Volume 74, Number 20 | September 15 - 21 , 2004

Working up a sweat over smut at multi-agency meeting

By Albert Amateau

Village residents who have been trying to stem the tide of pornography in their neighborhood cheered last week when the new director of the Mayor’s Office of Midtown Enforcement said at a public forum that his efforts are beginning to pay off.

While new zoning rules that tighten regulations on adult entertainment shops are still pending in a court challenge, Federico Gebauer said that his multi-agency Office of Midtown Enforcement has recently issued more than 90 violations under existing regulations against 16 of the most offensive porn shops in the Village.

“We were able to get the one at 515 Sixth Ave. shut down for a while for not being in compliance with the 60-40 rule and we’ve started a dialogue with the building owner and made him aware of the problems,” said Gebauer at the Sept. 8 meeting convened by City Councilmember Christine Quinn.

“We’ve been told this week that the owner of 515 Sixth Ave. has started eviction proceedings against the location,” Gebauer added. The remark resulted in a burst of applause from the 200 Villagers at the meeting in Our Lady of Pompei Church.

Excellent DVD, 515 Sixth Ave. at W. 13th St., is an adult entertainment shop frequently cited by Villagers for offensive and blatantly sexual signs. The 60-40 rule is a judicial standard that says if no more than 40 percent of a store’s selling space and inventory is adult (sexually explicit) books, film or images, it is exempt from the 1995 zoning that regulates where and how adult establishments may operate.

Irate neighbors complain most often about offensive and garish signs. Stores that keep their doors open allowing passing youngsters to look in are also a problem. “Many porn stores have existed in the neighborhood for decades and nobody I’ve ever heard of has complained about them,” Quinn noted. She cited The Pleasure Chest on Seventh Ave. at Perry St., an adult entertainment venue whose street window simulates an underwater scene with a pirate treasure chest.

Chad Marlow, a Village activist, urged residents to take direct action against offending porn shops by joining his new group VOPONC (Villagers Organized to Protect Our Neighborhood’s Character). Marlow’s strategy, outlined in a handbill he distributed at the Sept. 8 forum, involves giving an offensive porn shop an ultimatum to “remove any and all adult materials, including adult video, erotic clothing and sex toys, from your display windows” by a specific date.

If the shop complies, VOPONC would do nothing more. If the shop ignores the ultimatum, Marlow would have members of the group mount a demonstration in front of the shop and urge any patron intrepid enough to breech the picket line to patronize other adult establishments in the neighborhood.

Marlow said the group would target one defiantly offensive shop at a time and put it out of business.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick suggested another community action weapon against offending establishments. “I’ve noticed that they are patronized mostly by men who are very uncomfortable when women walk in,” she said. Glick would have a large group of women enter a shop together and ask employees in a loud voice questions like, “What’s that? How do you use this?”

David Gruber’s comment was that porn shops are willing to pay very high rents that tend to drive out other businesses. He said landlords should act as responsible members of the community when they consider their bottom lines.

John Greenough urged city officials to investigate whether porn shops are primarily money-laundering operations. “They don’t seem to do enough business to pay those rents,” he observed.

Elaine Goldman, a member of the Christopher St. Patrol, said she feared that some porn shops might be selling child pornography, which is illegal and not protected by First Amendment guarantees. “What about animals?” she asked. “Is that legal?”

Goldman said she walked into an adult establishment on Christopher St. recently and asked if the shop had pornography with basset hounds. “He said, ‘No, but we have horses.’ ”

Gebauer said his agency, which includes inspectors from the Police, Fire, Health and Buildings departments, examines the content of books and videos when it makes an inspection. Agents also make precision measurements of shop locations and merchandise layouts, he added.

The 1995 zoning regulations regarding adult establishments call for a 500-ft. interval between porn shops to prevent them from clustering and the same distance from sensitive locations like schools, houses of worship or residences. Also regulated is where adult material is placed in a store. But court challenges on First Amendment grounds resulted in the 60-40 definition of an adult establishment that may be regulated by the zoning.

The catch, however, has been that many sexual items are billed as “marital aides” rather than pornography. So, in 2001, the city amended the regulations to provide a more common sense definition of pornography. However, those amendments were also challenged in State Supreme Court. The city lost but took the case to the Appellate Division where a decision is still pending.

Gebauer said he expects an Appellate Division ruling soon and while he anticipates approval of the new rules, he said the city would appeal to the Court of Appeals, the highest state court, if it lost.

Meanwhile, the only enforceable standard is 60-40, Gebauer said. “But 60-40 is better than nothing,” he said.

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