Block 16: Las Vegas’s Original Sin City Unveiled

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Picture a time when the glittering lights of The Strip weren’t the crux of Las Vegas, but a single city block known as Block 16. Today, a quick search might lead you to culinary delights at the Block 16 Urban Food Hall, but delicacies of the edible sort are hardly what this locale was once known for. The rich annals of Las Vegas history paint a more illicit tapestry of Block 16, where expensive vices weren’t kept on ice but curiously, under the arid desert sun.

In the late 1930s, under the comforting awning of the Arizona Club—a legal bordello—you might have encountered two flamboyant figures, women dressed scandalously. The Club was one of the sinful establishments that straddled Block 16, a place many believe gave Las Vegas its notorious moniker of “Sin City.”

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It began when the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad auctioned off parcels of its lands on May 15, 1905—lands that would eventually constitute Las Vegas. The auctioneers carved the land into 40 blocks, each comprising 32 lots, sized 25 by 140 feet, throughout which streets and alleys ran like veins. Block 16, lodged comfortably between Ogden and Stewart Avenues on First Street, had a unique distinction. This was the single haven where liquor could flow legally outside of the local hotels.

The block soon became a hotspot for gambling and prostitution, joining the consumption of gin in an unholy trinity of indulgence. Six hotels and 11 saloons sprang to life in this only official red-light district, catering to the lusty demands for drink, dice, and dalliances. This bustling hub of vice now sported venues like the Gem, Arizona Club, Red Onion Club, and the Arcade. They were saloons of sin, serving potent shots for a dime, staging poker games, and roulette. Meanwhile, behind closed doors or makeshift shacks around the back, the world’s oldest profession thrived unimpeded.

One establishment held particular distinction. The Arizona Club, dubbed “The Queen of Block 16,” came with a posh $20K mahogany bar. It had the honor of being Las Vegas’s first casino and constructed what they proclaimed to be the city’s first “hotel”, a term that came with a devilish twist. In this unassuming “hotel,” the second story contained small rooms where working women could entertain their gentlemen callers.

Despite temporarily outlawed gambling and prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century, Block 16 was unaffected, remaining a magnet for those in search of morally flexible fun. Interestingly, amid the shifting legal climates, the enduring vice on Block 16 was the oldest profession: sex work. In fact, brothels were only deemed illegal if the proprietors didn’t pay their $500 annual license fees or their workers failed to attend mandatory health checkups. This was why the Arizona Club’s “hotel” was chiefly the domain of courtesans and their clients.

As the wheels of time trudged on, an ironic twist came when gambling was legalized in Las Vegas in 1931. The newly legitimate casino operators viewed brothels as competition and campaigned against prostitution. The critical blow came through the May Act, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, banning prostitution near military bases following the American entry into World War II. With the Nellis Air Force Base a mere eight miles away, local governing bodies acquiesced to the military’s demand to ban prostitution on Block 16.

Although the May Act’s restrictions ended in 1948, Las Vegas officials continued to clamp down on any resurfacing brothels on Block 16, citing them as a public nuisance. By the decade’s end, most brothels on the block had shuttered or been demolished.

Today, more than seven decades after the prohibition era, where echoes of clinking glasses and laughter once bounced off the walls of decadent establishments, there now stands the California Hotel & Casino and Binion’s parking garage. Block 16, though still recognizable by its moniker among tourists, is renowned for the spicy allure of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken instead of its formerly risqué offerings. A stark contrast indeed to its scintillating and provocative past.