Brothels, class, and gentrification: A eulogy for the Pink Palace
"You could close down Moe’s or the Kwik-E-Mart and nobody would care, but the heart and soul of Springfield’s in our Maison Derrière."
– Homer Simpson
The Pink Palace was an oddity and an anachronism.
The building was, in fact, pink, with curved glass bricks that jutted onto the corner of Palmerston Crescent and Kings Place. While its exterior was a John Waters film, its interior looked more like the mansion from The Shining. It felt at times like a haunted bed and breakfast that should have been in a rural town along the Hume, but somehow emerged in South Melbourne – on Wurundjeri Country – sandwiched between sleek apartment blocks and cafés.
Deep maroon and gold motifs stretched across the carpet and wallpaper of the lounge area, which contained plastic ferns, a pool table, at least five vintage couches, and a bar from which you could be served espresso, but not liquor. Upon entry, clients would be ushered into a private room or the lounge, and we – the resident sex workers – would introduce ourselves one by one. If the client liked what they saw, they would take one or more of us upstairs. Some working rooms contained a four-poster bed in one corner, and a glittery spa bath in another. Others contained faux marble statues of naked women, framed soft-porn photographs, or mirrors on the roof. When clients left, they could help themselves to a mintie and a promotional pen.
A few weeks ago, the Pink Palace ceased operation on Palmerston Street, and the doors have been locked since. I learned of this through social media, and have not received so much as a text message to inform me that my workplace no longer exists.
The Pink Palace, originally named the Mermaid’s Cave, opened in the 1980s. It was one of the first brothels to be established after the Victorian Government had adopted a licensing model as an approach to sex work regulation.
Licensing models are based on the idea that, if sex work cannot be abolished, it can be tightly monitored and, of course, taxed. They are often introduced in response to fears of organised crime in the sex industry and concerns about the poor health and safety practices where strict regulatory controls are not in place. However, they also respond to discomfort among more ‘respectable’ citizens about the supposed unsightliness and unseemliness of commercial sex, usually by criminalising street-based sex work – or, more precisely, suspected solicitation in a ‘public place’ – and affording local councils the authority to grant and deny permits for the development of brothels. Contra the full decriminalisation of sex work, the approach overwhelmingly favoured by sex workers, licensing models place conditions and exemptions over existing criminalisation, rendering legal only certain forms of sex work, in certain conditions, with certain people. As Victorian sex work law has exemplified, this approach can lend to manifold harmful effects for sex workers.
The Victorian licensing model is regulated by four different pieces of legislation, monitored by the Business Licensing Authority, gatekept by local councils, and enforced by the Victorian Police. The national peak body for sex workers, Scarlet Alliance, argues that this creates a two-tiered system in which onerous, invasive, and unreasonable compliance requirements force the majority of sex workers to operate outside of what is ‘legal’. Vixen Collective (Victoria’s peer only sex worker organisation) asserts that this model is discriminatory and damaging, highlighting various aspects that undermine sex workers’ basic rights. These include, for example, mandatory testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the criminalisation of HIV among sex workers, and the oppositional dynamic created between sex workers and the police, which inhibits sex workers’ capacity to seek assistance if they are victims of crime.
When this model was introduced, a license to operate a brothel was a golden ticket to an exclusive market. Now, with the profitability of the industry declining, some brothel owners have turned their attention to another exclusive market: real estate. Many metropolitan brothels are situated in areas once avoided by the gentry, but which are increasingly coveted by property developers whose projects help to turn former ‘slums’ into respectable, family-friendly communities. In South Melbourne alone, four brothels have recently been sold to developers, the Pleasure Dome for $1.55 million, and the Pink Palace for around $15 million. The Daily Planet, an 18-room brothel that had been operating in Elsternwick since 1975, was also recently sold for $12.66 million. Both the Pink Palace and Cherry Blossoms, another South Melbourne brothel, are expected to become multi-level apartment blocks, and it has long been rumoured that the site of the Daily Planet will be used for the same purpose. Likewise, land formerly occupied by a South Yarra brothel now hosts a 30-storey residential and retail tower, featuring a restaurant which invites its customers to ‘Join us for a quickie, or stay for the full service’.
Brothel licenses are attached to the site for which they were granted approval. When that site is used for another purpose, there is thus one less workplace available in Melbourne for brothel-based sex workers. While the multi-million dollar operation of redeveloping a brothel site can catch the attention of mainstream media, numerous other inner-city brothels have silently closed – by my estimate, at least 10 in the last decade. Like in any other industry, when a worksite closes, a diaspora is created. Sex workers fragment and spill into other brothels, sometimes finding old colleagues, sometimes finding the casualties of other closures. Like in any other industry, these conditions can contribute to a heightened sense of insecurity around the terms and conditions of labour. Under a regulatory model that affords disproportionate power to the owners and operators of brothels, this can further weaken sex workers’ capacity to assert their rights and boundaries in the workplace, or seek recourse when these are violated.
