No-Sin Zone

If you can smoke it, swill it, or ogle it, chances are it’s a target of Tom Menino’s overreaching, sometimes downright hysterical anti-vice crusade. Here’s to enjoying the unwholesome fun while it lasts.

menino's ban-o-rama

Illustration by Adam Larson

Down a steep, narrow staircase off Hanover Street in the North End is Stanza dei Sigari, one of the city’s few remaining cigar bars. It was a speakeasy during Prohibition, and it still looks the part, with its leather chairs, dark wood, rough-hewn brick walls, touches of wrought iron, and glass curio cabinets loaded with old cigar paraphernalia. If it weren’t for the incongruous ’80s music and the plasma TVs (now required in all city businesses), the place would be utterly timeless.

On a cool night earlier this fall, I sat for hours down there with Eastie businessman/The Snob blogger/Republican sparring partner Colin Kingsbury, smoking cigars and divesting the bar of its supply of good whiskey. In a previous life, Kingsbury had worked at the Ehrlich’s cigar store on Tremont Street, and that experience, combined with his towering disdain for overreaching governments, made him an ideal companion for this excursion. Not long before, Mayor Tom Menino had announced the latest phase of his war against smoking: banning it on outdoor patios at bars, prohibiting drugstores and any business on a college campus from selling cigarettes, and most outrageous of all, shutting down cigar bars, like the one we were sitting in. The move carries more than a faint whiff of fascism. “It feels to me like, ‘You’ve made your point,'” Kingsbury says. “But is there no sense of limitation? Are you not going to be satisfied until we’re all drinking wheatgrass and riding our bicycles to work? Where does it end?”

It’s a fair question. Clearly, the mayor won’t be content until every last dried leaf of tobacco is purged from the city. It doesn’t matter what the context is—whether it’s a cigarette, a cigar, or a cigarillo, or whether it’s the product of Big Tobacco, full of tar and poisonous chemicals, or hand-rolled wares sold by and consumed by consenting adults within a historic family-run business like Stanza dei Sigari. A public-health push has officially bloomed into a full-scale moral crusade—nothing new in a town long governed by the belief that grown men and women are simply incapable of living their own lives without destroying the city and leaving their immortal souls littered everywhere like blown-out umbrellas after a nor’easter.

The tobacco purge galls in part because it’s so odiously paternalistic, but also because the previous anti-smoking push already drove smoking rates down to a record low. Yet try to tell a fanatic he’s being excessive, and he’ll take it as encouragement. Besides, it’s not just smoking the mayor is hoping to stamp out in this late stage of his rule—it’s vices of all sorts. It’s curious to behold his old-school fervor (and slapstick and hypocrisy) for clean living, considering Bostonians have become a distressingly healthy lot of late, both in mind and body. Along with million-dollar condos on every block and luxury shopping on every corner, his vision of the city increasingly seems to include a deeper and more refined form of gentrification: one of the soul. It’s enough to drive you to drink.

 

The Glass Slipper on LaGrange Street in Chinatown is doing a brisk business at 4 p.m. on a Thursday. The crowd is mixed: a hipster, a townie with a scally cap, a few young professionals, a few older, lawyer-looking guys. The mood is relaxed, the patrons neither rowdy nor embarrassed. Unlike the far glitzier Centerfolds next door, which offers strippers of the more robotic variety, the Slipper features recognizably human performers. One of them, Precious, is giving it all she’s got, gyrating onstage in a pair of see-through plastic platform heels.

Now, I’m not a frequenter of strip clubs. Not to diminish the skills of these obviously talented girls, but to me, pole dancing is about as erotic as watching someone clap a mackerel against a car windshield. Still, I’m having an even harder time than usual submitting to the fantasy aspect here. All around the stage are the obligatory plasma TVs, set to CNN and Channel 7 news. More unexpectedly, within minutes I find myself chatting about the economy (which feels apt, business journalism being the new disaster porn) with the friendly, no-nonsense bartender and one of the regulars, while Precious goes to town at our left.

