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June 01, 2012

Brothels shaped Charlottesville’s history

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DailyProgressBy Courtney Beale
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, June 1, 2012

The Garrett Street neighborhood, just south of Water Street, was once well known as Charlottesville’s very own red-light district. Daniel Bluestone’s History Week presentation, “The Other Side of the Tracks: Charlottesville Prostitution and Environmental Justice,” revealed the impacts that the brothel industry had on neighborhoods and architecture in Charlottesville.

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Daniel Bluestone at a February 2012 briefing to the UVA School of Architecture. Photo by Sabrina Schaeffer, The Daily Progress.

Bluestone, a professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, connected the history of prostitution in the now redeveloped Garrett Street neighborhood to the present day efforts to redesign the Belmont Bridge. He spoke Wednesday in City Council chambers, as part of Celebrate 250.

Bluestone said he noticed that the approaches to the bridge separated a predominately white neighborhood from a black neighborhood on the west side of the bridge. He then began to research the history of those neighborhoods before Charlottesville’s urban renewal program, which demolished Vinegar Hill and the Garrett Street area in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I started looking around that neighborhood on the west side of the bridge approach and I noticed [in photos that] there were a few rather large houses and I started throwing myself into the task of how we could explain that,” Bluestone said. “How we could explain those larger houses?”

The answer was brothels. So-called “houses of ill fame” were common in this area during the 19th and 20th centuries and their presence shaped the design of the neighborhood.

The existence of brothels in this neighborhood was a result of out-of-sight, out-of-mind planning during these eras. UVa students were frequent customers, Bluestone said, and, despite the illegality of the institutions, law enforcement officials often looked the other way, as long as the activities remained in an area relatively far away from the university.

“It was just fine not to have the prostitution in the precincts of the university,” said Bluestone. “And it was fine to let it take place in the poor and working-class, African-American neighborhood.”

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Bluestone presenting at this week's Celebrate 250 event

The madams Bluestone described had direct influences on their neighborhoods. Many were adept real estate investors. One of the Charlottesville’s most notorious madams, Marguiretta L. Baccigalluppocrescioli, owned about $76,000 worth of property at the time of her death in 1951. It was common for the madams to own several homes on the same block.

Audience members shared their memories of the neighborhood when the brothels were still in existence. Gene Meeks remembered delivering the daily newspaper to Baccigalluppocrescioli’s brothel.

“Every day I had to ring the doorbell and she would always answer by coming to the balcony. She would let a basket down with a rope, and I would put the paper in it... I knew what was going on there, but I was too young to participate,” joked Meeks.  

Some audience members stated that the brothels may have brought positive economic growth to the area by way of money coming from the wealthy neighborhoods into the Garrett Street neighborhood. Bluestone countered by saying that the brothels did bring much to the communities, but it was not all beneficial.

“The stories that people are sharing here suggests that there is some way in which social capital circulates [between] institutions like these and communities,” said Bluestone. “There are ways in which the economic activity, rather than just being a boring residential neighborhood, did… build the community. But I also think there are children being raised … in all of these houses who are growing up with a kind of strange notion about commerce and bodies and commerce and sex in communities like these.”

The influence of the brothels on this area has continued even after the structures have been destroyed. One audience member recalled a radio contest that asked listeners to create a name for the Belmont Bridge. Marguiretta’s Memorial Bridge was the front-runner of the contest until the owners of the radio station learned Marguiretta’s background.

Bluestone stated that the media at the time hailed the urban renewal and destruction of this neighborhood as bringing an end to the prostitution business in Charlottesville, even though it did not.

“It’s totally ignoring the proliferation of massage parlors in the city during the 1970s,” Bluestone said. “This leaps completely outside of the analysis or the discussion of the willingness and tolerance of university and local officials to abide by a red-light district sitting in a working-class, African-American residential area for nearly three quarters of a century … It also leaves out this history of urban renewal which, in significant ways, tore asunder the fabric of this working class neighborhood more profoundly than the presence of brothels, drunken loitering and mischief of all sorts.”

Bluestone stated that the presence of brothels in lower-class neighborhoods and the local law enforcement’s tolerance of them was an example of environmental inequality.

“There are ways in which power circulates in the society and I think it’s not a surprise that this is where these investments end up being made,” said Bluestone. “That’s an issue of environmental justice, in my view, that wasn’t addressed and runs a curious parallel course with other issues in our community about how we put more vulnerable people at risk.”

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