During the Victorian era, sightseeing travelers riding through Los Angeles on the Southern Pacific Railroad would eagerly ask their porters to let them know when the train passed by an infamous stretch of Alameda Street, southeast of the old Plaza. This portion of Alameda Street was part of the city’s red light district, which centered around an oiled down dirt road called Negro Alley for more than 50 years.
Called Hell’s Half Acre, it was comprised of saloons, restaurants, and a row of low-slung brick buildings with small pen-like rooms, “not much wider than their front doors.” They were known as cribs.
Outside the cribs, sex workers stood on wooden platforms “displaying their charms to as great an expanse ... as the benign laws and humorously tolerant policemen of the day allowed.” Inside, they serviced an estimated 13 to 30 men a night.
These women lived at the constant mercy of johns, pimps, and landlords. While the hundreds of “fallen women” of the “crib district” achieved a certain level of notoriety, and came to symbolize sex work in wild Southern California, they were considered bargain “$1 prostitutes.”
“Crib prostitution was considered one of the lowest levels in the profession, just above streetwalking,” historian AnneMarie Kooistra writes in Angels For Sale: The History of Prostitution in Los Angeles. “These prostitutes tended to draw the lowest-paying customers; they made the least amount of money; and they worked in unsanitary and unattractive quarters.” One chronicler wrote:
When the boys were flush with recent payrolls or winning streaks at poker or faro they sought the sumptuous parlor houses of Commercial, New High, or Marchessault Streets; but when their pockets were light they had to be content with such feminine society as might be encountered in the cribs.
Even though they made much less money than the sex workers in the more high-toned brothels, the women of Hell’s Half Acre paid exorbitant rent for their squalid cribs, which often consisted of nothing more than a makeshift bed and wash basin.
“Whereas respectable boarding houses charged $5-6 a month,” Kooistra writes, “prostitutes were likely to pay $18 a week, or about $70 a month.” To add insult to injury, most of the women did not even live in their cribs but instead boarded in lodging houses uptown.
This made landlords in the crib district ridiculously wealthy. No landlord profited more from the crib system than Bartolo Ballerino, the “father of the cribs” of Los Angeles.
Born around 1830, Ballerino was of Italian descent (though often misidentified as Portuguese), but seems to have grown up in Chile. Multilingual, he migrated to California during the Gold Rush. After arriving in Southern California, Ballerino invested heavily in LA real estate, buying up much of the land that comprised Hell’s Half Acre, which had been the center of crime and violence in Los Angeles since the 1850s.
By the 1880s, Ballerino dominated the area and was known as the “crib king.” Dozens of sex workers lived and worked at his International Hotel. The hotel was described as “shacks divided into small compartments called ‘cribs’ which are rented to fallen women of all nationalities ...”
The wily Ballerino also controlled a saloon and restaurant that catered to pimps, johns, and prostitutes. “The girls were doing no harm,” he said years later. “They were minding their own business and paying their debts.” He claimed to take care of the women who lived in his pens. “I even built the girls a park. I planted flowers and helped to make them comfortable.”
But documentary evidence proves that life in the cribs was anything but comfortable. Sex workers were forced by Ballerino and other crib owners to patronize their saloons, and they were constantly nickel and dimed for improvements.
Women from all over the world worked the cribs. There was a row of Japanese cribs, a French area called “Little Paree,” and crib rows worked by Chinese, black, Belgian, Latina, Mexican, Native American, and white women. Almost all had their own set of pimps.
Pimp violence against sex workers was frequent. Kooistra tells the story of Ella Powers, a crib worker who wanted to leave the business. When she told Michael Walsh, her pimp, he shot her. “Walsh was living off her earnings and evidently saw his livelhood [sic] threatened. Earlier, on Nov. 24, he had cut her with a knife.”
Suicide was rampant, with reports of women taking overdoses of opium and other drugs. Addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, and communicable diseases ravaged the crib district.
There was always violence. One reporter told the story of a sex worker named Adele, who worked in a crib owned by Ballerino. After being severely beaten by a john, she was bedridden for 15 days:
During this time, she did not occupy her crib and when Bartolo Ballerino… demanded the full month’s rent, the woman refused. She finally compromised on $25, deducting $5 for the time she did not occupy the place. When he found that it was not forthcoming, Ballerino got his son Dick and another man…to dig a hole in the sidewalk in front of the door. The slabs of paving stone were set up against the woman’s door, blocking ingress, and when she remonstrated she was assaulted.
Ballerino and other red light landlords were able to operate in the open for many years, with the law largely on their side. Prostitution in Los Angeles was not illegal, although a state law prohibited renting out rooms intended for immoral purposes. This law was rarely enforced, and the crib system thrived.
In 1897, the crib district even received the dubious honor of being mentioned in a Souvenir Sporting Guide published that year for frisky gentlemen.
While women’s aid groups and religious leaders had been attempting to close the cribs since their inception, the true beginning of their demise was caused by party politics. In 1902, the Republican Los Angeles Times threw its support behind P.W. Powers, the party’s mayoral candidate.
In an attempt to tie the Democratic candidate Meredith Snyder to vice, the Times waged a campaign against Chris Buckley, a Democratic booster known as the “blind white devil.” Buckley had recently gained control of a series of cribs owned by the late T. Bauer, and the Times claimed that he and Ballerino were attempting to create a super district of prostitution and gambling in Hell’s Half Acre. “Between them they control property that is said to produce an income of nearly 100,000 a year,” a reporter wrote, “an income that is a direct rake-off from the wages of sin.”
