Spotlight on the Historical Tenderloin District, Manhattan
The Tenderloin was the name given to the red-light district of New York City, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The area originally extended from 23rd to 42nd Streets, between Fifth and Seventh Avenues. However, by the turn of the 20th century, it had expanded west to Eight Avenue and as far north as 62nd Street. It was a large area, encompassing parts of what are now the Flatiron District, NoMad, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, the Garment District, and the Theater District.
The New York City Police Department’s captain at the time, Alexander “Clubber” Williams, gave the area its name when he was transferred to a precinct there in 1876. He is quoted as saying “I’ve been having chuck steak ever since I’ve been on the force, and now I’m going to have a bit of tenderloin,” in reference to the many bribes he was likely to receive for police protection of local businesses, both legitimate and illegitimate. The name stuck and soon became a moniker for red-light districts in other cities across the US, such as San Francisco, which still has a district named the Tenderloin.
The Tenderloin first developed in the mid 19th century, when the theaters moved uptown, away from an area of SoHo called “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” With the development of this new theater district came all the business, many illegitimate, that went along with it. By the 1880s the Tenderloin was home to the largest collection of nightclubs, saloons, dance halls, gambling casinos, strip clubs, and brothels in New York City. Crime was a huge part of life in the Tenderloin. In fact, it was the most crime-ridden area in what was considered the most crime-ridden city in the country. Among locals, the district was given the colorful nickname “Satan’s Circus”
The main thoroughfare of the area was a section of Broadway between 23rd and 42nd Streets. After the invention of electric lighting in the mid-1890s, the section became known as “The Great White Way” due to its many illuminated signs. The nickname later transferred to Times Square, when the theater district moved again.
In the early 20th century, the boundaries of the Tenderloin moved further uptown, when the theaters, hotels, and dance halls moved again. However, while the previous move had led to the creation of the Tenderloin, this expansion ultimately led to the slow dissipation of the area.
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