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Dallas Vice: Boggy Bayou, Deep Ellum, the Reservation, West Dallas, and Commerce Street

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Dallas's first "Red Light District," aka Boggy Bayou, was labeled as such on this 1885 Sanborn Map. It had all the "classical" elements: a Female Boarding House, Saloon, a low-lying flood-prone area, industry, and "negro tenements."

Dallas boasted several vice districts: Boggy Bayou, Deep Ellum, the Reservation, West Dallas, and Commerce Street

In its relatively short life, Dallas has had at least five "vice districts." Because of the city's constant population boom, these areas sometimes lived simultaneously with each other. There are still unseemly areas in Dallas where prostitution and drug use are rampant, but I'll focus on the historic areas right now.

Boggy Bayou

The earliest known "Red Light District" in Dallas was called Boggy Bayou, which sat along the Trinity River south of the county courthouse and jail and was bordered by two railroad lines. This was also a neighborhood with industry, warehouses, wooden homes, a shanty town, and a brick brothel that was rowdy and unseemly. Horrible things happened here, including "virginity" auctions and murders. The Bayou, of course, flooded frequently (hence the descriptive "boggy") and disease also flourished, causing even more human misery.

By the late 19th century, the city of Dallas wanted to clean up this area. Lots of projections were made, but it was the 1908 flood that helped most. The Trinity River washed away most of the homes, bordellos, and shanties. Then, after implementing its ambitious Kessler Plan in 1912, the city diverted the Trinity River to the west, and the land that opened up was used for railroad tracks and Union Station.

Today, Boggy Bayou is partially beneath the Dallas Convention Center.

Deep Ellum

By the 1870s, a freedom colony appeared along the railroad tracks for the Houston & Texas Central Railway east of downtown Dallas and west of the fair grounds. This area was on high ground and relatively safe from flooding, which allowed a prominent business district to grow amid stockyards and other industries. The neighborhood was called "Deep Ellum" -- deep as in the farthest reaches of Elm Street, and Ellum based on the east Texas accent's pronunciation of Elm (ay-u-lm).

Deep Ellum was a very busy place, but its low rent tenement areas allowed space for "female boarding houses" and prostitute cribs, as well as saloons, dance halls, drug dens, and dive bars. Veneral disease ran rampant, and at least one child was prostituted and found to have syphilis. The office for the KKK (the Dallas Klavern was the largest in the Southwest) located itself here, most likely used as a threat and bullying tactic.

Dallas destroyed the black neighborhood that stood at the very end of Elm Street when the city expanded the fair grounds for the 1936 centennial, and then the state demolished the upper end of the Deep Ellum neighborhood when Interstate 30 and its connector were built in the 1950s and 1960s. The central portion of Deep Ellum remained, though, which gentrification has now claimed. The majority of its historic black residents now live along Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X streets, south of the historic Deep Ellum business district.

The Reservation

Although Dallas's plan to remove Boggy Bayou worked out, the city wanted to capture all the money that was spent there. Along with other "progressive" cities, Dallas designated an area inside its West End Warehouse District for a "reservation," where prostitution was legal and could be taxed. The women were not supposed to leave the area, though; and the bordellos that appeared were financed by many of Dallas's wealthiest citizens.

The Reservation was not just empty land. First, it flooded (but not too deep) along the Dallas Branch Creek, which birthed the district's informal name, "Frog Town." This meant that many tenements had already grown up there because rent was cheap. The residents comprised immigrants from eastern Europe, Italy, Mexico, and poor Americans (both black and white) who worked in the garment district (near the MKT freight depot), warehouses, and manufacturing facilities.

The businesses in the district were none too pleased that the city had reserved a portion of their area for unseemly business. And, the Upchurches, husband-and-wife ministers from Kansas, made it their mission to expose the horrors that such a place contained. The pamphlets they distributed led to charitable donations that ultimately allowed the ministry to open the Becharah Home for unwed mothers and their children in Arlington (now, it's been swallowed by the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington, although its cemetery is still there). The Becharah Home was unique for the period in that it allowed the children to stay with their mothers.