The Times began to advocate for the abolishment of the red light district. Whereas their coverage of Ballerino and the red light district had once been neutral and lighthearted, it was now accusatory and inflammatory, even after Snyder was elected mayor.
Social justice and church groups began to take up the cause in earnest. In 1903, Mrs. Charlton Edholm stood on the floor of East Los Angeles Christian Church and “read to the audience from a clipping taken from the Times of a past date:”
Buckley and Ballerino are renting those cribs every night near the heart of this city in direct violation of the laws of the state of California. When Mayor Snyder and Chief of Police Elton took office they swore to uphold, without favor, the laws of the commonwealth, which they know do not countenance the existence of houses of prostitution.
With the Herald and other morning papers joining the Times new pet crusade, citizen reformers began to take action, since the police would not. Church groups blockaded the crib district, attempting to drive away johns. Johns who chose to patronize the cribs anyway were warned that their reputation was in grave danger. “We have already made it impossible for any man who has a reputation to lose to patronize the cribs,” one minister warned. “If reasoning will not suffice for the men we find down in that degraded district, we shall photograph them with flashlight and put their pictures in the papers.”
A group of progressive women began visiting the tenderloin district in earnest, attempting to help women who wanted to leave. “The women workers have gone to this district with a closed carriage,” one report stated, “so that any girl with a mind to give up the evil life might at once be accompanied to the carriage and taken to one of the rescue homes until further provision could be made for her.” They also left cards with the names of rescue homes, set up by private citizens including a woman known as Mrs. Watson, who had operated a home known as Door of Hope since the 1880s.
Mayor Snyder realized that something had to be done, or he and the Democrats would continue to be crucified in the media. On September 12, Ballerino was arrested on Los Angeles Street for renting a crib for the purpose of prostitution.
Ballerino fought the charges doggedly. Charges were brought repeatedly, as the fearful sex workers named in complaints did not show for trial, or “forgot” who Ballerino was if they did testify. Ballerino attempted to bribe a city clerk, and the cribs were fenced in to keep out the pesky Salvation Army. In December 1903, the police finally took a stand and raided the entire district, chasing away the hundreds who lived and worked there. According to the victorious Times:
Darkness like a great mantle of charity settled down and softly stretched its folds of somber shadow over the erstwhile red-light district last night… The tenderloin was a deserted village. The 300 members of the demimonde who have been inmates of the cribs and stalls, had flown to escape the dragnet of the police and the stern justice of the city’s courts. For the first time in the history of modern Los Angeles, the ribald jest, the vulgar song, the cheap and flashy show of finery on the be-painted and bespangled damsels…were not on exhibition for the gaze and gratification of the youths and men who seek such things.
Instead of the myriad of twinkling red lights and the glow of incandescent bulbs that were always a striking feature of these houses of the Scarlett women, last night the American section was in complete darkness...Last night the atmosphere was as peaceful and as serene as was that which surrounded the cross-surmounted old adobe pile just over the other side of the Plaza, where the… Church of Our Lady of Angels, stands in its solitude.
Ballerino was furious. He cursed the “damned old priests and preachers,” the newspapers, and the “trouble-making women of the temperance’s union,” who he blamed for his troubles.
The crib district was not down for the count for long. In an attempt to get the government off his back, Ballerino built a series of cribs on the second floor of the International Hotel. When asked who he would rent them to, he defiantly replied: “Anybody. Rent room to you, rent room to him, rent to man, woman, boy … you have money, you rent room.”
Soon, sex workers flooded back into the district. At the International Hotel, it was reported that the new “elevated location is brilliantly lighted up, and as these women flout themselves in and out of their doors, or pose at their windows, they are really more conspicuous than they were when located on the ground.”
The notorious Buckley also attempted to work around the police. He hired workmen to quickly change the cribs so that they appeared to be legitimate businesses. “Crowds of men and boys, with a number of the fallen women intermingled, watched the transformation interestedly and speculated concerning the final outcome of this new move,” the Times reported. According to the Times:
In each of the places[cribs] was placed a small counter and tier of shelves…these “improvements” were placed near the front of the cribs and behind them board partitions have been erected, thus making two small rooms out of one. These counters and shelves will be used for the sale of cigars, tobacco, chewing and the like. In a word, every crib woman will go into the cigar business today. There will be long rows of “cigar stores” in the narrow alleys and lanes.
Anticipating more foot traffic, many of the women on the second floor of Ballerino’s International told the Times they planned to move to the first floor and “go into the ‘cigar business.’”
However, the city continued to arrest and prosecute Ballerino and other crib owners for renting to prostitutes. Ballerino was finally convicted in February of 1904 and sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $500. The reign of the “crib king” was over.
After his release, Ballerino’s crib business was decimated. He retreated to the International Hotel where he lived in a dingy room, much like the ones he had rented out to hundreds of desperate women. In one of his last interviews before he died, the old “crib king” told a reporter: “This town is going to the dogs. It’s getting too darned good.”
By the end of the decade, the cribs and saloons of Hell’s Half Acre had been cleared out. Of course, the sex workers who had inhabited the cribs didn’t disappear. They moved on to working in apartment houses, bordellos nestled in the hills, and the streets.
For decades it seemed all traces of Hell’s Half Acre had vanished, replaced by the 101 freeway, wider roads, and a Union Station garage. But in the mid-1990s, archaeologist Mike Stoyka uncovered numerous artifacts in old crib district latrines. The digs revealed a bottle for a tonic of opium and brandy, face creams, bottles of champagne, a valuable porcelain doll’s head, and one bottle of “Darby's Prophylactic Fluid."