The bartender, Susan, has worked in the Combat Zone for 31 years—19 years at the old Naked I, and the past 12 here. When she started, there were dozens of strip clubs and adult bookstores. Now the Slipper and Centerfolds are the only ones left. And those two are decidedly non grata in the eyes of the mayor, who has made it no secret he’d like to preside over their deaths.

There’s a good backstory to all this. Before the city knocked it down, Scollay Square had served as Boston’s red-light district. But when it was demolished to make way for Government Center, Bostonians began worrying that the displaced adult businesses would just skitter out into the neighborhoods, ruining both children and property values. So, in an eminently pragmatic stroke, it was decided that a policy of containment was in order. The city would be dezoned for adult establishments, save in one “Entertainment Area subdistrict.” For a while, Park Square was considered, but in the end the honor went to Chinatown, because, you know—Chinese people.

Thus was the Combat Zone born in 1974. Ever since, the Boston Redevelopment Authority has been predicting that the four-block district is this close to collapsing in a choking cloud of rectitude. In the late ’90s and early aughts, there was so much development in the works downtown that Menino thought he might be able to do what previous mayors had failed to accomplish and knock out the Combat Zone for good, thereby lifting the beleaguered residents of Chinatown from this pit of sordidness they had long been mired in. Of course, any noble intentions were belied by the mayor’s weapon of choice: high-rise luxury condos. If the smut shops didn’t successfully rid the neighborhood of its longtime lower-income residents, these new buildings certainly would.

The intended stake through the heart of the Combat Zone was a pair of new large-scale developments: the Archstone apartment building, occupying nearly half a block between Essex and Beach, and Kensington Place, across Washington Street along LaGrange. Archstone went up without a hitch. Not so with Kensington. The planned tower, which, like Archstone, made a mockery of the neighborhood’s existing height restrictions, was to be erected on the site of the building that then housed the Glass Slipper. But the club’s owner refused to sell, forcing the city to seize the building through eminent domain. “It’s probably the end of the visible Combat Zone in the city of Boston,” the mayor crowed at the time. “A new day has dawned.”

Or not. After it seized the Slipper, the city was bound by law to pay to move it to new digs. But since by this point there was so little of the Combat Zone that hadn’t been redeveloped, the one place they could put it was directly across the street from its old location. Not only was the Slipper not killed, it also was given an upgrade on the city’s dime. Meanwhile, Kensington Place has stalled. Since the strip club’s old home was demoed two years ago, nothing much has happened. The only thing there now is a big pit of mud and gravel; the project manager at the BRA says the developers, who didn’t return calls for comment, have yet to secure financing to start construction.

Susan, the Slipper’s bartender, is nonplussed by the empty lot across the street. What she is pissed about is how the city fenced off the sidewalk bordering it, forcing pedestrians, and yes, possibly children, to pass directly in front of Centerfolds and the Slipper. “Kids shouldn’t have to walk past that,” she says. “It’s ridiculous!” God love her.

 

Unlike smoking and smut, liquor is tougher to crack down on, because it’s harder to convince people that only scumbags do it. But that’s not to say the city leaders haven’t tried. In 2004, Menino blamed the repeal of the state ban on Sunday liquor sales—which he’d hotly opposed when it came up the year before—for the student rioting that followed the Pats’ Super Bowl win. Not even two years later, he leaned on the licensing board to jam through a rule requiring the city’s package store owners to furnish the cops with the name and address of anyone buying a keg of beer. The measure was meant to stop college kids from wreaking havoc, but it’s easy to see the paternalistic sentiment shot through it. Casting suspicion on students is fine, because they’re students and have been known to get up to no good. As for the nonstudent keg-buying population, well, they’re probably up to no good, either—after all, what kind of low-class grownup buys beer by the barrel?—so it’s okay to treat them like potential criminals.

