The Boston Combat Zone
By Abigail Dickson
A Sexual Disneyland
Strolling along LaGrange Street today, you would never suspect that once upon a time it was the central hub of the notorious “Combat Zone,” Boston’s adult entertainment district. The area of Boston surrounding Washington and LaGrange Streets and bordering Chinatown and the Emerson College campus was saturated with peep shows, strip clubs, adult bookstores, and prostitution. Emerson students may be blissfully ignorant of the fact that not long ago their campus was just a stone’s throw away from the district that was dubbed “a sexual Disneyland” by the Wall Street Journal in 1976.
PHOTO BY JERRY BERNDT
From Scollay to Washington
The seedy history of the Combat Zone began in Scollay Square, known today as Government Center. In the early 1960s, Scollay Square was home to Boston’s adult entertainment businesses including burlesque houses and honky-tonk bars. When Scollay Square was torn down to build Government Center, many of these businesses went under, much to the delight of Bostonians who were keen on destroying the city’s sex trade. However, a few of the businesses survived and relocated to Washington Street, and around 1964 it was dubbed “the Combat Zone.”
PHOTO BY JOHN GOODMAN
Life in the Zone
By the 1970s, the Combat Zone was expanding and thriving. Daily life in the Zone is well documented in Jonathan Tudan’s book Lovers, Muggers, and Thieves: A Boston Memoir, in which Tudan recounts his life as a young college student living in the Zone.
Another “peep” into life in the Zone comes from photographer John Goodman, who lived in the Zone during the 1970s. His series of photos Boston Combat Zone focuses mainly on the various inhabitants of the Zone, particularly the prostitutes: “Some of the girls lived below me. We were on the elevator together all the time. One girl was with me one day, and I asked if I could shoot some pictures of her. One second later, she was totally naked in the elevator.’’ Below is a photo from Goodman’s collection.
PHOTO BY JOHN GOODMAN
Combat Zone Out of Our Home!
Some Bostonians were not so happy about the expansion of the Zone. Residents of nearby Chinatown complained that the Zone prostitutes were doing business in their neighborhood. They took to the streets to protest.
PHOTO BY CHINESE PROGRESSIVE ASSOCIATION
In an attempt to curb the spread of the sex trade, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) officially sanctioned the Combat Zone as an “adult entertainment district” in 1974. The zoning codes permitted the adult businesses to operate along lower Washington Street, but nowhere else in the city.
Lovers AND Muggers AND Thieves
Although the efforts of the BRA effectively contained the Zone, they did not put a stop to the burgeoning levels of crime within it. Competition between prostitutes stiffened, and many resorted to robbing their johns to make enough money, using the “fondle and pickpocket” method to steal wallets. With murder and felony rates on the rise, an already seedy neighborhood became even more dangerous, and the Zone’s notoriety started to go national. The Boston Globe declared the Zone “an attractive and lucrative tenderloin district for prostitutes and their consorts,” and the Washington Post touted the headline “Boston Apparently Has Lost War With Sex in ‘Combat Zone.’”
“The Schlitz Boys” PHOTO BY JOHN GOODMAN
Boston Declares War on Combat Zone
All this came to a head in 1976, when in the wake of outcries of police incompetence, Harvard student Andrew Puopolo was fatally stabbed after spending the night in a topless bar in the Zone.
Following this incident, there was major police crackdown, including revoking liquor licenses and raiding bars. It took time, but this strategy was a big factor in the dissolution of the Zone. The New York Times reported in 1989 that “A heavy police presence and strict scrutiny of the practices of theaters and clubs have allowed city officials to chisel away at the Combat Zone through law enforcement.” Slowly, the adult businesses began shutting down and the prostitutes began moving out. Rents went up in the Zone, pushing more pornography peddlers out. In 1993, then Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn announced a revitalization plan that the BLA said would “put the last nail in the coffin of the Combat Zone,” and it did. Well, almost.
PHOTO BY JERRY BERNDT
The Zone Today
Today, few traces of the Combat Zone remain among the high-rise developments on LaGrange Street and Washington Street. Nearly all the Zone’s staple businesses have faded away and transformed into more g-rated establishments. What was then a topless bar called the Naked i…
PHOTO BY ROSWELL ANGIER
Is now home to the classy Archstone Apartments.
PHOTO FROM PARKWHIZ
What was then a strip joint called Intermission Lounge…
PHOTO FROM THE BOSTON GLOBE
Is now home to a Malaysian restaraunt, Penang.
PHOTO FROM TRIPADVISOR
The Glass Slipper and Centerfolds, two lonely strip joints on LaGrange Street, are all that’s left of the rows and rows of adult entertainment that existed in the heyday of the Combat Zone.
PHOTO FROM HIVEMINER