Flatiron’s red-light district past explored in historic walking tour

This building on Sixth Avenue and 24th Street was once home to Koster & Bial, a music hall where scantily clad dancers would spend time with guests in private rooms. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

While these days, the neighborhoods of Flatiron and NoMad are known for their newly built, trendy hotels and an increase in families moving into the neighborhood, what few who even live there know is that at one time it was home to numerous houses of ill repute, gambling dens and saloons.

This was during an era that spanned from about 1870 to 1910, with the area then commonly known as the Tenderloin. It was also called Satan’s Circus, or at least it was by the Tenderloin’s most vocal critic, Reverend Charles Parkhurst of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, while slamming it in a Sunday sermon.

Over a century later, that swath of the city can still be explored — or at least the area that once housed those infernal brothels as well as hotels and dance halls where much of the action took place — through a weekly walking tour.

The tour, coordinated through the Museum of Sex on Fifth Avenue, is led by Robert Brenner, a veteran New York tour giver. He is also an almost 30-year resident of Chelsea, in a section of the neighborhood that was once within the confines of the Tenderloin, the boundaries of which have shifted over the decades.

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