Last time, we talked about the origins of Block 16 … and said we would tell you how it closed.
Block 16 ran wide open until 1942, but not without controversy. City officials worked to make sure the block’s prostitutes and the general Las Vegas community were as separate as possible, but it wasn’t always easy. Block 16 prostitutes usually numbered between twenty and forty. They were required to live on the block and pretty much stay on it, although a downtown J.C. Penney’s employee later recalled them as some of that store’s best customers. Some longtime residents recalled obtaining beer along the block, and young men bicycling down the street. The prostitutes would sit outside on the front porch of the saloons, and send kids to get them orange juice for them.
Block 16 hummed along even during Prohibition but faced a challenge as Hoover Dam construction loomed in the late 1920s. The federal government wasn’t thrilled with a red-light district operating in the largest town near the dam. Nor was it happy with the block being so close to the site of a new post office and federal building it would open in 1933. Accordingly, the city tried to move the red-light district a few blocks away. But homeowners in that neighborhood objected, as did Block 16’s saloon and brothel owners—and some of them were well connected in the community. So Block 16 continued to function as a red-light district. It prospered during dam construction, especially each payday. The workers lived in Boulder City, where federal officials prohibited gambling, alcohol, and prostitution. Railroad Pass was closer, but Block 16 had more options. And local officials cracked down on vice outside of Block 16, but pretty much left the saloons and brothels there alone.
At least, for a while. But after the dam was built, more Las Vegans began to complain about Block 16 and what it meant to the area’s image. Historian Marie Rowley did an in-depth study of Block 16 and concluded, “The building of the nearby post office building and the tremendous growth in the surrounding blocks spurred by the dam meant that by the mid-1930s, Block 16 was directly in the middle of the town’s downtown business district.” Officials tried to force prostitutes to stay out of view, but it didn’t work. More Las Vegans began to call for the city to take action. State and county officials were increasingly critical of the threat prostitution posed to public health.
And Block 16 became a target for redevelopment. Attorney J.R. Lewis bought the Arizona Club with hopes of turning it into a hotel. He bought other Block 16 properties and began pushing city officials to close down the brothels. Despite petitions from residents who supported keeping Block 16 as it was, city officials finally revoked gambling and liquor licenses in January 1942. That forced the closure of the remaining saloons and brothels in Block 16.
Seventy-five years later, Block 16 is empty. But there’s a sign, a historical marker signifying what it once was: the center of vice in a town reputed to be full of vice. As always, history is just a little more complicated than that.
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