Porn Free

The city's war on sex shops has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with development. Especially around Times Square.

As police padlocked strip clubs and inspectors hauled 19 adult businesses -- including a gay bookstore -- into court, the media reacted as if the city had been liberated from a foreign occupying force. This was a victory for "all decent New Yorkers," crowed the Daily News, and the Times agreed: The new zoning ordinance that sweeps erotic entertainment into mostly far-flung corners of the five boroughs will serve the "worthy purpose of protecting communities from the adverse impact of sex-related businesses."

But the sanctity of neighborhoods has little to do with this crusade. Its main purpose is to pump up commercial development in midtown Manhattan, especially in the area around Times Square, where a quarter of the city's adult businesses are located. Public affidavits and private memos obtained by the Voice indicate that a powerful alliance of midtown realtors was involved in every step of the city's antiporn crusade. The Times Square Business Improvement District was especially active in crafting the new zoning amendment and lobbying for it. Yet the BID's most illustrious member, The New York Times, prefers to describe the banishment of sex shops as "a reasonable step to improve the quality of neighborhood life" rather than representing it as it really is: a boon to big developers.

If protecting communities were the point, the borough presidents of Brooklyn and the Bronx would not be among the most outspoken opponents of a zoning strategy that shuts sex clubs out of Chelsea while allowing them in Red Hook and Hunts Point. The fact that these neighborhoods are among the city's poorest -- and that nearly two thirds of the areas where sex shops will be allowed to operate have median incomes below the citywide average -- speaks volumes about just which communities are deemed most worthy of protecting against the "adverse impact" of porn.

Of course, realtors are not the only people who stand to profit from this crackdown. The mayor has much to gain from posing as the caped crusader of civic probity. This image plays extremely well outside the city, especially among conservative Republicans. And in the outer boroughs, it resonates with small property owners terrified of anything that might diminish the value of their homes. But Manhattan liberals have never been moved by the fears of homeowners in Queens. What stops them from speaking out now? Why have the usual pack of progressive pols -- not to mention arts groups, who might be expected to stand up against any infringement of sexual freedom -- been so conspicuously silent?

The easy answer is shame. As erotic dancer Cindra Feuer puts it, "most people who go to these places aren't out about it," and they aren't about to fight for their right to party. The nature of transgressive sexuality is that the higher up the status ladder, the more indefensible it becomes, as the saga of Monica Lewinsky attests. No wonder powerful liberals (and even the libertarian middle class) are loath to act up on behalf of pornography. It doesn't help that antiporn forces have allied themselves with certain feminists, but that didn't stop liberals from opposing the mayor's zoning plan when it was first announced three years ago.

Back in 1995, Mark Green, the Great Prog Hope, wrote a passionate critique of Giuliani's plan, objecting to its vagueness, its violation of the city's "history of tolerance and diversity," and the burden it would place on areas in which "many working class and low income people reside." But last week, Green told the Voice through a spokesperson that "overall, he is supportive" of the zoning, though he "does think there should be exceptions where the community supports the shops." As for Tom Duane, the city's first openly gay councilmember, in 1995, he wrote that he was "gravely concerned about the impact of this proposal and adamantly opposed to it." But last week, Duane, who is currently running for the state senate, could only fret about the impact on development in the meat market district now that sex shops can locate there. NIMBY is the last refuge of the chastened liberal.

What happened in the intervening years? For one thing, Giuliani's successful demonization of Ruth Messinger for a pro-porn position she didn't even hold amply demonstrated the stakes for any politician who dares to speak out against sexual repression. As for the activists, those groups the mayor hasn't silenced through his control of city funding (not to mention his selective use of police power, as in closing two clubs owned by zoning dissident Madeline d'Anthony) have largely been ignored by the media. As a result, Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union finds himself in the unaccustomed position of being the lone voice in a wilderness of silent liberals.

"People keep saying to me, 'Why are you so concerned about this?'" Siegel says, "but I think it's important. Sexual freedom is a fundamental issue." Such intemperate remarks inspired the Daily News to observe last week that the ACLU is "obsessed with sex."

