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Times Square: Clean up or take over?

I Times Square was a center of crime, prostitution and porn in the latter half the of 20th century. This book is about the history of Times Square,...


I

Times Square was a center of crime, prostitution and porn in the latter half the of 20th century. This book is about the history of Times Square, and what happened to the people who worked there in the process of its clean-up. It will narrate the rise and fall of Times Square, focusing on the period in the 1970s and 1980s when illegal activities were booming. How did the businesses run so successfully? Who was funding them? What did the city government do?

This is the second chapter out of the eight planned for my book. The first will be an introduction and a brief history of the rise and fall of Times Square up until the early 1970s. Several major characters of the Italian mafia will have been introduced by this point, and in this episode, I introduce others – middlemen and those who worked at their establishments unaware of who their bosses were. After this episode, I will go on to elaborate on what happened to the women who were not backed by the mafia, and who worked from the streets.

Not all that glitters is gold

Early in the morning of July 23, 1973, a bomb exploded on the second floor of Metropole Cafe, a topless bar in Times Square, New York City. It went off three hours after the establishment had closed, shattering the windows and ruining the plush carpet of a room that Samuel Nagar, the co-owner of Metropole, claimed was never used. Remnants of furniture were strewn all over. But a piano remained unscathed in the corner, with its lid open, 30 feet from where the bomb went off. The building, 725 on Seventh Avenue near 48th street, was empty at the time. No one was injured.

Downstairs, the cafe’s walls were lined with mirrors. Starting at noon, about a dozen go-go girls would dance topless along a platform with their backs against the mirrors. A massive red couch in the center gave Metropole the look of a “Wild West saloon,” according to a report written by Mary Beasted for the The New York Times. On the day of the bombing, Metropole was closed for business. This incident was the latest in a string of attacks that had taken place at such establishments in the Times Square area since 1971.

This had become common affair. Metropole was up and running the next day.

Earlier that month, a man called Martin J. Hodas had been indicted by district attorney, Frank S. Hogan. Known popularly as the ‘King of Peep’ for running a multi-million dollar pornography operation, Hodas was accused of hiring associates to fire-bomb two rival “massage parlors” in the Times Square area. According to Hogan, Hodas was dealing directly with the heads of organized crime families.

The two parlors that had been bombed were the Palace and the French Model Studio, both on West 42nd Street. Hodas, 43 years old at the time, was charged with arson in second degree and criminal mischief. The charges were the product of a year-long investigation launched by the district attorney following an outbreak of violence at these so-called parlors. The arson was conducted by groups usually backed by rival members of the Italian mafia.

The barely disguised “massage parlors” had become a lucrative business for the Italian mafia starting from the 1960s. Such establishments were becoming increasingly common around Times Square, and the mafia quickly gained control of the business. According to a New York Times report in July 1973, law enforcement agencies had found that the spate of fire-bombings occurred as competitors fought over what they could charge customers for services at these massage parlors. Initially starting at $15 for 15-minute “massage” session that actually entailed women offering sexual favors – the prices were spiraling down to $10, even $7.50.

At the same time, there was another business which was becoming increasingly competitive – the adult film industry. Porn films were at the cusp of its boom in 1973, and the mafia – quick to assess its potential for profits – had started producing and screening films in and around New York City as well.  Cutthroat top bosses stopped at nothing to ensure their establishments were visited by the thousands of people, mostly men, who thronged to/through Times Square – an area of Midtown Manhattan whose name that had become synonymous with sex and drugs. Such was the ambition of these business owners that Assistant District Attorney John Jacobs told the State Supreme Court judge who was hearing Hodas’s case that, “[they] will not at nothing to control an empire in the Midtown area”

Therefore, amid the glittery lights and shiny billboards, hundreds of brothels operated in Midtown of which the area between 7th Avenue, Broadway and 42nd Street i.e. Times Square was the center. Peep shows had recently risen to popularity which packs of men roamed the streets every night to attend. Dozens of theaters ran adult films. Drugs were easily available on the streets.

Prostitution at the time operated in three forms. There were the luxurious “massage parlors” where the women had no control over choosing their clients, but were provided ample security incase of an emergency. Then there were pimps who served as liaisons between prostitutes and the clientele. The most vulnerable demographic however, were the women who lined the streets by the hundreds. Working solo, they were often victims of sexual assault. Times Square stood out like a sore thumb among the other more respectable neighborhoods around it, to the point where a Rolling Stones article described it as “the sleaziest block in America”

For just a dollar, men could watch women dance at peep-show stalls separated by clear glass. For 25 cents, they could catch a few seconds of a porn film on a machine that would tease another film right after to get men to dish out more cash.

