WHEN Andy Puopolo '77 was stabbed and killed after going to a strip joint back in 1976, the Combat Zone housed 39 adult entertainment places and covered several city blocks. Now only a shadow of what it once was, the Zone contains fewer than 11 adult entertainment stores and only three strip clubs, extending barely one block.
But one thing about the Zone hasn't changed--sleaze.
In Harry's Bar on the corner of Beach and Essex Streets, a group of bearded guys wearing flannel shirts sit around a circular bar listening to Motown from the Jukebox. One of them gets up, taps somebody on the shoulder and says, "Hey bud, you got a problem?"
A man urinates on Washington Street while discussing his daily schedule with himself.
Two Black men dressed in leather jackets stand outside Harry's Bar. A white man threw a ratty-looking carpet at the pair. "Don't throw that shit on me," one of the Black men retorts. Then, hand in hand, the pair walks down the street.
In the Combat Zone, the cliches are reality: a man sleeps crumpled in a doorway holding a bottle in a brown paper bag.
Around the corner at the Glass Slipper Lounge a plump, bleach-blond dancer clad in a g-string prances on the stage as half-a-dozen patrons look on. This is what they call "adult dancing." Maybe it would be erotic if she was 40 pounds lighter, 15 years younger and happy.
Although it is questionable if one could find John Locke there, the Liberty Book Shop located on Washington Street, exercises its first amendment rights, selling both "adult" books and videos as well as sexual paraphernelia. The well-lit store has the feel of a mom and pop video store. The difference is that instead of "Top Gun" and "Wall Street," this place has visual displays for films like "Hannah Does Her Sisters" and "Amber's Sex Asylum." One table is devoted to homosexual pornographic videos.
A sign that reads "Doc Johnson's marital aids, lingerie, dolls, swingers" hangs on the far wall of the store above a collection of neatly arranged obscure sexual paraphernelia. The strange machines and latex objects boggle the imagination.
Behind a counter containing even more of the Doc's equipment, two middle-aged balding men with beards compare the relative merits of delis in Boston and New York.
When asked what they know about the Zone, the men reply, "not much." "We're new to the area," one of the men says. "Why don't you look it up in the Globe?"
The hub of the diminutive adult entertainment area is the Naked I club, featuring dancing "Co-eds." Outside the club a man asks someone entering if he "wants some smoke."
"I already have cigarettes," says the would-be patron.
"No, weed man, weed," the dealer says.
"No, I don't do that stuff," the other guy says.
Inside, a topless brunette woman in a g-string moves to the sounds of Stevie Nicks, displaying her athletic body, and her buck-teeth when she smiles. Nicks's husky voice matches the dark, smoky, sleazy atmosphere of the club.
Despite tales of wild disregard for the law, the waitress says she can not serve those who do not show acceptable i.d. In the back of the club, another dancer, wearing fatigue patterned bikini briefs writhes to the music.
OUTSIDE the Naked I, two tall Black women wearing short skirts discuss the night's lottery number with a pair of Boston motorcycle cops. At first they squeal with glee, thinking they have won the legal number's game. Then they realize they have only hit the last three numbers. They walk away happy, but not elated.
One of the cops says the Zone is safe for students to visit.
"It's relatively safe as long as they keep their eyes and ears open," says the mustachioed police officer. "It's safe as long as they watch out for the vultures."
"The vultures are opportunists who wait for anything to happen to their advantage," the officer says. The vultures include pickpockets, drug dealers, and others who prey on the weak in the Combat Zone.
A group of men talk next to a black cadillac. One has a mustache and wears a gangster-style hat. Other stocky guys listen and grunt. Maybe they're vultures. Maybe they're something more.
The area seems to have a premium on peroxide blonde, ashen-faced women lurking in corners.
Prostitutes, the police officer says, mainly "work the back streets." Later on in the evening, however, "they're crawlin' all over the place."
A bleach-blonde woman wearing an army coat with epaulettes solicits a small Asian man who has walked up and down the street at least three times. "Call me any time after seven o'clock," she says, and then dashes away.
The motorcycle police officer, who has been patrolling the Zone for nine years, says the area's busiest time is the weekend, getting busier the later it gets. He says his job, which is as adventurous as any TV cop show, is "best job in the world--by choice."
The places that have been shut down outnumberthe open ones almost four to one. Places such asthe Intermissions Lounge and others standboarded-up, the victims of revoked licenses anddeclining demand.
Developers are rapidly buying up the buildingsthat house the strip clubs and peepshows andshutting them down, says Paul L. Rosenberg '73, apartner in the Kensington Investment Company,which plans to convert existing buildings intoapartments, shops and offices.
Rosenberg says the Zone's turnaround began 12years ago amid furor over Puopolo's murder. Atthat time, the city started a serious clean upeffort.
"The combat Zone was a dumb idea in the firstplace," Rosenberg says. "On the upside it was agood idea to concentrate all the pornography inone place," he says. "On the downside, it becomesa breeding ground for drugs, crime, andprostitution."
The Asian food stores and convenience storesthat have sprung up in recent years are attemptingto co-exist with the adult clubs. Shops like thePho-Hien-Vong, a Vietnamese grocery store, aretypical of the places that are changing the CombatZone's character. Now, a Store 24, servingSuper-Chugs and Ben and Jerry's ice cream, liesacross the street from the Naked I strip club.Above the Store 24, the China Trade Center is partof an attempt by the Asian community to reclaimthe Zone, observers say.
Rosenberg says the Zone is disappearing becauseof pressure from the Asian community anddevelopers. The food stores and office buildingsare rapidly driving the pornographic video stores,strip joints, and prostitution rings out of thecity and into the suburbs.
Part of the reason for this reclamation effortis that Zone's serves as "the natural bridgebetween downtown and backbay," Rosenberg says.Developing the real estate value of the land thestrip clubs lie on is far more profitable thankeeping the clubs open, Rosenberg says.