Despite continued economic woes, it appears that at least one industry is thriving in San Francisco: the illegal sex industry. This, despite the completely ineffective efforts of a local government “crackdown” on illegal brothels and massage parlors. In a story that read like a Google map for where to get a hand job (Oh wait, that already exists), The Chron regales us with a tale of how the is mayor personally cracking down on brothels. Really personally. Like, walk-in-on-some-guy getting-a-blow-job personally. To be fair, we’re fairly certain there are people who pay for this exact service, but digressions aside, the article got us ruminating on the urban implications of these red-light, black-market operations.
It’s perhaps the worst kept secret in any city: Illicit businesses are often disguised as slightly less illicit massage parlors. Good architecture is often defined in terms of its relative ability to act as a representation of what’s contained within. Could Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Musem just as well be a Science Lab in Cincinnati? Could Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences ever be mistaken for a apartment building? Unless you’re a futurist playing devil’s advocate, the answer is no, of course not. But in the case of the illegal brothel, architecture that misrepresents its program is exactly what proprietors are looking for. Architecture becomes a tool of deception making it possible for brothels to surreptitiously flourish in the residential neighborhoods of San Francisco. From the exterior of these homes, nothing looks out of place – it’s a quiet home on a quiet street in a quiet family-friendly neighborhood. But inside…well, the activities are decidedly less family-oriented. But what if this deception wasn’t necessary? What if brothels were thought of no differently than fashion boutiques? New clients and new possibilities are suddenly available to architects. What would a brothel designed by Rem Koolhaas or Herzog and de Meuron actually look like?
So there exists then, a not-so-secret network of sex-worker infrastructure that the city is making very little effort to repress: Brothel Urbanism. We can look at the various brothels and massage parlors of San Francisco as the core components of this infrastructure and the individual street walkers as an extension of the network — a little cheaper, a little easier to find, and able to disperse the business like dandelion seeds in a country field. Surely such a flexible, mobile network must be admired by businesses and city planners alike. Could this be why the city is so lenient on the pliers of the flesh trade? Are our planners actually clicking away on a municipal Google Map trying to figure out just vast the scope of this enterprise truly is? Are they mapping rates of expansion and how the collective industry address territorial disputes and traffic issues? If not, maybe they should.
But let’s look beyond the conceptual influence of sex workers. In some cases, famous San Francisco prostitutes have actually directly influenced, or at least inspired, the city’s actual infrastructure. Exhibits A-E: Minna St., Natoma St, Jessie St, Tehama St., and Clemintina St. For whom were these streets were named? Famous politicians or community organizers? Nope. Local legend has it they were named after some of San Francisco’s famed ladies of the evening. And isn’t there something elegant–quaint even–about an urban condition described by what, or in this case who, you can find there? A simple clarity and organizational strategy that’s lacking from any recently-proposed-now-on-hold planning development.
“Reasonable ambivalence” is how the city explains its lack of success in closing brothels and massage parlors. Could “reasonable ambivalence” also explain San Francisco’s lackluster, albeit slowly improving, architectural climate? Are the clashing views of our preservationists, our NIMBYs, and our Modernists resulting a reasonably ambivalent urban condition? A city that neither inspires nor offends? A city with an aesthetic identity destined to remain unchanged since the early 20th century? The thought is almost enough to drive a man to seek solace in the arms of a professional.