Combat Zone, Boston
The name "Combat Zone" was popularized through a series of exposé articles written by Jean Cole on the area published in the 1960s in the Boston Record-American newspaper. The name had a double meaning in that it was an area known for crime and violence, but also in that many soldiers and sailors on shore leave from the Boston Navy Yard would frequent the many strip clubs and brothels in uniform giving the streets an appearance of a war zone.
The Combat Zone began to form in the early 1960s, when city officials razed the West End and former red light district at Scollay Square, near Faneuil Hall, to build the Government Center urban renewal project. Displaced Scollay Square denizens relocated to the area because it was only half a mile away, the rents were low, and the residents of nearby Chinatown lacked the political power to keep them out.
Lower Washington Street was already part of Boston's entertainment district with a number of movie theaters, bars, delicatessens and restaurants that catered to night life. It was located between the classic, studio-built movie palaces such as the RKO-Keith and Paramount theaters and the stage theaters such as the Colonial on Boylston Street. With the closing of the burlesque theaters in Scollay Square many of the bars began to feature go-go dancers and later nude dancers. During the 1970s, when laws against obscenity were relaxed, many of the smaller movie theaters then running second-run films switched to showing adult movies.
Peak years: Mid-1960s – Late 1970s
During the Combat Zone's heyday, some of the larger strip clubs were the "Teddy Bare Lounge", the "Two O'Clock Club", "Club 66" and the "Naked i". (The Naked i was known for its iconic animated neon sign which superimposed an eye over a woman's crotch.) Besides the strip clubs and X-rated movie theaters, numerous peep shows and adult bookstores lined most of Washington Street between Boylston Street and Kneeland Street. In 1976, the Wall Street Journal called the area "a sexual Disneyland."
The prevailing attitude towards homosexuality at the time was one of intolerance. The Combat Zone's more open atmosphere attracted many LGBT people, some of whom moved to the neighboring South End to be near it. Part of lower Washington Street became known as the "Gay Times Square." Popular gathering spots included the Playland Café on Essex Street, "known for its sketchy clientele, banged-up piano, and year-round Christmas lights" and popular among drag queens; the Stuart Theater on Washington Street; and many others. Nearby Park Square and Bay Village were home to several gay and drag bars, such as the Punch Bowl and Jacques' Cabaret.
The Combat Zone's detractors often grouped homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, strippers, purveyors of adult books and films, and drug dealers together under an umbrella of perceived immorality. Jeremiah Murphy wrote in a 1973 Boston Globe article about the Combat Zone, "Now it is almost 3 a.m. and the gay bars have closed and the fags and hookers and pimps and pushers roam the streets." In a 1974 Boston Herald article, representatives of the Sack Theater Chain called the Combat Zone "Satan's playground" and "a malignancy comprised of pimps, prostitutes, erotica, and merchants of immorality" whose growth had to be removed. As late as 1984 the Globe was referring to certain theaters in the Zone as "notorious gathering spots for homosexuals."
The Combat Zone was also racially diverse at a time when other Boston neighborhoods were relatively segregated. In his memoir, Jonathan Tudan recalls the tension in his Tremont Street building over news of an impending police raid in 1969. Along with the drug dealers and prostitutes, he writes, "mixed-race couples shacking up have begun to nervously doubt their freedom."
LaGrange Street, a small one-way street which runs between Washington and Tremont Streets, was the principal gathering spot for street prostitutes. Most congregated in front of or near "Good Time Charlie's" at 25 LaGrange Street. All of these establishments are now gone and the buildings are being demolished. The Pilgrim Theater, one of the last old time burlesque houses, was the site of a political scandal when in December 1974 the then Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Wilbur Mills, seemingly inebriated, appeared on stage with stripper Fanne Foxe, "The Argentine Firecracker". The Pilgrim then ceased to feature live shows, instead focusing on X-rated movies, and became a cruising site for men to have sex with men.
State Representative Barney Frank made a name for himself in the mid-1970s as a political defender of the Combat Zone. Frank's district contained neighborhoods bordering the Zone. Frank took a libertarian view on vice, bucking the consensus that the area needed to be cleaned out. At the same time he wanted to prevent the Zone's adult businesses from spreading into the affluent Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods where they might disturb his constituents. In 1975, Frank introduced a bill that would have legalized the sex-for-hire business but kept it quarantined in a red light district, which would be moved to Boston's Financial District. The Financial District was not populated at night, unlike the areas abutting the Combat Zone.
Frank's was not the sole voice recommending that the Hub maintain the Combat Zone. Many in the hospitality industry believed a red light district was essential to attracting conventions to Boston; George W. Romney, father of future Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, was one such proponent. Boston Mayor Kevin White was in favor of allowing adult businesses to operate within defined boundaries, as was conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. In 1975 White made headlines when he made an unannounced tour of the Combat Zone, visiting several establishments where he went largely unrecognized. When approached by a prostitute on LaGrange Street, White replied, "Thank you, I'm too old."
In 1974, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the state's obscenity laws unconstitutional, city officials feared that Boston was about to become a "mecca of pornography." The Boston Redevelopment Authority tried to contain the spread of adult businesses by designating the Combat Zone as the official adult entertainment district. This district was exempted from the usual ban on flashing neon signs. At the same time, the BRA made ambitious plans to improve the area's aesthetics. That year, funding was approved for Liberty Tree Park, a small park near the site of the historic Liberty Tree, as "the first step in improving the Combat Zone."
The Combat Zone's demise can be attributed to a number of factors. Among them are the rising property values that made the downtown locations more attractive to real estate developers, and the closure of the Boston Navy Yard.
