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Vice Dens of the Eastern District

The article at left appeared on the front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of November th, 1900. Of course, there was no recent upsurge of vice in the Eastern District, just an upsurge in pious morality. The scolds were on the march and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was hopping on the bandwagon. These periodic eruptions of civic censure had become a prominent feature of life in New York after the Civil War. The apparatus du jour was the Committee of Fifteen, a group of self-appointed guardians public morality.

The Eastern District comprised Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick. Much of the article is taken up by the reporter’s first-person account of visits to various vice dens. What it amounts to is a lot of suspicions about gambling and prostitution. But what he finds just as troubling is the mixing of the races. This is a perfect example of how Southern racists had managed to export their fear and loathing of African-Americans northward.  The Eagle regularly referred to African-American neighborhoods  as “negro colonies.” In fact, African-Americans made up barely 1% of Brooklyn’s population in 1900, and the percentage had actually fallen over the previous decade.

While there was plenty of gambling and prostitution going on, the author seems peculiarly inept at finding any proof of it. The various vigilante committees and their investigators generally did a better job. But for them, too, racism, xenophobia, and classism featured large. This is well documented by Jennifer Fronc in her book New York Undercover.

The politicians and police were generally forced to take up the mantle for a time. But they had learned how to set the public against the scolds. They used what’s now called triangulation to appear as the reasonable center between the extremes of wantonness and puritanism.  In the spring of 1901, the police began strictly enforcing the widely unpopular state law against the selling of liquor on the Sabbath. This law had a number of loopholes and enforcement had typically been lax. But instead of targeting the seedy Raines Law hotels, the police took on the German dance halls of Williamsburg. These places catered to middle-class families at a time when the weekend lasted from Saturday evening until Monday morning. Saturday night was the one night the average person could have some fun and not be facing a 10- to 12-hour workday the next morning. Though  the halls were closed Sunday, where they erred was in staying open past midnight on Saturday. So the police clamped down and turned another group of upright citizens against the crusaders.

The hypocrisy is best summed up by an episode involving Michael Minden. Minden owned a variety of hotels and saloons, and there is little doubt gambling was an important part of his business. His hotel at the top end of Broadway in Williamsburg was raided. No one was found to be actively gambling, almost certainly because he’d been tipped off by a friendly precinct captain. However, a roulette wheel and some other bits of gambling gear were seized. Without any actual evidence of gambling, the case against him was dismissed. Then, a while later, Minden’s lawyer went to court and successfully sued for the return of his roulette wheel.

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