Sunday, February 09, 2020

Stephanie Schorow Brings Her Naked Eye to Boston's Infamous Combat Zone.

Stephanie Schorow Brings Her Naked Eye to Boston's Infamous Combat Zone.

Interview by Doug Holder

Inside the Combat Zone: The Stripped Down Story of Boston’s Most Notorious Neighborhood

"Upscale restaurants, majestic theaters, and luxury condos line the streets of downtown Boston today. Students, office workers, doctors, and shoppers navigate the busy sidewalks along Washington and Boylston Streets, giving little thought to the historical significance of their surroundings. The bustle distracts passersby from what may be the city’s dirtiest little secret: these blocks were once home to Boston’s most notorious neighborhood. The Combat Zone, a five-plus-acre, city- sanctioned adult entertainment district, was as sordid and alluring as anything found in Amsterdam or Vegas. Indeed, Boston’s now tony neighborhood once resembled the set of HBO’s The Deuce, all with the blessing of city officials."   (From the authors website)

I had the pleasure of interviewing journalist Stephanie Schorow on my Somerville Media Center TV show  Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: When I was at Boston University in the 1970s, I visited the Combat Zone to get a taste of  “real life.” I remember I walked into a bar, and a lady of the night looked at me and told the bartender: “Get this kid a glass of milk.”

Stephanie S: (Laughs). Yes a lot of young men went there. Someone once told me that they went there so they would have a story to tell for a lifetime.

DH: Why did you decide to choose the Combat Zone as the subject of your book?

SS: Well I have written extensively about Boston. I have written books on Boston's drinking history, the Brinks Robbery, etc... My subjects are usually offbeat. An editor said to me ,when I was looking for a new subject, “ What about the Combat Zone?” I knew immediately that was it---a real Boston story!

DH: Ironically the Combat Zone was set up to stop the spread of pornography.

SS: Yes it is ironic. In the 1960s the sort of red light district was Scollay Square—around where Government Center is today. It was a warren of little streets. It was a seedy area, and had a lot of burlesque houses, sailor bars, and tattoo parlors. At the time it was considered very risque. But it was nothing like the Combat Zone. A lot of folks went to the old Howard—a popular burlesque hall—that was more popular than the Bunker Hill Monument and the Fanueil Hall landmark, for instance. The centerpieces of the Combat Zone were the old Pilgrim Theater, and the Naked i. There were many other clubs-- there were at least 34 adult entertainment businesses in the area from bookstores to strip clubs—a lot of “adult options.” City planners, city elders, like Barney Frank, wondered “ What are we going to do about this?” We are trying to create the new Boston. We can't just close establishments down—there are Supreme Court precedents to consider.” So they started a zone—with the hope that all the adult businesses would stay there—and not travel anywhere else. Basically they said, “”If you have it here—you can't have it there.”

DH: Where there isolated pockets that developed outside the Combat Zone?

SS: Some cropped up near Kenmore Square, and Allston, but there was no concentration like the Combat Zone.

DH: A lot of musicians cut their teeth in the Combat Zone, right?

SS: I interviewed a couple of musicians from Berkeley. They wanted to go nameless. They talked about getting gigs at the strip clubs.  Comedian Jay Leno got his start playing the strip clubs... this is true of many comedians. From the early 1960s to the early 1970s many clubs had live bands. Later taped music, etc... took the bands' place.

DH: There was a quote in your book that said the average guy who went to the Combat Zone was a middle-aged, accountant from Newton--a family-man sort of guy.

SS: Well the business conventioneers were big business for the Combat Zone. Often while these men's wives were shopping they would ask a bellboy or such, “ Where is the action?”

DH: Were there mixed uses in the area?

SS: Yes there were some—like the famed Hand the Hatter hat shop and the Essex Deli.
The deli was housed in the Liberty Tree building.

DH: You wrote about some of the strippers, like Chesty Morgan, and Julie Jordan.

SS: Julie Jordan is very memorable. She went to one of my book events. She is a very sweet and articulate woman. Back in the day Jordan was a hippy sort. On a lark, she danced at one of the clubs—and then got hooked on it. She became know for her native-American costume, and was dubbed Princess Cheyenne. She was a real attraction for men back then.

DH: So,  was the cliched answer from strippers when asked why they do what they do: “I am working my way through college” to some extent true?

SS: Yes. I have talked with a number who said that. And some of them are highly regarded professional people now. And surprisingly they said they didn't regret dancing, but they are glad they got out of it.

DH: How did the Combat Zone get it's name?

SS: It started in the 50s. There were a lot of sailors and soldiers who went to drink there, and eventually some got into brawls. The military police were in there all the time. In 1950 a judge opined, "This is really a Combat Zone." But it was really coined by a series of articles in the Boston Herald American in 1964, in which they used the word throughout. 

DH” What caused the demise of the area?

SS: In 1976, there was a killing of a Harvard student-a native of Boston's North End—outside a bar in the zone.   Its reputation started to really go downhill then. The Combat Zone went on for another decade—but after this it was clear its days were numbered. Eventually legislation and city ordinances killed it.

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