Indiana: Open House in Terre Haute

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Mayor Leland Larrison, 53, appeared on a local TV news show to protect his reputation. Indignantly, he denied a wire service story that he had vowed to rid Terre Haute of prostitution and gambling. The mayor's firm stand in defense of vice raised a modest cheer from gamblers in the upstairs room at the Club Idaho on Hulman Street, and then they went back to their roulette and poker. A sign on the door read:


Though the town seemed happy with the mayor's decision, the gown was not. Alan C. Rankin, president of Indiana State University, was disturbed because his burgeoning school was encroaching on the Tenderloin. Brand-new high-rise dormitories now stand across the street from battered old brownstones that house the brothels. He was further irritated by the local conviction that students account for a substantial amount of the prostitutes' business. Rankin declared: "My position is, let's enforce the law," and, with the school paper's support, he began pressuring the mayor to clean up the city.

Boomtown, U.S.A. The trouble is that the citizenry has long lived in the -vicinity of vice. In the roaring '20s, with thousands at work in the surrounding coal mines and thousands more employed in the railroad yards, there was no shortage of customers for the brothels and horse rooms. The city's gamy reputation drew rakehells from as far north as Chicago, 156 miles away. Oldtimers recall the days when not a single house was a home in the six-block Tenderloin along the Wabash River.

After the 1920s, Terre Haute went into economic decline. There were repeated floods and a succession of bitter labor disputes, including a 1935 general strike. The mines lost money and the rail yards (famed as the starting point for Union Organizer and Socialist Candidate for President Eugene Debs) sharply diminished. In 1963 a series of gas explosions upended buildings and won the city the derisive title of "Boomtown, U.S.A." More and more, Terre Haute (1968 pop. 72,500) leaned for revenue on Indiana State, which grew from 4,000 students to 16,000 in ten years.

But Mayor Larrison stood firm for the old ways. "We've got a bad reputation," he conceded, "and it wouldn't make any difference if Jesus Christ were mayor; we'd still have a bad reputation." He offered a trade: "If the college will get rid of the beatniks, kooks and hippies over there, I'll shut down the houses." Police Chief Glen Means explained that prostitution was a "necessary evil." Because of it, he says, "there was not a single case of rape in Terre Haute last year. Oh, a few college girls hollered rape, but it really wasn't." Other citizens argued that the trollops kept the college boys contented: despite campus turmoil from coast to coast, Indiana State has had no serious student riots or disturbances.

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