Like any workplace, brothels are social and political spaces, which hold a unique if underacknowledged place in working class history and culture. When they disappear, so too can the threads of these histories, which, when tugged at, can enable us to think differently about work, class, and solidarity – themes I argue are central to the regulation of sex workers’ bodies and the spaces they occupy.
In the Spring of 2016, the Corkman, an Irish pub built in 1857, was hastily and stealthily destroyed. Formerly known as the Carlton Inn, this pub was heritage listed as one of the oldest buildings in the suburb, and remained a beloved haunt for locals and particularly the students who studied law across the road. It had been purchased by developers in August for $4.76 million, and was damaged by a mysterious fire a week before the demolition, though not beyond repair. Nonetheless, the destruction began without a permit, and was completed despite the ‘stop work’ order issued by Melbourne City Council. Two years on, sixteen charges have been laid against the developers, and the site remains a ‘tangled mess of concrete and wires’, guarded by a barbed wire fence.
One reason the case of the Corkman garnered such fierce public backlash was because it exemplified a disturbing pattern: Melbourne pubs on increasingly expensive land being sacrificed for commercial interest, with the histories and community they held lost in the process. Dozens have closed since 2010, including the Greyhound Hotel in St. Kilda which had been operating for 160 years, and the London Hotel, a 155-year-old pub in Port Melbourne. The increasing disappearance of pubs – that is, public houses – also reflects the ongoing gentrification of Melbourne, seen most overtly in efforts to forcibly evict homeless persons from the CBD, but felt through everyday little cuts, from prohibitively expensive artisanal groceries to the policing of where one can smoke a cigarette. The untimely death of the Corkman was a body blow, and the sheer brazenness of developers added insult to injury.
In the wake of the Corkman, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, for the first time in a decade, issued a green ban. Through a green ban, union members are called on to refuse to work on particular projects on social and environmental grounds. During the early 1970s, such bans were frequently mobilised by the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) to halt construction that served only ruling class interests, and ultimately to turn the tide of gentrification, of which pubs were a key casualty. In the early 1970s, after having watched countless inner-city pubs morph into office blocks or bourgeois taverns, the BLF issued a general ban for all inner-city workers’ hotels. According to the then-secretary Jack Mundey, ‘People don’t want to lose their local, and their local is part of Sydney’s history.’
When British settlers used stolen Aboriginal Country as a penal colony they called Van Diemen’s Land, brothels were not unlike pubs. According to historian Rae Frances, ‘they were, in fact, an integral part of convict and poor working-class culture’, patronised by men and women alike as places of social activity, as well as commercial sex. Brothels were often the first destination for absconding women convicts, who would find therein shelter, income, and camaraderie. Conversely, in Victorian era Britain, many pubs also functioned as brothels, providing a space in which sex workers rubbed shoulders with both clients and more ‘respectable’ working class women. Likewise, in the mid to late nineteenth-century, Melbourne’s ‘red light district’, Little Lonsdale Street, was the site of numerous hotels, some of which ‘were little more than licensed brothels’.
In both Britain and the Antipodean colonies Britain had illegitimately claimed, the place of sex workers in pubs and working class culture was indelibly altered by punitive laws and social norms imposed by the ruling classes. In Britain, the Contagious Diseases Acts were first introduced in 1864 to address venereal disease among the armed forces by subjecting suspected sex workers to mandatory government registration, testing for STIs, and effective incarceration should infection be identified – all of which sounds chillingly familiar. According to historian Judith Walkowitz, one damaging effect of these laws was the displacement of sex workers from the working class communities in which they had been accepted. A key driver of this was the heightened discretionary powers afforded to police, which they wielded over lower class women more generally, not just sex workers. This involved closely monitoring the spaces in which such women might work and socialise – in particular, pubs – and, eventually, shutting down scores of pubs in particular port towns.
At the turn of the 20th century, changes to legislation and policing practices further strained sex workers’ relationship with the working class by, as Frances puts it, ‘increasingly marking [them] out… as part of a deviant underworld’. Although prostitution laws differed between the colonies, they worked by explicitly or effectively criminalising association with sex workers: women caught speaking to sex workers in public could themselves be accused of solicitation; men who lived with sex workers could be prosecuted for living off the earnings of prostitution; publicans risked falling foul of licensing laws for having known sex workers in their establishments. Both Frances and Walkowitz relate this to broader efforts to divide and conquer the working class, and to isolate perceived deviance ‘from the respectable mainstream’. As Foucault warned, the social and juridical suppression of ‘deviance’ produces deviants; the policing and punishment of ‘criminality’ produces a criminal class. Sex workers, along with other groups forced to the margins, continue to navigate the lived consequences of these dynamics daily.
