The Gängeviertel were known, in Hamburg and beyond, as a hotbed of crime and prostitution. In the tales and imaginations of the wealthy elites, coups and crimes were planned on a permanent basis in the basement bars and pawn shops of the neighborhoods – an image not too far from the truth. The raging poverty and the unsteady employment in the harbor forced many inhabitants of the Gängeviertel to make a living in crime and prostitution. Apart from burglaries, pickpocketing was common and the loot was usually sold right in the neighborhood. Pursuing the thieves was usually pointless or even dangerous, due to the practical solidarity of the inhabitants – this extended to the police, who usually only entered the Gänge with sufficient back-up.
However, the high number of food thefts, especially among young people, demonstrated that the infamous criminality of the Gängeviertel was often a result of the terrible living conditions and economic hardship. Most likely, these were also the main reasons for the endemic prostitution in these areas. Especially the Gängeviertel of the northern New Town and the neighboring streets towards the Gänsemarkt (this area) were notorious for their red-light district. In 1912, the Danish king Frederik VIII died there after visiting a prostitute in the Schwiegerstraße – the king had visited Hamburg under a false name with his wife and kids. While the brothels in the area Drehbahn, Dammtorwall and Gänsemarkt were reserved for bourgeois clients, prostitution in the Gängeviertel attracted workers, sailors and soldiers and was much shabbier – often the women here were forced to work out of economic plight.
Contrary to the rest of Germany, the city of Hamburg handled street prostitution and brothels in a relatively relaxed manner. Many streets in the Alt- and Neustadt had at least one brothel, some a dozen or more. The Ebräergang became known as Ehebrechergang (Adulterer Street), due to its many establishments. In the Speckstraße, which is also a part of the contemporary Gängeviertel, 16 brothels and 65 prostitutes shared the street with 150 families and 220 children in 1883. The immediate proximity of inhabitants and prostitutes regularly triggered concerns over the lack of morals in the Gängeviertel. Nevertheless, the red-light district proved surprisingly durable in Hamburg’s inner city and only in the 1950s, when the Ulricusstraße was demolished to construct the Unilever-skyscraper, the last parts of it left the city center.