IN 1911, the state of Texas sided with the businesses that had sued the city, and eventually, the city ended its experiment in "controlled vice." Dallas went one step further, though; it became a "dry town," too, and by 1917, all saloons were ordered closed. The booze economy went underground or relocated to Fort Worth's Hell's Half Acre. The "West End" district became an upscale residential and entertainment neighborhood with fancy restaurants, the Holocaust Museum (at the site of the former MKT depot), and where President John F. Kennedy was murdered.

So where was did the underground economy go to?

West Dallas

West Dallas comprised the area west of the Trinity River north of Commerce Street and along Singleton Boulevard (then, Eagle Ford Road) that was not incorporated into the cities of Dallas nor Oak Cliff. It was home to poor Texans and Mexicans who built shanties along the Trinity River flood plain. Bordered by a cement plant and company town to its west, this neighborhood birthed Dallas's most notorious criminals (such as the Barrow Gang) and featured several speakeasies that the gangs supplied with East Texas hooch.

Unlike Deep Ellum, West Dallas was not destroyed by the city, most likely because it was not incorporated into Dallas until the 1940s. When the majority of white families left for suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, West Dallas morphed into an immigrant neighborhood. Now, it is being destroyed by government actions that provide "incubation money" to gentrification. This new neighborhood has been marketed as "Trinity Groves" and is linked by Dallas's Margaret Hunt Hill bridge, a signature structure designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava.

Commerce Street

Conventioneers who came to visit the city did not care to frequent "unsafe" (read, "poor") areas like West Dallas or Deep Ellum, and they didn't have much to do after the Reservation closed. When City Hall was moved further east on Main Street, several hotels snatched up its former site along Commerce Street, and this became unofficially known as "Hotel Row." Across from hotels like the Baker and Adolphus stood low, bricked store fronts that people like Jack Ruby turned into cabarets, gambling halls, and other sinful businesses. Prostitution was still there, but women and men met clients inside the hotels.

The city kinda-sorta turned a blind eye to this entertainment district, mostly because the proprietors did everything in their power to placate the police department. But then, in 1963, Jack Ruby blatantly shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged presidential assassin. Within two decades, the city bought up and demolished the Commerce Street entertainment district. It's now a "pocket park" named Communication Plaza, as most of the buildings surrounding it are owned by the AT&T (the former Southwestern Bell Telephone Company).

Much of Dallas's vice has moved to motels along the interstates and on Harry Hines Boulevard (where a home for trafficked women opened in the early 2000s), but that's a story for another day.

A woman's virginity was auctioned in Boggy Bayou in the 1870s.

The Dallas paper complains about the "bagnio" near the courthouse - a brothel at Boggy Bayou.

Bopp Alley in Deep Ellum was an unimproved road south of downtown Dallas and south of the tracks (Trunk RR or H&TC RR), with shotgun houses and barns (Dallas Public Library).

Honest Joe's Pawn Shop in Deep Ellum was an awesome place of junk and treasure (Dallas Public Library).

The famous Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum was a music venue, juke joint, and a sometimes brothel (Dallas Public Library).

Brothels in "Frog Town," the reserved zone for prostitutioin opened by the city of Dallas. The Reservation was active for less than a decade. Reverend Upchurch, missionary, was successful in turning public opinion against the vice district (DeGolyer Library).

The Texas Supreme Court ordered that the "Reservation," a vice district purposefully zoned to allow for prostitution and revenue collection, was unconstitutional in 1911.

By 1913, the women who worked as prostitutes had left the Reservation to work, marry, or live in the Becherah Home for Unwed Mothers.

Dallas did not just rid itself of its zoned vice district; it also made the city "dry." This happened gradually. In 1917, saloons closed on Sundays.

The infamous Carousel Club, owned and operated by Jack Ruby on Commerce Street across Hotel Row, closed due to Ruby's role in murdering Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK's alleged assassin (Dallas Morning News).

The Carousel Club shared space with Abe's Colony Club, another adult entertainment venue along Commerce Street's Hotel Row that grew inoto a night-life center from the 1920s to the 1960s (Dallas Morning News).

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