By: Ilma Hasan
A blonde woman with bangs, sharply arched eyebrows and a scarf around her neck smiled in a photograph printed in the newspaper Daily World. It was taken in 1974, and is one of the many photos of former prostitute Xaviera Hollander found in an archive box titled “Prostitution” at the Tamiment Library in the New York University Archives. Hollander was a popular call girl working out of Times Square. She started her own brothel before being arrested by the New York Police Department on prostitution charges.
Apart from the folder with pictures and scribbled notes on Hollander, the Prostitution box had 52 other files. It was a collection of the research on the subject conducted Rosalyn Baxter and Linda Gordon, feminists and historians of the women’s liberation movement in New York in the 60s and 70s.
Times Square was the hub of crime and prostitution at that time, and I wanted to see documents telling what happened to the people who worked there in the process of the area’s later clean-up. So before heading to the New York Municipal Archive on Chambers Street to see what happened on the administrative end of the transformation, I visited the New York University Archives which had files on unions and social groups that worked for the rights of those employed in Times Square.
I had called Tamiment Library at NYU in advance asking about the papers that I wanted. They were all offsite and would take one or two business days to arrive.
“What are you looking for?” Danielle Nista, the reference associate at the library asked me on the phone. When I told her the story, she said, “You know what? Since this is your first time, come anyway. I’m sure we can find something that would pique your interest.”
An hour later, I was at the archives on the tenth floor of NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library going through Baxter and Gordon’s research.
The box had photographs, letters and memos written by women activists from scores of groups based out of New York City. It was fascinating to see the language used by feminists at the time. They wrote about how they are being called radical for their ideas and their work. They had set up hotline numbers for sexual assault survivors, with separate treatment for varying degrees of trauma. They provided counseling and a legal team for survivors who wanted to pursue a case in court. During hearings, activists would turn up in large numbers in solidarity with sexual assault survivors and women arrested on prostitution charges.
There were Conferences on Prostitution. And pamphlets addressing common myths of rape, in which I found an interesting note written on top in blue ink that said “definite parallels between lynching and rape.”
There were photographs of activists standing with placards that read, “Jail is no solution. Jobs and Housing will stop Prostitution” and “Arrest the Pimps.” At the back of one such photo, Baxter or Gordon had scribbled, “1971. Demand for bail for 2 women denied bail by Judge in prostitution arrested in NYC.” It was a photo of two activists protesting outside the courthouse after a judge had denied bail to two women arrested on prostitution charges.
Hours later, I realized that I had gone through all 52 files in the box, including those that weren’t remotely associated with what I had come searching for.
The next day I went with greater focus – I would look at New York Hotel and Motel Trade records. Were hotels benefiting from the prostitution business? What happened to the ones that had families and businesses as their clientele?
While skimming though the records, I came across Dixie Hotel on 43rd Street, which was going out of business starting in the mid-60s owing to the growing crime rate in Times Square.
I found letters written by Dixie’s management laying off employees because of losses. The management had also written to the Hotel Association stating the reasons behind the hotel’s dwindling business, the primary one being that the ‘family-type hotel’ was no longer attracting the usual crowd because of what happened on the streets outside the door. Going through several other records like this, I realized that this was not an anomaly. Many workers suffered the same fate in the late 70s. I was also able to get the names of employees who had been laid off and may be potential interviewees. The picture of the people of Times Square was beginning to come into focus.