's famed Red Light District. (The Associated Press)

For decades, the sex trade existed mainly in designated red light districts in Winnipeg.

These places were unlike the tourist attractions of Amsterdam's famous red light district.

Winnipeg's Annabella Street was likely the most infamous red light district, but there were two that existed before it, too.

The first was on Colony Creek, which is where Balmoral Street north of Ellice Avenue is now. It came to be in 1873, when Winnipeg was first incorporated, and lasted until 1883, when sex-trade workers moved west out of the city and into brothels on Thomas Street.

As long as the sex trade remains hidden outside of the middle class and upper middle class areas of the city, people don't really seem to care about it.- David Loftson

The city limits eventually expanded and absorbed Thomas Street, which is now Minto Street.

My friends lived on Minto Street and when I would visit, I wondered where the brothels would have been when they were there. The house my friends lived in was too small and too new.

The Thomas Street brothels were located about one mile from the western boundary of Winnipeg, which is now Maryland Street. They closed in 1904, and the women who worked there dispersed throughout the city, most taking to the streets to work.

Knowing the problem would persist, Winnipeg police — with the city's approval — decided that Annabella and McFarlane Streets in Point Douglas were hidden enough from the general population that it would be a good place for sex-trade workers to do business. That was in 1909.

Workers move to city's core

Sex-trade worker Gissele "Mignon" Roberts was murdered by a john, says historian Rhonda L. Hinther, who also states that it was the "occurrence of several violent crimes, coupled with the continued presence of rowdy, obnoxious behaviour by male clients, likely brought on by the presence of alcohol, that finally led to the downfall of the area."
A sex-trade worker in Amsterdam's famed red light district.

Closing the brothels on Annabella and McFarlane sent the activity to downtown.

One reason red light districts were established in Winnipeg was so the women would be safe and healthy, but they were still exploited. The other reason was to keep them from harming the sensibilities of the genteel class, as it was believed it would be best if the women were not seen in public.

As a student in the University of Winnipeg's city planning program, I worked on a group project to develop a plan for south Point Douglas, and the adjacent Main Street strip. At the time, it was an infamous pick-up area, known as the "low track." The high track was just south from it, in Winnipeg's Exchange District.

Getting out of the sex trade

The sex workers on the low track were frequently indigenous and poor, while the high track workers were typically white. Usually women who work in the sex-trade in Winnipeg have no choice; they need to survive. This was certainly the case between the 1890s and 1990s.

As students, we wanted to be respectful of women involved in the sex-trade. We wanted to understand their issues. My friend's sister had a friend who worked as a sex-trade worker. She eventually got out of the sex-trade and worked for P.O.W.E.R. (Prostitutes and Other Women for Equal Rights), a Winnipeg organization that existed until the 90s and helped women exit the sex trade.

The woman talked to our class about being in the business and the struggle women have getting out of it. The talk was honest, and our group was sincerely impacted; it opened our eyes to a lot of our own prejudices and stereotypes.

Under pressure

The sex-trade in Winnipeg shifted again following the 90s. Businesses on north Main Street and in the Exchange District pressured the city to "deal" with the issue by moving it, and cruising areas got pushed west along Jarvis Avenue in the North End and onto Sargent Avenue and Ellice Avenue in the West End.

Similar to other shifts, this one caused problems for people living in the area. 

I was one of them. My wife, her mother and I lived on Maryland Street at Sargent Avenue around the year 2000.

An elderly Portuguese couple lived on one side of the house. They'd been there for 40 years — since they'd emigrated from the Azores — and had an amazing garden and sausage smokehouse in the backyard. They hung cod to dry on a rope, too.

Coming and going 24/7

On the other side was a much different house, one that people visited to buy drugs and sex. There were people coming and going at all hours, even parking in our backyard at times.

The women stood on nearby street corners waiting for customers.

I remember our friend telling us about her daughter getting propositioned by johns. It happened on more than one occasion when she was walking to junior high.

It's hard not to be a champion for an official red light district, away from residential areas, when you hear about 12-year-old girls getting propositioned for sex while walking to school. 

But even the most famous red light district in the world is struggling.

"There are people who are really proud of the red light district as a tourist attraction," Karina Schaapman, an Amsterdam city councillor and former sex worker, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide in 2009.

"It's supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it's a cesspit. There's a lot of serious criminality. There's a lot of exploitation of women, and a lot of social distress. That's nothing to be proud of."

Amsterdam plans to close half the city's 400 sex-trade worker windows because of suspected criminal gang activity. However other former sex workers have cautioned against closing down the legal brothels, saying it will push women out onto the streets. 

Winnipeg, while it has changed a lot in the last century, has in some ways also stayed the same. As long as the sex trade remains hidden outside of the middle class and upper middle class areas of the city, people don't really seem to care about it.


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