A similar strain of alcohol hatred surfaced earlier this year, when City Hall put the hammer down on nightclubs that offered VIP seating with the purchase of a bottle of high-end liquor, often for several hundred dollars. The city’s legal position was that this so-called bottle service violated the loathsome happy-hour law—a neat trick, since that law forbids establishments from selling alcohol at a discount, not a 1,000 percent markup. Further belying the city’s logic was the finger-wagging by Dan Pokaski, head of the Boston Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, also known as the Boston Licensing Board: “The city of Boston has a lot more to offer than just getting people inebriated. If all they can offer their clientele is just swilling alcohol, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in business.”

Interestingly, Menino had lobbied the state not all that long before to issue new beer and wine licenses to city restaurants, essentially saying they must be able to serve alcohol if they’re to succeed. This may seem like hypocrisy, but it’s not. In Boston, alcohol is categorically bad, unless it’s paired with a $38 plate of pan-seared mahi mahi—then it’s absolutely critical to our economic future. Save for bottle-service libertines, we tend to make fewer moral demands on people when they have discretionary income.

This presumably is why Menino’s distaste for vice didn’t apply to Governor Patrick’s casino plan, which the mayor supported with every fiber of his being: Though gambling may have a strong track record of ruining families, it also possesses an unparalleled ability to convert all income into discretionary income, and discretionary income into a potential tax windfall for a cash-strapped city. The mayor would be a fool not to suspend moral judgment at the prospect of such a bonanza.

 

The British drinker/novelist Kingsley Amis once argued that “the human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient [as alcohol]. Conversation, hilarity, and drink are connected in a profoundly human, peculiarly intimate way.” After several hours in Stanza dei Sigari, smoking and drinking and fulminating with Kingsbury, our back and forth takes a turn, and we find ourselves swapping stories about our weird first jobs. That devolves into a wholesale denunciation of today’s teenagers, who, it’s concluded, have neither character nor style. The two of us end up getting mightily polluted sitting in that corner solving the world’s problems. At midnight, stinking of smoke, we carefully mount the stairs back out onto Hanover Street. I fall into a cab and relax in the back, listening to the radio, scribbling nonsensical notes, and enjoying the bracing wind on my face and the view of the illuminated Zakim as the taxi hurtles across it.

Seven hours later, I awake to a gruesome hangover—which, echoing John Steinbeck, I try to accept as consequence, not punishment. It was a night spent smoking and getting drunk, undoubtedly much more fun than whatever wholesome alternatives Boston was offering that Tuesday night. A local business made some money (two, if you count the cabbie), no laws were broken, and the only person hurt was me, and even then it was a glancing blow. To sane people, this is a winner all around. But to the city it’s something that I and everyone else should be forbidden from doing ever again.

In the BRA archive at the Boston Public Library, there’s a 1973 letter from the late, great Dan Ahern, a force in shaping the modern Back Bay as executive director of the Back Bay Federation for Community Development. Writing to the agency in the run-up to the nation’s bicentennial, Ahern made his case for the creation of an adult entertainment district (he was pushing, unsuccessfully, for putting it in Park Square) in a small masterpiece of wit and pragmatism. “We would be unwise to assume that all of the 18 million visitors will be clean-minded mid-Americans who will spend their daytimes tramping the Freedom Trail and then, after a New England boiled dinner, bed down at an early hour,” Ahern wrote. “We must recognize that the Bicentennial hordes will contain a fair number of swingers who will be looking for night life in the city. Some of these will be satisfied with the kind of entertainment which you and I prefer: symphony, drama, chamber music, etc. But others will want something more earthy. They will be looking for nightclubs, topless restaurants, porno movies, and the other kinds of entertainment which they associate with big-city life at its very best.”

Imagine: recognizing that certain people want to indulge in certain legal activities that you find distasteful, and finding a way to accommodate them. Those days, we allowed people to watch X-rated films in public theaters in Boston. Now we don’t even want them smoking cigars. As the mayor rolls on, stamping out human impulses he deems unseemly, it’s becoming painfully clear that if anyone has less self-control than sinners, it’s the self-appointed saints.

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