As Sleaze Lowers Property Values, Redevelopers Move In : Porno Areas’ Main Foe: Economics

United Press International

The “no cover, no minimum” sign in the window of the Naked i Cabaret refers not only to the price of admission but to the amount of clothing its dancers wear by the time their routines are finished.

The strippers prance, dance and twirl down an oak runway for men who sip on $3.50 beers.

This is the heart of Boston’s infamous Combat Zone, a four-square-block area where 24 pornography palaces share space with rooming houses, offices and small discount stores.

Job Done by Bankers

In smaller communities, morally outraged citizens fight to shut down or keep out dirty bookstores and triple-X cinemas. In cities like Boston, though, the job is being done by bankers. In small towns, religious zeal leads the crusade. In cities, it is sheer economics.

Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn is confident that economic redevelopment and strict law enforcement will doom the Combat Zone.

The situation is the same in other big cities like New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Washington, where sleaze and decay have driven down property values in inner city areas, making them ripe for huge contractors to buy up whole blocks, level them and then build high-rise office towers and expensive shopping malls.

Property values in the Combat Zone already have hit bottom and are now leaping back up as speculators enter the market. A block away is Lafayette Place, a glittering glass and chrome high-tech combination of Yuppie shopping mall and high-class hotel.

Prices Shooting Up

An office building in the Combat Zone was sold three years ago for $4 million and was resold just last year for $12 million.

Not everyone, however, appreciates the trend.

A block away from the Naked i, a stone’s throw from Lafayette Place, Louis DiPrete manages Continental Ltd., a men’s clothing store.

To the left of Continental is a theater touting “first-run adult films” with titles like “Talk Dirty To Me, Part III.” To the right is a shop offering 25-cent peep shows.

“They leave us alone, we leave them alone, we go about our business,” DiPrete said of his neighbors. Continental has been there since 1977. “It was the cheapest place we could find, rent-wise,” DiPrete said.

“Seeing is believing,” he said of the mayor’s plan to shut down the Combat Zone. “It will take a long time unless big people come in and just buy up the property.

Sky-High Rents Seen

“We know they’ll knock us right out. The rents will go sky-high when development comes. I don’t mind ‘em forcing out the smut, but why force out the small businessmen like us?”

The Combat Zone was sanctioned by the city in 1974 as a way of keeping adult entertainment out of other Boston neighborhoods. Since 1977, it has been squeezed year by year into a smaller and smaller area.

Over the years, the city licensing board has shut down four strip clubs and one theater. Rising rents and building sales have closed five more. A few weeks ago, a fire wiped out one peep show arcade and another strip club, reducing the adult entertainment total to 24 establishments.

“It’s such a tiny area. People think it’s a jungle. It isn’t,” said Michael, the manager of the Naked i. “It won’t take long for the economic forces to take it over.”

The story is much the same in other big cities.

Cleaning Up Times Square

New York’s Times Square is the focus of a redevelopment plan aimed at cleaning up the sleazy sex emporiums, prostitutes, panhandlers and derelicts on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues.

The old Times Square, the theatrical center of America, soon will give way to a $2-billion redevelopment project backed by the city and the state. Work is to begin next year on four massive office towers, a new hotel and a huge merchandise mart.

Pittsburgh’s adult bookstores, massage parlors, strip bars and peep shows have been on Liberty Avenue since the 1960s. Several have closed recently, giving way to new office buildings. One was shut after a bombing. Another closed when a federal judge promised its owner a reduced sentence if it went out of business.

The Pittsburgh Trust for Cultural Resources hopes to promote the opening of boutiques, art stores and specialty shops along the avenue. “In 5 to 10 years, Liberty Avenue will be a rather popular, attractive avenue. You will see a dramatic change,” building owner Irwin Izenson said.

10 Topless Clubs

In San Francisco, the number of sex-film theaters has dropped from about 100 to 25. When the topless craze hit the city’s North Beach area in the late 1960s, there were 40 clubs. That’s now down to 10.

“It’s the landlords, not the police, mayor or politicians, who are running the pornography stores out of business,” said Davey Rosenberg, one-time publicist for Carol Doda’s Condor Club and other topless-bottomless clubs during their heyday. “Even if you only have a small amount of porn in your inventory, they jack the rent up so high you can’t afford it.”

In Washington, prostitutes still stroll 14th Street and movie houses advertise adult movies, but the squeeze is on by businessmen wanting to build high-rise office structures. Lawyer Arthur Schultz, head of a civic action committee known as the Franklin Square Assn., said that property values have almost doubled in the last year and major companies and restaurants have expressed interest in the area.

But, in a city where politics is a way of life, Dennis Sobin, co-owner of two 14th Street businesses--a modeling studio and an escort service--is fighting to return the district to its tenderloin prime. His two businesses are owned by political action committees that want vice laws relaxed.

Study of Combat Zone

In Boston, there are mixed feelings about the survival of the Combat Zone, which a 1980 Ford Foundation study cited for its “finely grained diversity.” The study called it “one of the few parts of the city which is open to all” at a time when Yuppie enclaves are springing up all over.

Regina Quinlan, a lawyer who represents several bookstores, said she believes that, if adult entertainment is crowded out of the Combat Zone, “you will more than likely find businesses moving into other areas and challenging the present zoning system.”

“I think a certain amount of it will stay, by paying the higher rents, and others will attempt to relocate,” Quinlan said. “I don’t envision a city free of it.”

Lucy Johnson, 25, who strips at the Naked i under the name “Princess Cheyenne,” is confident that the best of the Combat Zone’s adult entertainment businesses will survive upscale redevelopment--and will be better off for it.

“If the Combat Zone is cleaned up and it’s safer, then it’s better for us,” she said. “That will improve the clientele here.”