Part of the reason the push to “legitimize lower Washington Street has clearly gone awry, then, is the obsessive corner-cutting by Zone proprietors. But that, like the aforementioned police and BRA confusion, is only part of it. If, as most observers agree, Boston’s boldly experimental attempt to control X-rated entertainment has been an utter failure, there is, as they say, plenty of blame to go around.
Boston’s honky-tonk district, before 1960, was the infamous old Scollay Square, since torn down to make room for the infamous new Government Center. But as one BRA study points out, the widespread belief that most or all of Scollay Square merely moved a few blocks down the street, degrading everything in its path and becoming today’s Combat Zone, is a myth. The truth is that a very small number of Scollay Square establishments made such a direct move, and they did so mostly because the lower-Washington Street area (then a strip of clubs like the Golden Nugget and the Downtown Lounge featuring rock bands and squabbles between sailors) was already run-down-“characterized” as the study says, by “dilapidated structures, a high vacancy rate…and numerous public and private alleys which do not function well for either general traffic or servicing.” And the rents were low.
The Old Howard burlesque house, in other words, had become a dim, if fond, memory before changing sexual mores and thinner downtown audiences inspired what has become an ever-increasing patronage for the dirty bookstores and strip-tease clubs—and they gravitated to the Combat Zone because it was already a seedy, low-rent district, not the other way around.
The city managed, though often uncomfortable, to live with the situation for better than a decade — with the Golden nugget becoming the Normandy, the Downtown changing into the Two O’clock, and the old Tick Tock and the Gilded Cage making way for the Piccadilly and Intermission Lounges — before the BRA became concerned.
John Sloan was brought into the process after the zoning department had noticed that most of the city’s adult bookstores, clubs, and movie houses could already be found around lower Washington Street between Essex and Kneeland, in a small, irregularly shaped four-or five-block area bordering only one conspicuously residential district, Chinatown. The department had suggested-quite sensibly, it seemed-that containing them there through zoning would both prevent their spread throughout the city and, on paper, facilitate policing them.
Sloan’s job was to establish the zone’s specific boundaries, carry the scheme through passage by the Zoning Commission, and then work out a new, classier architectural plan for the area. (Significantly, civic organizations then offered support of the idea in direct proportion to their proximity to the Zone. The Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and Allston-Brighton Civic Associations, for example, were all for it. Just keep it out of our neighborhoods, they said.)
Clubowners’ response to Sloan’s initial approaches was one of skepticism. Once they realized, though, that here was a city representative actually out to help them, not harass them or shake them down, they warmed to him. But, he notes, it was necessary to meet with each of the owners individually, because they refused to form a Combat Zone businessmen’s association or even meet together informally. “It became clear,” Sloan says, “that there are several warring factions down there. For that reason, I reject suggestions that the Zone is run by the Mafia. If it were, there wouldn’t be so much in-fighting or street trouble and, frankly, the place would be a whole lot better organized.”