Sunset Park: The Next Times Square?by Patrick Gallahue
All is quiet on 2nd Avenue in Sunset Park except for the sounds of drifting traffic. Barely a sign of humanity exists amidst the industrial sprawl, and the rare pedestrian is quick-footed in passing. As one approaches 39th Street, the faint sound of pop music becomes audible from inside a lone bar on the corner. A taxi stops in front and drops off a pretty young blonde, who is then greeted at the door by a bouncer. The woman enters the bar to begin her shift as a topless dancer at Wild Wild West.
In 1995, the City Council adopted zoning regulations for adult establishments. A 1994 study by the Department of City Planning found significant “negative secondary impacts” surrounding these businesses, such as a rise in crime and a decline in property values. It essentially banned them from all residential districts, most commercial districts, and isolated them to manufacturing districts, mostly in the outer boroughs, detached from the center of “quality of life” campaigns.
The development of Times Square was one of the major inspirations for re-zoning strip clubs and video stores. In 1992 the Times Square Business Improvement (BID) was established and immediately began courting corporate investment in the area and pushing out adult businesses. According to the Village Voice, the Department of City Planning used the BID’s privately funded reports in writing their own study that cited these “negative secondary impacts.” In addition, the Giuliani Administration offered hundreds of millions of dollars in tax abatements to corporate investors such as Disney, Reuters, and Morgan Stanley. The result is evident in the “New Times Square.” Meanwhile, adult businesses had two options. The first was to move—which most did. Now sex shops sprung up in Brooklyn and Queens. The other option was for stores to stock their shelves with a portion of non-pornographic material. This is because a loophole exists in the zoning text for triple-X video stores, stating that if they dedicate 60 percent of their stock or floor space to non-pornographic material, they are allowed to operate outside of the written zones. Hence they attained the label of “60/40” businesses. The loophole was not enough to save their presence in Times Square, however. Revitalization and investment made it too expensive to operate there and these businesses were forced to look for new neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, they opened up near the strip bars in manufacturing districts such as those in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Inside the Wild Wild West, seven girls dance on two stages while a Mets game plays on the television set. Blue and pink neon lights line the crowded bar. Most of the customers are dressed in jeans and flannel. As men come and go, the girls greet the regulars by name and wink at newcomers, charming a tip or possible $10 lapdance. Several blocks away, Sweet Cherry’s is also doing well. In the crowd a pair of young men in military uniforms tip one of the dancers. R&B plays on the stereo, the Knicks play on a screen above the dancing girls, and several security guards watch customers for trespassing hands.
There are presently three topless bars in Sunset Park, two on 2nd Avenue, and one on 1st. Although many nearby parked cars bear out-of-state license plates, the clubs’ owners and employees contend that most of the customers are local. In the shadows of surrounding factories, these more established bars have an inconspicuous presence. However, most of the newer businesses do not.
After the zoning laws were implemented in 1998, New York City saw an overall drop in adult establishments. By 2000 Manhattan’s illicit businesses had declined from 107 to 69. In Sunset Park, though, there has been a marked increase. In 1993 there were seven adult establishments, with four running as 60/40 businesses. According to residents, there are now 13 60/40 establishments in operation. Although a substantial portion of Sunset Park is an industrial district, it divides at 3rd Avenue into Industrial & Manufacturing and Residential & Commercial zones. 4th Avenue, meanwhile, is exclusively residential, and 5th Avenue is a bustling commercial strip.
In 1990, District 7, which encompasses Sunset Park, was over 50 percent Latino and over a quarter of the population was under 18 years old. The area is mostly working-class and lower income. In 1999 28.2 percent of the inhabitants were receiving some form of public assistance. Due to the loophole in the zoning text, almost all of Sunset Park’s 60/40 are operating in the vicinity of the neighborhood’s populace on 3rd. Of the changes, one resident says, “There must be around four schools in a ten-block radius in which there are hundreds and hundreds of kids…all our kids live with this on a daily basis.” Another local complains, “They’re pouring into neighborhoods who don’t have affluent members and high rents. We’re the ones that are being strangled and the city doesn’t say ‘Hey it’s great for Manhattan’ but our neighborhood deserves just as much as Battery Park and the Upper East Side.”
Jeremy Laufer is the District Manager of Community Board 7. The impetus for re-zoning, he notes, was “to clean up Times Square for the Disneys of the world and the other companies that wanted to invest in [midtown] Manhattan.” By contrast, communities such as Sunset Park receive only the fleeing businesses, without the same type of law enforcement or city investment. This is so, Laufer explains, “because they aren’t multi-national companies who want to make this sort of investment within an ethnic community in Brooklyn.”
