The district's semi-official status arose from changes to how Birmingham officials viewed criminal nuisances in the early 20th century. Attempts to close problem saloons, gambling dens and bawdy-houses had little effect as long as demand was strong. As an alternative, the George Ward administration attempted a strategy of allowing such enterprises to operate, but with the understanding that the city would regulate them if they presented nuisances. To that end, setting aside a certain area of the city as a red light district would help to prevent other neighborhoods from being impacted by the activities conducted there.
The progress of a civil suit in which a property owner claimed damages for being unable to sell his real estate due to its proximity to the "restricted district" led then-Mayor Culpepper Exum to announce that, beginning on October 1 of that year, that the existing laws prohibiting houses of prostitution would be enforced.
Despite the announcement, the area maintained its reputation. In 1914 16-year-old bicycle messenger Durward Nickerson led documentary photographer Lewis Hine on a tour of the district, relating tales of the "inmates he has known there." Hine interpreted those stories as evidence of the "shady side of messenger work".
- "Birmingham's Restricted District is Doomed to Go." (June 28, 1913) Knoxville Journal & Tribune
- Durward Nickerson photograph with caption (Lot 7480, v. 3, no. 3791) at the Library of Congress, found via shorpy.com