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No boundaries? How San Antonio's red-light district grew

Drone footage of the West Side of downtown San Antonio — the area near the city's former red-light district.
Gabriel Zeckua
Drone footage of the West Side of downtown San Antonio — the area near the city's former red-light district.

This story is part of a series from Texas Public Radio called “Running Red-Lights.” The podcast and additional reporting focuses on the history of sex work in San Antonio and the women who ran the industry, but who weren’t allowed to make history.

San Antonio had one of the busiest red-light districts in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century. Historians now believe that district was even bigger than they realized.

Between 1889 and 1899, brothels were legally recognized under the city's "bawdy house" ordinance. After 1899, that legal recognition was stripped away. But the brothels continued to operate because police officers declined to shut them down. Crackdowns wouldn't regularly take place until the 1940s.

Some historians believe that bawdy houses were restricted to a 22-block radius near where Market Square is today. That might sound large, but there were more alleys and side streets at the turn of the century compared to today. The space is actually less than a square mile.

Soldiers traveled a special route via rail trail from Fort Sam Houston to downtown near San Antonio’s red-light district, also known locally as the Sporting District. They would be handed a directory, called the Blue Book, telling them where specific houses and women were located. The book's cover stated, “For visitors, tourists and those seeking a good time while in San Antonio, Texas.”

A man named Billie Keilman published the book. He was a former police officer who, at the time, owned his own brothel.

Any visitors, tourists or soldiers opening the booklet would see this explanation:

“The boundary of the Sporting District extends south on South Santa Rosa Street for three blocks, beginning at Dolorosa Street, thence from the 100 block to the end of the 500 block on Matamoras Street, thence from the 200 block to the 500 block on South Concho Street, and lastly the 100 block on Monterey Street. This is the boundary within which the women are compelled to live according to the law.

But these boundaries weren’t included in the city’s original bawdy house ordinance.

They also aren’t noted in any city council minutes from the era, according to history teacher Jennifer Cain.

She teaches U.S. history at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Helotes and adjuncts at Northwest Vista College. When she was in graduate school at the University of Texas at San Antonio, she wrote her master’s thesis on San Antonio’s red-light district.

“The more I researched it, the more I realized that a lot that was written was actually incorrect,” Cain said, noting the Blue Book.

“Everything I had read stated that (the district) was legally a place where women had to go. And I looked at it and looked at it, and I talked to the professor, and I said, ‘You know, I don't think there's anything (in the ordinance) that says that the women had to be here.’”

She explored the issue in her thesis. The city’s red-light district was never officially zoned, meaning it had no strict boundaries keeping the brothels to one restricted area.

Read part of Cain’s research, republished in the University of Incarnate Word’s “Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio.”

But why would Keilman say otherwise? And why those specific streets?

Jennifer Cain, pictured here in May 2021, teaches at Sandra Day O'Connor High School in Helotes.
Bri Kirkham
Texas Public Radio
Jennifer Cain, pictured here in May 2021, teaches at Sandra Day O'Connor High School in Helotes.

Cain thinks he might have been directing people to his own brothel. The line that follows Keilman’s description of the boundaries states, “In this district you will find the Beauty Saloon conducted by Billie Keilman, a safe and sane thirst parlor.” That was Keilman’s brothel.

“He writes in the Blue Book that the prostitutes have to be here. That's the only place that they can be located,” Cain said. “And he, of course, had a business reason for that, right? He had a brothel in that area.”

Keilman’s book became the basis for future books, which referenced his “boundaries.” For example, David Bowser published “West of the Creek: Murder, Mayhem and Vice in Old San Antonio” in 2003. He wrote that he couldn’t find an official ordinance, so he used Keilman’s Blue Book as a reference. The map he included in the book matches Keilman’s parameters.

“No ordinance has been found authorizing formation of such a district…There appears, rather, to have been some sort of general agreement with authorities for bawdy house operators to gather in a certain area…,” the book states.

That might be true. There could have been unofficial or spotty enforcement happening at the police’s discretion.

Regardless of the agreements between lawbreakers and law enforcers, brothels were concentrated on the city’s West Side, even if they weren’t forced to stay on certain streets in the district. Other vice businesses — including saloons and gambling halls — were also pushed to this side of town, which was west of the San Pedro Creek.

“San Pedro Creek is such a significant social barrier. It’s kind of a dividing line between what's becoming a more Anglo- and German-centered downtown and the Mexican-centered West Side,” explained Professor Laura Hernández-Ehrisman.

She teaches U.S. history at Austin Community College and wrote the book “Inventing the Fiesta City.” It’s about San Antonio’s famed parade-turned-party which started in 1889 — the same year the bawdy house ordinance was passed.

Hernández-Ehrisman explained that bodies of water tend to be gathering places, and the creek was no different. Mexican families predominantly lived on the west side of the creek in a neighborhood called Laredito. Immigrants from other countries lived in this area, too.

“I think that's when you start to see this idea of the West Side as this, quote-unquote, ‘exotic’ kind of space for Anglos who live in the city. And also for tourists who are coming in,” Hernández-Ehrisman said.

Anglos visited the West Side to experience and consume the culture, and some came for the vice too. For many, that’s all they imagined when they thought of the West Side.

“But there was a community here with families. Children were raised here,” said Edgar Velazquez-Reynald.

He did an internship with the city’s Office of Historic Preservation where he helped research this area.

“It just shows that there was a community here that continued to live and thrive as the bawdy houses became a large tourist attraction,” he said. “A lot of these (bawdy) houses were very cramped together... So it's safe to say that the living conditions were poor.”

Houses were separated by “class” that often followed racial lines. Class A houses were the most expensive and had mostly Anglo workers. Class B and C houses followed. These classes are also listed in the Blue Book.

“And so Class A bawdy houses were able to be removed away from the working class and from the noise of the railroads,” Velazquez-Reynald said.

“Class C brothels — predominantly housed Mexican American women with a few Anglo women in the mix. Interestingly enough, a lot of Anglo women owned the property where Mexican women worked. But it wasn't just Mexican women, there were several Black women. Two Japanese women owned a Class C establishment as well.”

San Antonio was a segregated city, and Velazquez-Reynald believes it wasn’t a coincidence that the vice businesses were placed in the West Side.

“That was done on purpose by the Anglo-elite (in power), because vice businesses were lucrative for the city, but they wanted them away from more proper forms of tourism in San Antonio.”

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Please reach out to us with questions or comments at redlights@tpr.org.

Bri Kirkham can be reached at bri@tpr.org or on Twitter at @BriKirk