NYC’s long war on storefront porn reaches new tipping point
NEW YORK | A dwindling number of peep shows, strip clubs and adult DVD stores have survived New York City’s two-decade legal war on smut, and now some of the survivors are worried a recent court decision could put them under for good.
In June New York’s Court of Appeals reinstated rules dating to 2001 barring any establishment with “live performances characterized by an emphasis on certain specified anatomical areas or specified sexual activities” as well as sexually explicit videos from all but carefully selected city zones.
It isn’t the first time a court has sided with the city, only to have the regulations tweaked or overturned by another court later.
But a lawyer who represents several X-rated shops said in an unsuccessful petition to the U.S. Supreme Court last month that if the city went ahead with long-delayed enforcement, it could put her clients out of business.
“New York has the tradition of being the freest and most tolerant city in the country, if not the world,” the lawyer, Erica Dubno, said. “And, unfortunately, freedom of expression is being restricted, and small businesses are in jeopardy.”
Several dozen of the adult establishments are still hinging their hopes on freedom-of-speech legal challenges, she said.
For now, there’s no urgency to clear out. The city is staying enforcement of the court decision pending a resolution of the legal loose ends.
In a statement, the New York City Law Department said it believed the city’s approach to regulating the businesses was “reasonable and lawful to protect our quality of life” and was intended to stem “the widespread circumvention of zoning regulations.”
New York’s well-known efforts to clean up its once-booming pornography industry began in the mid-1990s, with regulations barring adult businesses from operating near churches or schools and in most commercial and residential neighborhoods. The rules shuttered many of more than 170 such establishments around the city, with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani helping rout them out.
Times Square, where porn parlors and strip clubs thrived into the 1990s amid Broadway theaters, now bears little resemblance to its old self.
But a few adult establishments remained, some because they found ways to work around a rule defining a business as adult if it devoted 40 percent or more of its floor space to the sex business.
Some strip clubs divided themselves in two, with part of the building devoted to hosting private events. One opened a sushi restaurant on one of its floors. Adult DVD and bookstores stocked up on titles that had nothing to do with sex, and which often gathered dust. Others did less to diversify, offering coat checks, pool tables or condoms in their “nonadult” sections.
The city argued that many of these tweaks were a sham.
In 2001 the City Council altered zoning regulations to reduce the significance of the 60/40 test. Those changes, and others, were the subject of the court ruling in June.
Ms. Dubno said she has asked the state appeals court to reconsider its June decision.
New York City’s two-decade war on storefront pornography reached a head as the state’s highest court issued a ruling that would force the surviving businesses out.