Of course, neither the News nor any other New York daily has done a poll of how the public feels about hauling sex shops into court, a far cry from the media's response to other crackdowns on cabbies, food peddlers, and jaywalkers. "I haven't even seen private polls on this," says political consultant Joseph Mercurio, whose clients have included Andrew Eristoff and Antonio Pagan. Mercurio calls the sex-shop crackdown "a hotspot issue," meaning that it is based in certain block associations and BIDs. "I don't think a lot of people really mind these places in New York," Mercurio says, "but they do have an opinion about whether porn should be in their face."

Messinger's approach -- reduce intrusive signage and provocative window displays, zone away from schools and churches -- corresponded to this popular consensus, yet it was rejected by Manhattan's three dailies. Why did they all back the mayor's far more draconian plan? And why did they hammer home the issue in editorial after editorial (seven in the Times and three in the News) despite the relative indifference of the public at large? The answer has less to do with ideology (except in the case of the Post) than with the fact that both the Times and the News hold executive positions in their local BIDs.

Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who currently chairs the nominating committee of the Times Square BID, was its founding chair. Sulzberger headed the search committee that hired Gretchen Dykstra -- the most visible civilian in the city's war on porn -- to run the BID. Its early meetings were held at the Times's offices.

A spokesperson for the Times notes that Sulzberger has no corporate affiliations other than at the paper. But that alone qualifies him as a major player in the development of Times Square. This financial stake may explain why real-estate action in that area regularly receives such massive coverage in the paper of record. Last Thursday, for example, a front-page picture touted the fact that Cabaret is about to reopen in the building where a crane collapse wreaked havoc last month, and on the front page of the Metro section that same day, a lavishly illustrated story concerned the imminent arrival of Times Square's biggest sign.

Of course, there are other major players in the area: Tishman, Rudin, Zeckendorf, Durst. A number of these realty titans are represented on the Times Square BID, along with hoteliers, theater owners, and corporate leading lights like Bertelsmann and Morgan Stanley. What attracted these companies in recent years was the cornucopia of tax breaks given by the state and city. The Giuliani administration has granted a record $666.7 million in tax abatements, the lion's share of which went to businesses locating in Times Square.

"The market there was historically not strong enough to support new construction," says one realty insider. "But the city made a major investment in subsidizing office space and even retail, and now the market has its own momentum. In that sense, there is a chance for a very significant return to the city on its investment." That payback will come in the form of taxes levied on newly profitable realty-to-retail businesses.

Nowhere is the rush to cash in more frenetic than on the cutting edge of Times Square development, Eighth Avenue. The recent transfer of theater-district air rights has made that thoroughfare even more of a plum, and several hotels with retail components, as well as a major new cineplex, are about to go up. There's only one hitch. "Everyone's doing family entertainment these days," says the realty insider. And Eighth Avenue happens to feature the city's biggest cluster of adult businesses.


Maintaining the momentum of this building boom is crucial, which is why the city has moved with such unprecedented harshness against the sex shops. "If you have a change in zoning," says Siegel, "first there's a grace period, then a discussion with the owners, and even when a violation is issued, there's time for the businesses to comply. None of that has happened here, and the reason is obviously to put them out of business."

Sex shops, let it be noted, are not unprofitable. In the old Times Square, the owners of such establishments were willing to pay landlords double, sometimes triple, what other retailers could afford. As long as that was the case, no matter what the Times and Broadway theater owners might think, erotic entertainment was a fact of life around the Great White Way. But once the state's Urban Development Corporation formed the 42nd Street Development Project in 1982 and began condemning properties along "the Deuce," the fix for porn was in. The Disney Corporation made it a condition of its investment on the street that sex shops be moved out. The city -- and the soon-to-be-formed Times Square BID -- were all too happy to help.

BID memos show that Dykstra met frequently with officials from the Department of City Planning, which made extensive use of the BID's privately funded study in its own report on the unsavory impact of adult businesses. She had a determined ally in City Planning Commission chair Joseph Rose, the real estate scion who happens to have a financial interest in a 200-unit building on Eighth Avenue and 52nd Street. Then there's Frederick A.O. Schwartz Jr., Ed Koch's corporation counsel, who represented the Times Square BID pro bono, and personally argued the city's case before state and federal judges. Schwartz is a partner in Cravath Swaine & Moore, whose offices are located in Zeckendorf's Worldwide Plaza on Eighth Avenue. This prestigious law firm refused to move into the building as long as there was a gay porn theater nearby. (Using the health code, the city shut it down in 1994.)