Then there were the stage shows, where live sex acts were performed. Customers had a plethora of performances to choose from as they walked the streets around Times Square. Loud and bright billboards with signs like the ones at Show World Center – a multi-storied adult entertainment haven – read, “Live XXX rated acts – Country Girl in the Vegetable Patch, Lonesome Cowgirl and her Horse.” Women would perform solo or be in group acts several times a day. In the early 70s, these shows would start by noon, and the theaters/clubs would usually be packed.

Another booming business was sex clubs. Customers would put their belongings in a locker before entering the main room. There would be an elaborate buffet over which people could interact before deciding who and with how many people they were going to have sex. Often, the club had giant matted rooms big enough to accommodate scores of people. Colin Quinn, a New York stand-up comedian, wrote about his visit to one such club for New York Magazine, “They had buffets, which was kind of disgusting. This was people eating like they were on a goddamn cruise ship. I started talking to this cute girl who was there, and the next thing you know, we had sex. And it was great!”

But while the mafia was making millions of dollars, and customers like Quinn had the privilege of having such experiences at will, there was tension simmering in Midtown. It was the heart of a city already dealing with a fiscal crisis, bankruptcy and a deepening disparity between the rich and poor.

But for those who didn’t have to traverse through its daily grittiness, moving to New York City, more particularly, Times Square, was still the dream. It was a safe haven for exploring sexuality – free from stigma or judgements.

Among one such believer was 18year-old Ellen Steinberg.

A self-proclaimed hippie, Steinberg had spent most of her childhood traveling between Panama and Southern California with her parents – activists and strong believers in the Unitarian Church. It was spending majority of her late teens in overtly pristine and unbearably boring Southern California that led to Steinberg’s decision to move as soon as she turned 18.

A day after her birthday, she sat on the back of her first boyfriends’ motorcycle and left for Tucson, Arizona. Steinberg got a job selling popcorn at the Plaza Cinema, an X-rated film theatre in Tuscon, In the spring of 1973, everything changed for her the day she watched Deep Throat, a pornographic film starring Linda Lovelace, an iconic porn star of the time. “I was transfixed. I owe my sexual awakening to her,” Steinberg would later say. For Steinberg, apart from being enthralled by Lovelace’s performance, she was even more fascinated by the changing demographic of the crowd interested in a film that brought in the era of “porn chic.” It was no longer single lonely men, but groups of women and couples interested in understanding sexuality. Humor peppered throughout the film added to its popularity. The movie was shown multiple times each day for several weeks. Evening screenings were packed with what Steinberg regarded as a “wholesome” crowd, consisting of students from the state university a block away. She sold a lot of popcorn.

But in Tucson, the film’s popularity was short-lived. Plaza Cinema was raided by the police and its owners charged with receiving an obscene film for interstate commerce. A few months later, Steinberg was subpoenaed by the police to testify.

Now working as a prostitute at a massage parlor, she begrudgingly attended the proceedings. While sitting in the courthouse waiting room, she met her icon – Linda Lovelace. For the next two weeks, Steinberg spent hours chatting with Lovelace and director Damiano in the waiting room. By the time the court proceedings were about to conclude, she and the big-shot Italian director had fallen in love.

They kept in touch as Damiano travelled the country directing popular porn films. They even took a trip to San Francisco as he promoted his film, The Devil in Miss Jones.

A few weeks later, Damiano asked her to move to New York City and by the summer of 1973, Steinberg had packed her bags and flown east to be his mistress. She landed in New York City at dawn.

Gerardo had booked her flight and told her to check in at the Edison Hotel on 47th Street and 8th Avenue. As she saw Manhattan’s skyline from the window of her redeye, Steinberg fell in love. The sun was rising against the high-rise buildings, and she couldn’t contain her excitement. It was New York City, and the streets would be packed in the next few hours. She wanted to take advantage of the rare moment of quiet that she had heard was hard to come by in the city. Steinberg dropped her bags at her room in the Edison Hotel, and stepped out for a walk. She walked for hours, enjoying the breezy summer morning. By 9 a.m., as the streets were starting to get busy, she walked back to her hotel to rest – Damiano was taking her to see Times Square later that day.

