Chicago Vice Districts at the Tum of the Twentieth Century : The Battleground between the Middle Class and the Working Class for Control
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As Chicago became a center of social, cultural, and political activity at the beginning of the twentieth century, the growing presence of working-class places of leisure galvanized the anti-vice reformers and pushed them into action. They worked tirelessly to contain the influence and presence of the venues in the city by advocating for their regulation. At times they even attempted to have the sites outlawed and abolished completely. Throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, anti-vice reformers tried to regulate through the establishment of various laws and municipal codes. Around 1900, they also began segregating all the venues into districts as way to make them easier to monitor and as a way to control their power, influence, and societal impact. They grouped together saloons, dance halls, nickel theaters, and brothels and pushed them into designated geographic confines that they labeled "vice districts." Only within the districts would these places of business be tolerated, and be allowed to run without fear of police raids. The anti-vice reformers and government officials who created these districts purposely located them away from middle-class neighborhoods and middle-class business districts. Instead, they placed them near or within areas of the city dominated by immigrants and poor black southern migrants. This action demonstrated which communities they viewed as "respectable," and necessary to protect, and which ones they saw as immoral, disposable, and troublesome. Additionally, the establishment of vice districts had direct and concrete effects on the physically and geographical landscapes of the residential neighborhoods of the diverse poor working-class population and impacted their opportunities and quality of life. Working-class venues of leisure such as saloons, dance halls, and nickel theaters thus became the focus of many progressive reform agendas and the center point of the cultural conflict between the white middle class. They became a battleground between middle-class reformers and working men and women for control over the city's shifting moral standards. Anti-vice reformers consistently spoke of trying to safeguard women and their girlhood and womanhood. They dedicated their efforts to their salvation and protection. However, the ways they attacked working-class places of leisure, made reforms that policed and endangered women's lives, and shamed and blamed women that did not abide by their standards indicated that their fears of changing cultural norms, specifically women leaving the domestic sphere and the growing acceptance of women's sexual nature, really motivated their actions. They saw their social power slipping from their grasps and they sought to hold onto it in a quickly changing world. The organized, fervent, and persistent actions anti-vice reformers took to exert control over women, families, and society points to how increased female independence and liberalized female sexuality is perceived as threatening to those in power and is subsequently met with efforts to maintain the status quo.
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