Under Dykstra, the Times Square BID orchestrated a masterful campaign on behalf of the mayor's new zoning plan. She was tireless in appearances at block associations and community boards; she solicited celebrities such as Carol Burnett to testify at the City Council when the zoning was being considered; she wrote personally to "relevant commissioners,Ó "selected judges," and even the FBI (which, one memo notes, was "noncommittal" about getting involved); she even went undercover to study the industry.

Dykstra points out that her BID was "instrumental in the liberalization of the zoning," opening it up to allow four or five new businesses to locate in the Times Square area. But just because a business is legally able to operate doesn't mean landlords will be willing to allow it in. And the BID has been aggressive in discouraging its members from renting to sex shops. Dykstra even suggested using "guerrilla tactics similar to ACT UP" to pressure landlords. (This was back in 1992. "I became educated during this process, and I'm not ashamed to say that," she points out.)

Zoning is only one weapon in the city's arsenal to clean up Times Square. The mayor's midtown enforcement unit has been particularly aware of gay bars in the area, and in the past four years, three have been padlocked. Just last month, police staged a midnight raid on Cats, described by several patrons as the only bar in Times Square that welcomed drag queens. As writer Bruce Benderson heard it through the grapevine, "the cops had guns, everyone had to put their hands on their heads, and everyone was searched." When police found drugs -- mostly joints -- on four people, the bar was closed, leaving a gay scene that consists of only two bars, where, as one former patron of Cats put it, "you feel like you're in a gay bar trying to act straight." (This in an area that has been a mecca for gay nightlife since the 1920s.)

The raids on bars and closings of gay theaters are part of an image makeover so exacting that even billboards in the new Times Square have been taken down for being too racy -- or too political. This sanitizing strategy of the midtown BIDs is best summed in the affidavit filed by the 34th Street Partnership (on whose board the Daily News sits): "Even a single pornographic video store . . . has a demonstrable impact on the quality of life and economic development of a block."

The take-no-prisoners attitude held by powerful players in the city's economy explains why, when sex shops began to alter their stock to exempt themselves from qualifying as adult businesses, Supreme Court Judge Stephen Crane mused that the designation ought to be based on "common sense" -- a classically vague criterion for a constitutionally protected activity. "What I'm listening to is unreal," says Siegel. "It has been like a bad dream, but it's not."

How far will Siegel's nightmare go? Insiders say the Times was not amused by Giuliani's recent comments about wanting to see all sex shops in the city closed. But given its support for the mayor's antiporn crusade (and that of other First Amendment champions like the Broadway theater community), who will stick up for adult businesses when developers try to push them out of even the zoned areas, especially along the Downtown waterfront, where erotic enterprises will inevitably collide with the changes produced by newly created parkland.

"The enemy of the sex shops has always been economic development," says Bill Stern, the UDC chairman who got the city's Board of Estimate to approve the 42nd Street Development Project back in 1982. "And I would argue that the force of postindustrial America is making it impossible in the middle of the city for there to be a business like a sex shop." Of course, Stern is quick to add that, as a Christian, he believes such enterprises "corrode the human person. But that's not why the Times is against them. The Times wants its property values to go up, and the city wants its revenues. It's an alliance between the bluenoses and the supercapitalists."

Not so different, perhaps, from the coalition that inspired Fiorello LaGuardia to banish burlesque to New Jersey, or the interests that prevented gay bars in the Village from opening east of Seventh Avenue. The only difference in this crackdown is its rationale. Instead of righteous moralisms, it comes accompanied by a rhetoric of civic salubrity and neighborhood stability that obscures an ominous fact: If a legal business can be driven to the brink of extinction in the name of development, what else can be shut down? What passions will be sacrificed, what sins will be policed?

Research: Simon Rodberg

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