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What's Wrong with Cities' Fight Against Sex Shops, Strip Clubs, and Sleaze?

We lead R-rated lives. So why are so many cities -- even New York -- declaring war on adult entertainment?

This story originally appeared on Salon.

Where once there were peep shows, now  there’s a W Hotel.

The last two remaining strip clubs in Boston’s notorious “Combat Zone” may soon host their  final lap dances, says Boston magazine. The neighborhood, once a  garish carnival of smut, has fully upscaled. The newest hot spot is a swanky bar at the W that actually boasts design touches paying homage to the street’s bygone sex dens.

We all know this story. America’s urban sleaze centers have zipped up and retreated into the night. The Combat Zone was flushed out, the Sunset Strip sanitized, Times Square Giuliani’d. But almost as soon as they were gone, nostalgia bloomed. When Times Square’s last seedy strip club closed two years ago, New York magazine  lamented that its streets had been “completely lost to Bubba Gumps and T.G.I. Fridays.” One poll showed  65 percent of New Yorkers preferred the Times Square of hookers and skin flicks. What could a neighborhood of peep shows, porno and prostitutes possibly offer a city?

The fact that we have the luxury of entertaining that question shows how orderly cities have become. “Now we’ve got great places where you can plug in your computer,” quips Josh Alan Friedman. As a journalist in the ’70s and ’80s, Friedman covered Times Square. “That type of lawless, sexual Wild West, a lot of people miss it. It was renegade, almost like a political statement.”

Governments don’t like renegade political statements. So, since sex-oriented businesses are protected as free speech, cities have increasingly turned to zoning and draconian regulations to disperse them — and sometimes to make operating them more trouble than it’s worth. “People say, ‘Hey, it’s adult entertainment, do anything you want to them. Regulate the hell out of them,” says Angelina Spencer, director of the Association of Club Executives, an adult-nightclub trade group. “But you have to think about the ramifications for that. We’re on a slippery slope.”

Spencer cites a new Missouri law that bans alcohol and strip clubs, sets closing time at midnight (prime time for adult entertainment) and makes it a crime for performers to come within 6 feet of a man. Last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that towns can restrict smut simply because it’s accessible close-by in New York. And last year, Louisville, Ky., banned nude dancing citywide, a move that could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Welcome to another dreary winter’s day in your newly nudity-free city,” moaned “This is not the America my dad grew up in,” declared the local blog  Louisville’s Strange Brew.

There’s something about the death of urban tawdriness that gives some people existential agita. It’s been happening ever since VCRs turned every living room into the Pussycat Theater, dragging sleaze off the streets with an assist from politicians and developers. It’s bubbled up through the resurgence of titty-tassled neo-burlesque shows, scattered attempts at  porn-theater preservation, a “Deep Throat” documentary, and  dewy-eyed paeans to the bad old days. The Times Square visitors center even  recently installed three genuine peep booths, complete with the refurbished neon “Peep-o-Rama” sign from the neighborhood’s last peep emporium, shuttered in 2002.

Of course, you won’t see nudes in those peep booths. Instead, you’ll feast your eyes on New York Times articles chronicling the neighborhood’s transformation. Like the bar at the W, it offers a stylized approximation of the scummy experience, without the weird smell. Or, from another perspective, makes “a mockery of what New York City is supposed to represent,” according to the  New York Observer.

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