This article originally appeared in the July 5, 1977 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
It was January of 1975, one of those ten-degree winter mornings, it was 5 a.m., and an unlikely pair of Combat Zone habitués found themselves shivering in a van near the intersection of Boylston, Washington and Essex Streets. They were Deborah Beckerman — the hustling, self-styled Combat Zone “public-relations consultant”-and John Sloan, the Boston Redevelopment Authority planner charged with “upgrading” the seedy appearance of the area that two months earlier had been officially designated as Boston’s very own “Adult Entertainment District.”
And they had dragged themselves down there at that absurd hour to make sure the crew scheduled to take down the mammoth, and appropriately garish, “Boston House of Pizza” sign really showed up.
Well, the crew did finally show, about an hour-and-a-half late, and Sloan and Beckerman, as neophyte civic improvers, naively thought their little mission was accomplished. Hardly, however, had the work crew removed the big red “P” from the big red “PIZZA” on that tacky sign, when who should suddenly make the scene but Police Superintendent John Doyle who demanded to be told by whose authority the sign was being dismantled.
This gave the pizza shop’s proprietor, who had from the beginning been none to pleased with the prospect of losing his sign, the incentive to lodge a protest against said action; a BRA lawyer then summoned to settle the dispute and elected to side with the pizza-shop owner, against Sloan. “Leave it up,” the lawyer told the puzzled work crew. “Take the damn thing down,” rejoined Beckerman, even as she worried that she and Sloan might get arrested for larceny — that big red “P” was sitting rather conspicuously in the back of Sloan’s van.
The dispute was not resolved until Teddy Venios, the fellow who purportedly controls more Zone establishments than anyone else, showed up and assured all that, yes, he had authorized removal of the godawful sign as a contribution to the push to class up the area. The sign came down, and that “P” ended up on a wall in the office of Robert Kenney, then the BRA’s director — a trophy from a skirmish that at the time seemed a crucial victory in the agency’s innovative crusade to make downtown Boston safe for obscenity.
But the pizza-sign incident — in which not only two city agencies but a planner and a lawyer from the same agency found themselves at cross-purposes — proved illustrative of this whole confused, conflicting, and ultimately self-defeating urban planning venture. In addition, after all, to the street squabble, there’s the question of why the sign was to be dismantled in the wee hours of a bitterly cold morning in the first place. Because Teddy Venios made the arrangements, that’s why. And he knew some guys who would come, probably on their own time, to take the thing down. For nothing.
“The people down there are sort of different,” an older, probably grayer, and certainly wiser John Sloan told the Phoenix recently. “There’s something enjoyable for them, I think, about cutting corners or going one step beyond what the law allows.” This “one step beyond” principle applies, apparently, not only to the occasional extracurricular activities of strippers and B-girls, but also to such routine procedures as taking out building permits. “They couldn’t understand,” said Sloan, “why they needed permits to remodel or put up signs. They wanted to just do it.”