Down and Out in the Zone

G ROWING up in the Boston area, I always heard wild things about the Combat Zone. When I first learned

GROWING up in the Boston area, I always heard wild things about the Combat Zone. When I first learned of the term "combat zone" around age 5, I believed it to be a local version of West Beirut, with kaffeyedguerrillas running around throwing hand grenades and machine-gunning people.

When I heard whispers about the Zone's true reason for being, I pictured it as a huge, modernized Sodom and Gomorah, complete with legions of harlots and scores of sinners.

Later, I learned from Robert Parker's "Spenser" novels about the real, gritty Combat Zone filled with savvy, dangerous criminals and victimized prostitutes.

So, I guess the truth about the Combat Zone is that it's really a let down. It's small--only about three places. It's scummy--a bunch of drunks staggering around urinating. And it's not long for the earth--real estate developers are moving in and buying buildings right and left.

There are several reasons for going to the Combat Zone, and a million reasons not to. If you want to look at pornography, you're better off going to one of the newstands in the Square. If you want to watch a porn-flick, rent it from the nearest video store. If you're looking for easy sex, get it for free--it's really not that hard.

The only viable reason is a sense of curiosity about what it will be like.

Even the element of danger present in visiting the Zone is a disappointment. A few dangerous-looking types lurk in corners. Several drunks stagger out of bars and clumsily attempt to hurl punches at each other. Open-eyed pimps stand on the corner watching their prostitues.

Walking into a strip club, the adrenaline starts pumping through the body in anticipation of vicarious thrills. But then, once in, I looked up at the semi-nude dancer, and it was no big deal. She was just dancing--doing her job.

I must admit I got much more out of the couple of movies I've seen about strippers on cable, than the ones I actually saw in real life.

The best thing that can happen to the Combat Zone is development, especially if units of low and moderate-income housing can be put there. Boston needs housing much more than it needs seedy clubs.

Developers have said that the Combat Zone can bridge the geographic gap between downtown and Back Bay. The transformation of the Zone from the sleazy place it is today to a vibrant part of the Boston economy can only be a good thing for both the city and the state.

And someday, when the drug-addicted prostitutes have disappeared along with the junkies in the alley-ways, when the Combat Zone is as long-gone as old Scollay Square, I might even want to have an office there.