Reflections: Walking in the Footsteps of the Forgotten Element

6 May

by Melissa Burns-

At some point during my academic career, I became intrigued by prostitutes. The idea of the “oldest profession” being hidden and denied while at the same time acknowledged and tolerated fascinated me. I was truly inspired by the work of Timothy Gilfolye. His book, City of Eros, tracks the history of prostitution in New York City from the eighteenth century to the 1990s. The amount of work that he put into his book astounds me, especially in regard to the maps that he created to indicate where prostitution was located in Manhattan. I can just picture him toiling away in a dusty archive, making notes about each recorded brothel and arrest in order to create his collection of very detailed maps. My own research focuses on prostitution in St. Louis, and there is very little in terms of existing maps or detailed information about where prostitutes plied their trade in the city. Therefore, I would love to be able to put together something similar to what Gilfolye accomplished.

My original idea was to just take Gilfolye’s idea and recreate it for St. Louis by making traditional, static maps. However, after we discussed the pros and cons of online history in class I changed my mind. One of the websites that we looked at was the Spatial History Project at Stanford University. This group of professors, scholars, and students is working to create an online, interactive map of the history of prostitution in Philadelphia. Their maps are similar to the ones that Gilfoyle made, but because they are digital they can be easily manipulated and are more user-friendly.

I also found myself inspired by the walking tour that some of my fellow classmates created for the Lincoln Place Heritage Group. I love the idea of putting something together that can be accessed and followed by simply using your smartphone. So, as I have been introduced to new ideas of public history, I have modified my plan. What I would like to do is put my research to use and make a walking tour of downtown St. Louis. However, instead of highlighting buildings of historic architecture or modern points of interest, I would like to walk the same streets as former streetwalkers and working girls. And, because they so often go hand-in-hand, I would also like to include places associated with gangsterism in the city, like gambling houses and speakeasies.

All too often, St. Louis’s history is discussed in economic terms, either as a hub of commerce in the nineteenth century or as a Rust Belt city of the twentieth.  Very few people actually stop to think about those who actually lived and worked here. As a result, there is a huge amount of buried history in this city. For example, St. Louis is known for its Anheuser Busch brewery, but what happened to its production during Prohibition? In a city used to having ample liquor around surely it did not just go away. But where, then, did it go during those years, and who engaged in it?  There are also few who realize that prostitution was legalized in St. Louis in the late nineteenth century.  Where did these women live and work, and what happened to the profession after it was criminalized again?  These are the questions that I find captivating, and I would love to be able to bring the world of these forgotten people back to life.

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