Some Victorian brothels operate or have operated in buildings of recognised historical significance. The oldest known house in Bendigo, for instance, is also one of the few in the area known to have been used as a brothel. The Steam Packet Inn, a former pub in the seaside town of Portland, was rumoured to have had a brief disorderly period. The Number 100, a current brothel in Collingwood, falls within the Johnson Heritage Overlay Area, which comprises a cluster of residential and commercial buildings constructed during the Victorian era. Finally, Manhattan Terrace, a Carlton brothel a stone’s throw from the Corkman’s gravesite, is based in two conjoined terraces built in 1880, giving the site its own heritage overlay and a heritage grading of C.
One former heritage listed brothel is a two-storey brick house in Echuca, a rural town on Yorta Yorta land, far from high-rise apartments and cowboy developers. Built in 1878, this house is recognised as ‘a rare known survivor of the many brothels which operated in the nineteenth-century in most towns in Victoria.’ Echuca rests on the southern side of Australia’s longest river – the Murray – which settlers marked as the boundary between the colonies of New South Wales and Victoria. During the late nineteenth-century, Echuca was a critical site of trade, with seafaring men constituting the primary clientele of the brothel. The building functioned as both a brothel and a pub until its closure in 1897, when licensing laws tightened and the licensee failed to convince authorities that hers was ‘a respectable establishment’. Almost a century later, the house became the Brothel Museum, its days of ill-fame recreated with mannequins in period attire. When the museum opened, locals responded with curiosity and humour, accepting the brothel as a quirky relic of a unique industrial and social history.
The memorialisation of brothels is a different matter when the sex workers who created those memories remain very much alive. In 2013, an exhibition called MANORISMS opened in a temporary gallery located in a 150-year-old building on Cromwell Street in Collingwood. The namesake of the exhibition was Cromwell Manor, the brothel that had operated on this site for the past two decades. The exhibition sought to capture the liminal space between the what the building was and what it would become: Cromwell STREAT, a café and hospitality training academy for marginalised young people. The sex workers of Cromwell Manor were not consulted about its abrupt closure. They were not informed of the exhibition that drew inspiration from whatever remnants of their lives they left within its walls. They certainly did not consent to having their worker files, which contained their personal details, used as part of the exhibition, nor to having both their legal and working names painted on a shower unit. But then, they were never asked.
Like Cromwell Manor, the new owners of the Pink Palace had a photographer document the brothel prior to its demolition, so that it may become the focus of an art exhibition housed in the building that takes its place. Similarly, when the Pleasure Dome was listed for sale, owner Ivan Gneil expressed his hope that its site would be used for a community centre or arts space, and a potential buyer has proposed that it be renovated into an art gallery. The area surrounding the building, once populated by factories, is set to become a ‘revitalised’ commercial and residential precinct, as per the Fisherman’s Bend Urban Renewal Project. As such, Gneil has appealed to authorities to revoke the brothel license, as he does not want his legacy to be another brothel established ‘in the middle of the beautiful new school, park and apartment towers area.’
In 2007, the Campaspe Shire Council voted unanimously to deny a building permit for what would become the only operating brothel in Echuca. Having received over 170 objections from locals who believed ‘a brothel would bring down their town’s good name’, the council sought to amend its planning scheme to introduce a permanent ban on the development of brothels in its municipality. Undeterred, the applicant took their case to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and the Council’s vote was overturned. The Mayor of Campaspe criticised this ruling as an affront to community will, and the council, begrudgingly, issued a permit. I have found no evidence to confirm that this brothel was ever actually built, nor could I confirm whether the Brothel Museum remains accessible to the public. That the old Echuca brothel is one of the three buildings that will be ‘rejuvenated’ for a new arts precinct suggests that it is not.
I mourn the Pink Palace as a workplace which, like any other, holds memories, relationships, habits and comforts. I feel its death as another little, though not shallow, cut in the slow march of gentrification. I lament yet another reminder that sex workers are increasingly unwelcome in the very urban spaces to which they were exiled in order that they could be more effectively controlled. I despair for the absurd fact that while, in Echuca, we are acceptable only as mannequins, in South Melbourne, we can be visible only as artefacts and ephemera: an edgy aesthetic for commercial interests; a past we actively exclude from the present. I grieve publicly to disrupt a failure to acknowledge the lived effects of gentrification on a community that has always been one of its guinea pigs, and to resituate sex workers in the working class histories and communities in which they remain largely excluded.
This eulogy is about which bodies, spaces, and histories are deemed worthy of sustaining and remembering, and whose interests memorialisation serves. Histories of social control, fuelled by ruling class anxieties and values, are interconnected. The disappearance of brothels is related to the effective criminalisation of homelessness in the city. It is related to the callous destruction of sites rich in working class history, like the Corkman. It is related though by no means equivalent to the fact that we leap to outrage when colonial pubs are lost, but, as Tarneen Onus-Williams points out, not when sacred Djab Wurrung trees are marked for destruction by the settler colonial state. Accepting this interconnectedness means acknowledging the ways in which we have been turned against one another, being accountable to our implication in this, and working to address the consequent limitations of solidarity. Listening carefully to the communities and collectives at ground zero is a foundational, indispensable, and ongoing part of this.
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