It’s Map Monday. Today we have a custom map created by Historyapolis student researcher Kevin Ehrman-Solberg. It shows the geography of pornography in the 1970s and 1980s, when Minneapolis saw an explosion of the commercial sex industry. On this map, the red pins are are for theaters, the green denotes bookstores and the blue pins mark the location for other businesses related to the commercial sex industry. Pornography and prostitution had always existed in the city. But for the period between World War I to the late 1960s it had been driven underground by obscenity laws and zoning regulations.
Many of the theaters and bookstores shown on this map were owned by Ferris Alexander, who was known in Minneapolis as the “Patriarch of Porn.” Followed by the FBI and hated by city administrators, Alexander defied constant efforts to drive him out of business and perhaps out of town. The city passed a zoning law in 1977 to force his establishments off of Lake Street. Alexander challenged the law in court and won, much to the consternation of city leaders and the residents of the Powderhorn and Phillips neighborhoods, which adjoined the Lake Street corridor dominated by Alexander’s businesses. By 1986, the city attorney had charged the businessman with everything from housing code violations to obscenity charges. Nothing stuck.
Alexander was not the only person in Minneapolis in the pornography business. But he was the most visible. His businesses–shown on this map–attracted men wanting to explore gay sex in an anonymous environment. And they drew feminist activists, who began targeting his businesses in the early 1980s.
In 1983, feminist protesters attacked Alexander’s notorious bookstore at Chicago Avenue and Lake Street. The women knocked down shelves, tore up magazines and spray-painted anti-pornography slogans on the walls. The police finally intervened when the destruction turned violent. This crusade ultimately culminated in the short-lived city ordinance banning pornography, which was vetoed by Mayor Donald Fraser before it could go into effect.
Alexander’s bookstores were also a magnet for men seeking anonymous male sex. Ferris helped to facilitate these encounters. According to local gay activist Tim Campbell, “Ferris or his employees would put holes in [the plywood walls that separated the individual viewing cubicles] about the size of an orange…and they became known as glory holes and they allowed you to have sex with somebody in the other booth.”
Stymied by their inability to regulate or ban Alexander’s businesses, city officials appealed to the police department to help. Starting in 1980, the city’s vice squad targeted the bookstores, arresting thousands of customers each year. Undercover officers would hit on men, who might respond with a sexual overture. An arrest for indecent conduct would follow. These vice squad arrests prompted gay activist Tim Campbell to file a joint suit with Alexander to block the city’s bookstore entrapment campaign.
By the late 1980s, the Alexander pornography empire was on the wane, under siege from both feminists and technological changes that put VCRs in every home. His businesses on the decline, Alexander was unable to beat back criminal obscenity charges. He went to prison in 1992.
Today there is little sign that there was ever a contentious pornography district in South Minneapolis. Like the early twentieth century brothel district described by Penny Petersen last Monday, this once-sexualized urban space has disappeared from the modern streetscape.
Information for the text and map are drawn from: “The 7th Annual Urban Journalism Workshop Reports On Adult Bookstores in Minneapolis” August 4th, 1977. And “Empire/Alexander Called a Modern Robber Baron,” St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, January 26, 1986 and oral history with Tim Campbell, in the possession of Kevin Ehrman-Solberg.