NY declares war on Times Square sleaze

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The Independent Online
An unlikely coalition of sex-shop owners and civil libertarians is about to take on New York City in a bid to block plans to sell out the peep- show soul of Times Square to Madame Tussaud's and Mickey Mouse.

The cleansing of Times Square of its historical association with commercial sex is behind draconian new zoning laws just passed by the city that would have such a severe impact on "adult" businesses that only an estimated 19 of the 107 porn shops and theatres operating in Manhattan would survive.

At the same time, New York's conservative mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has successfully lured developers to brave the X-rated nexus of West 42nd Street and 8th Avenue and transform it into a hub of family-friendly entertainment, including the owners of Madame Tussaud's and, above all, the Disney Corporation.

The plan's opponents assert, however, that it is tantamount to censorship in violation of the free expression rights of the American Constitution and would wipe out part of the essence of New York's tapestry. They intend to file two lawsuits against the city next month.

"These people, they're demented," complains Bill Dobbs, a lawyer and a prominent gay activist. "New York is really a series of districts and I would say that if you can have a flower district, a diamond district and district of thieves on Wall Street, why not a district for adult uses? If you have read anything about American sailors you know that when their ships come in to New York they visit Times Square and they don't just want to look at the zipper signs, hopefully they unzip their zippers too."

Under the zoning laws, porn businesses will not be allowed to operate within 500 feet of schools, day-care centres, houses of worship or even each other. Unless they change what they sell, most will be forced either to relocate in industrial areas in Manhattan or the outer boroughs or to close down.

"Nothing I sell is obscene," contends one sex-shop owner who asked to remain anonymous. "But of course if I change my stock and sell violent murder and horror movies I'll be perfectly OK. That's ridiculous".

Joe Rose, the chairman of New York's planning commission, dismisses the defenders of the porn industry. "There are people who think it contributes to the city's character, that it's an asset. We don't believe that to be case," he said, pointing out that the sanitising of Times Square was a prerequisite for Disney agreeing to invest in the area.

At the heart of the impending legal battle, aside from the issue of constitutionality, will be the city's contention that the presence of sex establishments leads to increased levels of crime and depressed property prices.

However, studies by both the city and the Times Square Business Improvement District have proved inconclusive. Crime in the neighbourhood has fallen 42.7 per cent in two years and property values have soared 65 per cent in a decade.

"We expect that we will prevail once we get into court," predicted Herald Price Fahringer, a high-price New York lawyer who will represent the Coalition for Free Expression, which brings together all the sex-shop owners. "I think it's embarrassing for this city to have this kind of blatant censorship of what people can read and hear. But we are in a very conservative era in this country and this sort of thing, unfortunately, is typical."

Also filing suit next month will be the New York Civil Liberties Union. "A chill is settling over New York City, which has a long history as a symbol of a robust commitment to free expression but where now we see creeping censorship," said its director, Norman Siegel. "We recognise that there are a lot of people who find this offensive expression, but the courts recognise that this is none the less expression that has a right to be protected."

The porn emporia of Times Square, as well as the concentration of gay sex merchants in Manhattan's West Village, arguably also offer a legitimate, even important, service.

"A lot of my customers come for sex education and sex therapy," the porn-shop owner contended. "And while their wives go shopping at Lord & Taylor up the road, husbands can come here and window-shop or masturbate rather than going out and getting into high-risk sex.''

The battle to save the smutty and slightly dangerous heart of Times Square is already partly lost, however. The street sign at 42nd St now reads "New 42nd St" and a large banner hangs on the old Amsterdam Theatre announcing the arrival of Disney as its new owner. The blue cinemas are mostly chained up now, and only as you reach 8th Avenue do you rediscover the vulgar flashing signs of the last survivors of the porno era, like Nimble Video ("Bi, Amateur and She-Male) and the Golden Nugget.

"Look at all the different faces on people walking down 8th Avenue today," sighs Mr Dobbs. "And they want to turn them into Disney creatures, all shined up and Middle American. But this is New York."