The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 27 November 2018

Inside the Combat Zone

The Stripped Down Story of Boston's Most Notorious Neighborhood

by Stephanie Schorow

When we were kids, it was a place whose name suggested violence, terror and fear. It was a place we knew we weren't supposed to go. If the adults in the room talked about it, it was in hushed tones in our presence, but it was still a good place to get a great slice of pizza. The Combat Zone, Boston's now legendary red-light district, was an area a few blocks square, where notoriously prudish Bostonians had confined all their salacious public behavior. The strip clubs, the adult movie theaters, the dirty book stores, all eventually protected by the first amendment, were zoned to be allowed only in this "Adult Entertainment District". Along with them, of course, followed some of our favorite illegal activities, most notably prostitution. The Zone is no more, however, having fallen victim first to cheaply available home videos, then to the vast availability of porn on the internet, and finally to the profound gentrification currently rampant in American cities. In this short vibrant book, we are taken back to the origins of the Combat Zone and the paradoxical relationship between its provocative offerings and Boston's staid puritanical heritage.

All cities have some neighborhood that sports the clubs and theaters given over to the adult entertainment industry. In the past decade or two, such places have changed drastically due to modern development patterns and the changing ways people access their shadowy fantasies. Indeed, the internet seems to have normalized some behaviors that would have seemed beyond the pale even in the Combat Zone, and has increased access to illegal activities once kept in only the darkest corners of our society. In Boston, a century and a half ago, it started in storied Scollay Square (though surely such entertainments go further back in other parts of that city). The square was home to burlesque theaters and other entertainments and was popular after World War 2 among soldiers and sailors. Scollay Square fell to the wrecking ball in what is one of the still most discussed acts of large urban redevelopment, resulting in Boston's brutalist city hall and the vast plaza that surrounds it. The burlesque industry moved to a neighborhood of old nickelodeon movie houses and defunct vaudeville theaters south and west of old Scollay Square. As tastes grew more explicit, the old song and dance became strippers and x-rated movies.

Forced to acknowledge human frailties and desires, Boston sought to confine these activities as much as possible, reasoning that wiping out the Combat Zone would only move the activity elsewhere. The zoned entertainment district was controversial and business and residential districts nearby bristled at having to live next door to the red-light district, most importantly, Boston's small but thriving Chinatown. It was a drawn-out balancing act for city officials and the industry. It held for a few decades, but growing crime, corruption, organized crime and prostitution finally eroded the tolerance of city hall. But, it was the change in the business landscape that eventually resulted in the downfall of the Combat Zone. It is now an urbane neighborhood of familiar chains and highrise residential buildings. One or two adult clubs still exist, but they're nothing like the vibrant and sordid neighborhood that once thrived there.

The author of this book was once a reporter for the Boston Herald. The prose is newsy and clipped. She presents both the urban history and context of the Zone, as well as some of the personal stories. We read of the lives of some of the strippers who survived life in the Zone. We read also of a couple of the victims of its crime, most notably the Harvard football player whose death in 1976 forshadowed the coming end of the Combat Zone. We meet some of the city officials and urban planners who dealt with the reality of the Zone within the context of a liberalized notion of obscenity and a community famous for its restrained puritanism. Ultimately, nobody actually did anything to finally wipe out the Combat Zone. Many look back upon it with a shade of nostalgia, but perhaps most are relieved the neighborhood has come up in the world. Yet, back in the darkest recesses of the internet, the purient drive that created the Combat Zone still thrives and in some ways grows ever darker.

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See also: [Erotic City by Josh Sides] [Insuring the City by Elihu Rubin]

[Other books about Urban Studies and Architecture]

[Other History and Biography]

[Other books by Women Authors]