“We’re in hell,” said Scott Thompson (not his real name), co-owner of Sweet Cherry’s. “There’s nobody here [on 2nd Avenue]…at nighttime if you’re in this neighborhood, you’re coming to the bar.” Actually, an inhabited community borders almost every industrial section of the neighborhood. While 1st and 2nd Avenues are virtually abandoned after dark, 3rd, 4th, and 5th are mostly residential. On the ground floor of many homes are triple-X neon signs advertising adult videos and magazines. Subsequently, according to Laufer, prostitution arrests have increased within the 72nd precinct, despite an overall crime drop.
Typically, children have been the rallying cry for the Sunset Park community and local parents are indeed among the most vociferous opponents of the adult businesses. As one father told the community board, “I can’t even drive down 3rd Avenue with my 8-year-old. If did I’d have to cover his eyes.” Another woman who lives upstairs from an adult video store claims that prostitutes use her hallways to service johns where her three children can witness. “It’s not right,” she says.
Local politicians have reacted to community resentment by trying to find a legally viable means of moving the shops. Councilman Angel Rodriguez, who represents Sunset Park, has proposed a bill that would redefine 60/40 businesses. His idea is to determine an adult business by revenue instead of stock or floor space, meaning that each store is judged by what it sells rather than what it stocks. As it stands, many 60/40 businesses fill their shelves with items that are bought in bulk, stocked haphazardly, and just collect dust. Since supermarkets are subjected to regular audits, Rodriguez believes that adult businesses should also be forced to justify their recipients. “We’re just trying to make the intent of the original law, essentially what becomes the law,” Councilman Rodriguez explains.
Sunset Park’s battle for quality of life is not limited to the residents, however. Dancers also have a stake in the conflict. Following re-zoning, out-of-work entertainers came to Brooklyn to ply their trade. Scott Thompson of Sweet Cherry’s explains that after zoning, “We got a tremendous influx of girls and even more customers…Unbelievable business.” As far as the conditions in Brooklyn, the dancers made some more surprising statements.
“If you tried to close this place down the neighborhood wouldn’t let you,” says “Cynthia,” one of Wild Wild West’s dancers. “The crowd are working guys.” An aspiring model and singer, Cynthia has danced in both Manhattan and Brooklyn but she’s quick to note the differences. Her tone becomes caustic when she recalls her time dancing in one of Manhattan’s upscale clubs: “Threats were put in my locker and another dancer tried to stab me,” she says. She recounted fierce rivalries and territoriality within the club. In fact, several women interviewed stated that working conditions were far better in Brooklyn. The atmosphere within the clubs in Brooklyn is actually far more intimate than in their Manhattan counterparts, which had a higher volume of customers and more demanding owners.
Cynthia became misty when recalling an instance when another dancer at Wild Wild West made her a costume for free when she was short of money. Among Cynthia’s charges against Manhattan club owners were that many of the women were pressured to prostitute themselves to earn more money for the bar. She claims that she was fired for refusing to do so. As I interviewed Mr. Thompson at Sweet Cherry’s, another woman came to audition. She complained that she too was being pressured to turn tricks by her Manhattan club. Although Cynthia concedes that she made more tips in Manhattan, she stated that she would never dance there again.
The arguments over “quality of life” thus have an overlooked dimension. To be sure, no community wants or needs strip bars, but one could argue that, barring an unexpected collapse in the sex market, the businesses will always turn up somewhere. For now they have found an embattled home in Sunset Park—but for how long?
The future of Sunset Park is difficult to predict. For now the neighborhood continues to receive many of these X-rated elements banished during the cleanup of Manhattan. While the adult-related businesses are thriving, and the dancers are seemingly content, the area may eventually find itself in a similar fashion to Times Square. Re-zoning in Manhattan may have expelled the topless clubs, but the 60/40 shops were sent packing by private investment. Sunset Park, meanwhile, is on the verge of receiving a multi-million dollar investment package from the state. The plans call for either rebuilding the Gowanus expressway or creating a tunnel beneath 3rd Avenue. Laufer believes that such proposals present a chance for the community to utilize its waterfront in order to create more residential opportunities, and for 3rd Avenue to become a commercially vitalized area. If that happens, the strip bars and 60/40 businesses could find themselves on the move once again.
For the time being, Sunset Park may continue to bear many neon reminders of the old Times Square, but make no mistake—the neon is the only resemblance. While Times Square is a transit nexus, Sunset Park is a community that exists on the outskirts. Only one subway runs to an area well away from any landmarks or tourist attractions. But even if the neighborhood does find itself revitalized, and sanitized, there will always be another Sunset Park, and always another Wild Wild West.