WORKING WOMEN. How ironic that the Red Light district during Tucson's territorial days--spanning from 1891 to 1917--could now be easily spied from downtown's main police headquarters.

Gay Alley doesn't exist as a street anymore. It lies buried beneath the Leo Rich Music Hall, sandwiched between the Tucson Convention Center to the west and the police and fire stations bordering the east side of Church Avenue. But for nearly 30 years, the two-block long, dusty, unpaved street--named for pioneer settler Mervin Gay--was the site of a bustling, vibrant business district.

The business of the day was prostitution.

It was legal and busy, with 250 women working the alley. But as a caption on one of the images in the newly opened exhibit, Soiled Doves: Women of Business in Territorial Tucson, on view at the historic Sosa-Carrillo-Frémont House, explains, "Being a whore was not a romantic or lovely way to make a living."

The exhibit's curator, Julia Arriola, couldn't find much information about the women working in the district. "No one wrote anything down," she explains.

What they do know is that the women contributed to the city in many ways. They shelled out money for their required business licenses, paid for their health certificates and even supported local charities.

"Eve Blanchard, one of the madams who ran a brothel in the district, would donate $500 every Christmas to an orphanage uptown--a lot of money in those days," says Arriola. "But she made her anonymous donation through an intermediary--Mrs. Sam Drachman, actually," she adds.

The exhibit is minimal in artifacts but captures the nuances of a big part of Tucson's history most people shy away from. It lines a couple of walls in a small room of the old adobe house that was, itself, part of the district. It's just a handful of images and ephemera from the era. Surviving pictures of the women were blown up and cropped to reveal a twinkling smile rather than a hardened visage or titillating pose. Says Arriola of the pictures she selected, "They were more panoramic than I wanted. So I zoomed in or their faces. I'd find some kind of humanness in their eyes."

It's evident as "Mollie" and "Carmen" and "Bettie" and "Annie" shine their eyes back at you. Arriola says a recurrent image she discovered were women with their dogs. "I wanted to present the women without judgment, to show the gray areas of prostitution rather than something black or white," she adds.

It's the tactile residue of the business of prostitution that's the compelling part of this exhibit. Signed health certificates by the doctor who performed the mandatory Friday exams reveal a history of sexually transmitted diseases--not unlike today. If you were sick, you had to leave the alley until you were cured. These affidavits adorned each room in the houses lining the alley in the district.

The madams controlled everything. At the corner of Gay Alley and McCormick Street was the house of the most powerful madam. All the women had to clear with her. She collected the $5 monthly civic license. The 1900 Census tells its own story. Folks hailed from France, Mexico, Holland, Japan and various states in America. The 10 houses on the alley were filled with all kinds of people, some with aliases like "Belgian Annie," "Big French Jennie," "Tough Luck From Phoenix" and "The Loud Jew."

Arriola explains that while prostitution was legal, pimps still existed. "During Camacho's time, there were plenty of them, though not much documentation. I guess people saw an economic opportunity and grabbed at it just like they do in prostitution today."

Jesus Camacho was the unofficial mayor of Meyer Avenue in the district. He kept the pimps from beating up the women too much--and he saw to it that licensing fees were paid. During Prohibition, he enforced the Volstead Act of 1914 and the no-drinking zone, but apparently railroad men kept Tucson "wet" with plenty of tequila smuggled from Nogales. With 14 of the 48 saloons in downtown Tucson situated in Camacho's three-block beat, it was a busy place. Apparently, he was not above accepting favors.

Arriola says when prostitution became illegal in 1917, the women scattered all over Tucson, leaving the district. "Prohibition was part of it. But prominent city folks were disturbed that Gay Alley was in the middle of downtown."

The alley finally lost its luster in the mid-'20s when tall barriers were built so no one could see inside the area. From her research, Arriola senses that territorial prostitution was somehow different than the modern-day version.

"There seems to be more sadness about it now--more drugs, more addicted women, more women under the control of men. Historically, the women didn't drink or smoke. They kept focused on the job."

But still they had to work in an era where "good girls" didn't do such a thing. That says something about the profession over the long haul.

Soiled Doves: Women of Business in Territorial Tucson is on view at the Sosa-Carrillo-Frémont House through May 2004. The museum is located at 151 S. Granada Ave, adjacent to the Tucson Convention Center. Free parking is available in Lot C. Museum admission costs $3, $2 for seniors and free to kids under 12. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 622-0956 with questions.

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