Volume 74, Number 15 | August 11 - 17 , 2004

New strategy tried to sweep out smut

By Erica Stein

Villager photo by Jake Price

Gaudy windows in sex-related shops on Sixth Ave., like this one, are increasingly drawing the wrath of local residents.

To combat what they see as a community being overwhelmed by sex shops, the Greenwich Village Block Associations have begun to formulate plans that draw on the power of public opinion as much as they do on legal technicalities.

Historically, when community groups have fought harmful encroachments into the neighborhood, they have done so with the aid of existing statutes. However, as The Villager reported in June, when it comes to regulating the plethora of sex shops that have sprung up in the Village, one law — commonly known as the 60/40 rule, which allows the presence of sex stores in residential neighborhoods so long as 60 percent of their stock is non-adult — is not on the residents’ side.

Marilyn Dorato, presiding officer of the G.V.B.A., who acknowledged the problem in June and said the community was in the process of deciding what to do about it, has since formed a task force. “It’s a big issue that affects everyone in the neighborhood, but big topics stop our meetings,” she said. “So the task force is a good solution. We select a chair, who then picks the members of the task force — who don’t have to be on a block association. They get a lot of autonomy and report back every month.” Dorato also said that “it’s a really tricky question because of the law. It may come down to trying to do something about window displays and signage.”

Alan Jacobs, treasurer of the W. Third 100 Block Association, who was appointed chairperson of the task force in July, agreed with Dorato that the most visible aspects of the stores were a problem, but was more outraged by the presence in some of the stores of “buddy booths.” Buddy booths are a subset of the old Times Sq.-style nudie or girlie booths. Jacobs said that the booths no longer feature actual women, but rather video feeds. He added that some of the booths are adjoining and have slots in their sides, allowing two people to simultaneously enjoy the entertainment — or each other.

“As soon as they put up the Xcellent on Sixth Ave. I started getting calls from people,” Jacobs said. “But this should put people over the top. My building has a co-op board so there will never be one there, but the small buildings down my street? Those could be rented easily. Sex sells and there’s a lot of money to be made.”

Both Dorato and Jacobs have heard that there’s a possibility of 287 Bleecker St. being rented to a tenant who would use the space as a sex store, complete with booths. “That’s just wrong on Bleecker,” said Dorato. A representative of the owner of 287 Bleecker said that while the first floor is for rent, it will not be rented to a sex store and that the current possible tenants included a clothing and jewelry shop and a local business that had recently lost its space.

“If you look at the store now,” said Jacobs, “it looks like they’re doing iron-on T-shirts. That’s the problem. The one on Sixth Ave. went from being a dollar store to a porn shop in three days. The rapidity is amazing. All we can do is contact owners and ask them not to rent, as word gets out we’ve thought about picketing. Eventually, that law needs to be changed. For right now we’re pressuring our representatives to enforce the existing law.”

The task force and other community members met with representatives of Councilmember Christine Quinn’s office on July 9. Another meeting, this one an “all agency” — with representatives from the appropriate city agencies — is planned for the near future.

“Our office feels that the laws need to be enforced,” said a staff member of Quinn’s office who has been working with the community groups. “And that concerns a bunch of different agencies — the Mayor’s Office of Midtown Enforcement and the Buildings Department. We need to get together and pool our information and look at the problem as a whole. Everyone is interested.”

The all-agency meeting may also include representatives from the office of State Senator Tom Duane and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.

Jacobs noted that he planned to ask Mayor Bloomberg the first question — about the loopholes in the 60/40 law — at the Greenwich Village town hall meeting on Monday. Jacobs planned to stress the ambiguity of the statute, including what counts toward the 40 percent of adult material and the status of the buddy booths.

The buddy booth question — whether they are counted as adult material, which constitutes a Buildings violation, or are outlawed all together — is indicative of the confusion surrounding the issue. Although all stressed that they could not answer with absolute surety, Quinn’s office said the booths were “an automatic D.O.B. citation,” while Jacobs said he believed they were not counted toward the 40 percent of a store’s merchandise considered adult.

The Office of Midtown Enforcement, however, said that if the booths contained videos they should be counted as adult content. Yet, according to O.M.E., if the booths are not shown on the building plans their addition may not differ enough from the plans filed to constitute a D.O.B. citation. Unless one of the participants is employed by the store, the activities of the occupants are not illegal.

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