The New 42nd Street, Near a Nude 8th Avenue

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008; Page A09

NEW YORK -- The stretch of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues is jammed shoulder to shoulder these days with office workers and tourists. Families catch a production of "Mary Poppins" at the refurbished New Amsterdam Theatre. European and Japanese visitors line up for Madame Tussauds wax museum. Teenagers cram into the multiplex movie theaters after stopping at Starbucks or a burger joint.

Former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani claims on the campaign trail that this was all his doing. When he took office in 1994, New York's best-known thoroughfare was synonymous with sin and sleaze. The attractions were peep shows, adult video parlors, triple-X bookstores, drugs and prostitution.

"In 1987, there were 35 pornographic theaters and shops on just one stretch of 42nd Street. When I left office, there were zero -- none," the Republican presidential candidate told the Family Research Council last year. "The pornographers lost, and they were chased out of Times Square."

A closer examination, however, shows the reality to be far more complex, and the claim at best an overstatement.

The cleanup of 42nd Street was in the planning for more than a decade, launched under a previous mayor, Democrat Edward I. Koch, and a former governor, Democrat Mario Cuomo, who used the state's power of eminent domain to buy out the block. The deal that got Walt Disney Co. to refurbish the New Amsterdam Theatre and begin the gentrification of 42nd Street was negotiated in 1993, under Democrat David N. Dinkins, Giuliani's predecessor.

Then there's the issue of all those porno theaters, peep shows, strip clubs and adult bookstores.

"The question is, what happened to all the pornography?" Marc Eliot, author of the book "Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture and Politics at the Crossroads of the World," asked as he gave a reporter a walking tour of the storied street.

A block west of Times Square on 42nd Street is the Show World Center, advertising a large collection of pornographic videos and 25-cent booths for viewing such fare. Down the block is Lady's World, the DVD Depot and the DVD Palace, all offering the most graphic sex videos.

"All they were able to do is move it around the corner," Eliot said. "It's a real New York story. . . . They shove it off on the side. If anybody wants it, it's there. That's New York City, and it will always be New York City."

At Lace, a strip club where topless young women offer private lap dances for $20 per song, most of the dancers seemed oblivious to the notion that the former mayor claims to have to rid Times Square of adult entertainment.

"In one sense, it's good," said Mia, a 22-year-old dyed-blond dancer from Belarus, pausing between songs while gyrating topless on a customer's lap. "If there are fewer clubs, then there's more money for us."

Giuliani did attempt to rid the city of most of its pornography businesses by adopting strict new zoning rules, mandating, for example, that adult businesses could not be within 500 feet of each other, or near a church or school. The New York Civil Liberties Union and the owners of the adult establishments went to court to challenge Giuliani on the rezoning, on First Amendment grounds, but the city won the right to rezone.

But many of the adult video parlors and peep shows survived along Eighth Avenue, west of Times Square, by adapting to new rules that defined exactly what constitutes an "adult" business.

Under the city's definition, a business had to devote more than 60 percent of its floor space to pornographic materials to be considered an adult establishment. So most simply adjusted their stock. Along with the sex videos and harnesses and handcuffs, whips and other sex toys, they sell women's lingerie, and some mainstream DVDs in the front.

"At most, what he did was, he shuffled the board -- he moved most of the adult establishments to different neighborhoods," said Norman Siegel, the former director of the NYCLU, who battled with Giuliani on several First Amendment cases. "So him saying he cleaned it up -- not accurate."

Prostitution is still very much alive, too, although often in a different, more modern form. While there are fewer visible streetwalkers, the sex industry has boomed through the Internet, on sites such as Craigslist, and with the proliferation of escort services and massage parlors. The cellphone has largely replaced the pimp.

Ronald Moglia, a professor of human sexuality at New York University, added: "It's disappeared off the streets, which is a good thing. But I think it's in a more sophisticated form."

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