No-Sin Zone

By Joe Keohane | Boston Magazine |

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.