Another factor was the city's own ambivalence towards the area. Despite the BRA's plans to improve the Combat Zone, the area suffered from municipal neglect. Throughout the mid-1970s, the city neglected the Zone's streetlights, policing, and garbage pickup, fostering an atmosphere of urban blight and criminality. Liquor license violations were ignored. Street prostitutes became bolder, often picking pockets and robbing passersby. Other types of crime such as drug trafficking and illegal gun sales proliferated, and violent crime increased. In 1976, just before leaving office, Police Commissioner Robert DiGrazia released a 572-page Special Investigations Unit report to the press documenting widespread police corruption, neglect, and brutality in the Zone, and alleging police involvement with the Angiulo crime family. Just two weeks later, the highly publicized murder of Harvard football player Andrew Puopolo focused attention on crime in the area.
Later, the introduction of home video and the Internet made it possible to view adult movies and other erotica at home without going to a red light district. Zoned out of the rest of Boston, the strip clubs have moved to the suburbs and become more upscale.
Years of grassroots activism by neighboring Chinatown residents, aggressive police work and massive urban renewal projects instigated by the Boston Redevelopment Authority have helped to stem crime and close most of the adult businesses. All that remains of the former Combat Zone are two small strip clubs, Centerfolds and The Glass Slipper, along LaGrange Street, and a few adult book and video stores on Washington and Kneeland streets. Prostitution and drug sales continue in nearby Chinatown, the Theatre District, Bay Village and Park Square.
A new Emerson College dormitory (and eventual relocation of the entire campus), Suffolk University administrative offices, a relocated branch of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, a new $300 million development which includes a Ritz-Carlton Hotel and a Loews cinema, and a renovated Boston Opera House all opened in the area in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2006 a luxury apartment tower, the Archstone Boston Common, was erected at the corner of Washington and Beach streets. The historic Hayden Building on Washington Street, once home to an adult movie theater and a gay bathhouse, was renovated in 2013 and now houses luxury apartments and retail space.
Chesty Morgan, an exotic dancer known for her 73-inch bust, regularly performed at the Pilgrim Theater. In August 1974, the theater's owner claimed, "She was like a god out of the heavens for us. She saved the theater and I hope she can do it again."
Jazz musicians Sabby Lewis, Dick Wetmore, and Bullmoose Jackson played regularly at the Gilded Cage on Boylston Street in the 1960s. The Gilded Cage was destroyed in 1966 when a leaking gas main exploded in the nearby Paramount Hotel, causing a five-alarm fire that killed 11 people.
Roger Pace & the Pacemakers, an R&B/Soul group, regularly performed at the Intermission Lounge on Washington Street in the late 1960s. Nicknamed "Mr. Blue-Eyed Soul," Pace was famous for his high-energy performances.
Before the demolition of Scollay Square, there was already at least one strip bar in what would later become known as the Combat Zone: Izzy Ort's Bar & Grille at 25 Essex Street. Many notable jazz musicians played there in the 1940s and early 1950s, including Quincy Jones, Ruby Braff, Sam Rivers, Herb Pomeroy, and others. Entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. sang and danced there when he lived in Boston.
The Silver Dollar Bar, which later became the Two O'Clock, was Frank O'Hara's favorite bar when he studied at Harvard. Like Izzy Ort's, it was a live music venue as well as a popular hangout for sailors. Among others, George Wein, Nat Pierce, Ray Perry, and Fat Man Robinson played there.
In art and popular culture
In 2010 the Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston (now the Miller Yezerski Gallery) hosted an exhibit titled "Boston Combat Zone: 1969-1978," featuring black-and-white photographs by Roswell Angier, Jerry Berndt, and John Goodman.
The professional wrestling Tag Team, the Eliminators (Perry Saturn and John Kronus), were at one time billed as hailing from the Combat Zone, Boston; as it happens, they were both once employed at one of the Combat Zone nightclubs, as a manager and bouncer respectively.
A 1983 episode of the Boston-set television series Cheers ("Showdown, Part 1") includes a moment when Ernie Pantusso invites Sam Malone to the Combat Zone, to see "a girlie show." In a subsequent episode ("How Do I Love Thee?... Let Me Call You Back" (8 Dec. 1983)"), the gang returns to the bar after a night at the Combat Zone led by Carla.
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The Italians of the North End, the Brahmins of Beacon Hill, the blacks of Mission Hill, the super-rich of Chestnut Hill, the blue-collar workers of East Cambridge, and the Irish of South Boston all live in enclaves of clannishness.Note that the article touts the Combat Zone as one of the city's modern tourist attractions.
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The mayor's recent tour of the strip joints in the Combat Zone and Park Square and his generous comments about these establishments left no doubt that he supports Boston Redevelopment Authority plans to glorify the area.
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The Boston experiment should be indulged.
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By the early 1970s, Boston was no longer a port of call for the military.
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- "Photos: Boston's Combat Zone, Burlesque (NSFW)", The Phoenix, February 19, 2010.
- "Lower Washington street area: a program for revitalization". OpenLibrary.org. Boston Redevelopment Authority. 1978.
- Taylor, Robert (August 3, 1969). "The politics of pornography in Boston". The Boston Globe.
- Stradley, Don L. (September 25, 2010). "Was There A Combat Zone Strangler?". Etcetera.
- Stradley, Don L. (June 29, 2014). "A Few Tales from the Pilgrim". Etcetera.
- Commonwealth vs. George C. Horton, 1974.