The "major American city" referred to in the subtitle of this book is Washington and its "Porn Row" is that corridor along 14th Street NW known as the Strip, which has for years been the District of Columbia's equivalent of Boston's Combat Zone and Baltimore's Block. What goes unmentioned in "Porn Row" is that the Strip is rapidly disappearing, as demolition proceeds apace and new office buildings and shops are constructed. Apparently Jack McIver Weatherford did not take the trouble to discover that he was writing not journalism or (as he claims) anthropology, but history: Dirty books and pictures may be forever with us, but "Porn Row" is going, going, gone.
This does not mean that what Weatherford learned about the Strip, its denizens and its economy is of no interest here or elsewhere. It just means that in this as in a couple of other important respects, "Porn Row" simply does not deliver as much as its subtitle promises or as the reader reasonably expects. Not merely does Weatherford fail to take into account the impending elimination of the subject about which he writes, he also limits his investigation almost entirely to personal experience and smothers his narrative with lengthy anthropological digressions that may give the book a patina of academic respectability but are tedious and essentially irrelevant.
Weatherford, an assistant professor of anthropology at Macalester College in Minnesota, immersed himself in the life of the Strip because "to understand a people, one must literally walk in their shoes, eat their food, share their daily routine, laugh at their jokes, and come as close as possible to being one of them." He got himself hired as clerk at a store he calls the Pink Pussy, which "stood amid a clutch of abandoned storefronts and apartment buildings around the corner, on a small spur off the Strip," and worked there until he began to fear for his safety.
That he did is not surprising, for the business of pornography is a rough one. The Pink Pussy is owned by an outfit called "the Company," which also is alleged to own about half the other businesses on the Strip and which bears a considerable resemblance to the mob. Weatherford was working in dangerous territory. Most of the time, though, the Strip as he depicts it is merely a seedy, uneventful place that follows its own daily routines, as familiar to those who inhabit and patronize it as are the routines of everyday society to ordinary people.
But the routines of the Strip are distinctly weird. The men who patronize places like the Pink Pussy do so for the sole purpose of quick, impersonal sexual gratification; they duck into the peep-show booths and, while watching films of naked women, relieve themselves either by masturbation or by the services of (male or female) prostitutes. These men aren't bums, but respectable citizens; they're educated, often married, usually employed -- often in the nearby federal bureaucracy. Why they need the services of "the peeps," as the films are called, is a mystery; but their patronage bears out Weatherford's claim that "the only reason for the existence of the Strip was to serve the sexual desires of the greater society."
Unfortunately, Weatherford seems to have made no particular effort to talk to these men, so we learn little (beyond what he cites from the research of another writer, Laud Humphreys) about what draws them to the Strip. His role as a researcher seems to have been almost entirely passive; he talked to people in his capacity as clerk and tried to draw them out as best he could, but once his tenure at the Pink Pussy ended he seems not to have taken on the mantle of journalist and done the interviewing that could have given "Porn Row" greater depth and verisimilitude.
The people Weatherford describes are often interesting -- a kooky prostitute, a man who despises homosexuals yet eagerly does homosexual favors for other men -- but they barely scratch the surface of the Strip. The book contains almost nothing, for example, about the police, whose role in the life of the Strip obviously is essential and whose attitudes toward the job surely must be interesting. We're told too little about how the Strip's regulars found their way to that life and too much about the sexual activities of primitive societies that provide Weatherford's anthropological data. Yes, anthropology does have its place, and cross-cultural comparisons can be revealing; but "Porn Row" tries to be a cross between anthropology and journalism and ends up being neither.