From selling popcorn in Tucson to make enough money buy tampons and cigarettes, to having an affair with one of the biggest names in the American porn industry, Steinberg considered herself incredibly lucky.  A self-proclaimed run of the mill “flower girl” from the 70’s – she now eagerly awaited the possibilities that lay ahead.

However, Steinberg was unaware of Damiano’s connections with the Italian mafia, and the bombings of massage parlors by rival groups. She did not know that a man known as  “the butcher of Times Square” had been attacking lone women around Midtown for approximately five years at this point.

And as crime rates kept increasing, New York Mayor John Lindsay was forced to set up the Office of Midtown Planning and Redevelopment to clean up Times Square. On April 17, 1973, Lindsay announced at a press conference in City Hall that there would be a crackdown on prostitution and crime. Surrounded by maps and statistics, the mayor made a passionate speech saying he intended to “drive out the vice lords and end the threat to safety and health.”

“Those who violate the new local law,” the mayor said, in the presence of police officials, businessmen and heads of agencies, “should know that the clock is ticking and that they will face tough, coordinated enforcement action.” The new law that the mayor mentioned had been passed by the City Council and aimed at restricting adult businesses by obliging all employees to be a licensed masseuse. (That law was quickly overturned by the State Supreme Court for being too broad.)

The maps and papers that the mayor had brought with him to the press conference had been collected by the Times Square Task Force. The maps were marked to show all the massage parlors and hotels that operated as brothels. The force had members from many city agencies, and met once a week to chart them out and plan crackdowns. Since the beginning of the year it had shut ten hotels tied to prostitution, ten so‐called massage parlors, 15 peep shows, two juice bars that were fronts for prostitution and seven movie theatres that screened porn films.

By August 11, 1973, the Task Force reported that the number of prostitutes operating out of Times Square had been halved. And 12 of 20 previously operating massage parlors had been closed since April.

But just two blocks away from Times Square, the business of a high-end massage parlor was thriving despite the so called crackdown. Greek themed, the Spartacus Spa was one of the most popular parlors in New York City. Women would be dressed in togas to welcome men to a lavish reception. Further in were several rooms with saunas, bathtubs and massage beds. After paying a $50 basic fee, the client could choose the masseuse of his liking and go to one of the rooms. There was additional payment for other favors.

This is where Damiano had got Steinberg a job. She was 19 and prided herself on being a “prostitute with a heart of gold.” White-skinned with jet black hair and bangs, she had a lot of regulars who visited her on Sunday. On a busy day she made up to $700.  Starting at $50, her rate increased depending on the sexual favor her client wanted.

During the press conference in City Hall, reporters had questioned Mayor Lindsay on whether the crackdown on Times Square had only led to a shift of pornography and prostitution to other parts of Manhattan. Lindsay denied these reports. But Spartacus’s success, combined with the cropping up of dozens of other parlors and peep shows all around Manhattan, indicated otherwise.

Steinberg worked at Spartacus for ten years, as she rose to popularity as a porn star. By 1974, she started starring in porn films and gave herself a stage name – Annie Sprinkle. There were minor brushes with the police, but the Italian mafia had a stronghold over such operations and found a way to keep businesses running. If parlors were shut, or pimps were arrested, the number of street prostitutes would increase all around Manhattan.

And unlike Sprinkle, who was protected by her affiliation with Damiano, it was the women on the street who were victims of sexual assault and harassment. Some of the popular spots for street prostitutes were Park Avenue and 28th street, West Side Highway, and 39th Street between 11th and 12th Avenue.

The dimly lit garages on 39th Street were lined with women looking for clients. The streets were packed with slowly moving cars and bicycles, as men looked over the prostitutes and stopped to negotiate a price. But most often, the women did not have a choice – their bosses could get violent, and the johns could punish the women who refused a job.

Strict prostitution laws made it tough for them to approach cops to seek help. The authorities tended to mind their own business as long as the clean-up in Times Square was continuing. “They [cops] usually say something like, ‘You look good honey but just keep it moving,’” according to Francey, a streetwalker in the Village. Police vans circled the area and announced over loudspeakers, “Get off the corner and into the block. You can work easy or you cannot work.”

According to the annual report issued by the Times Square Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee, serious crime had risen by 4.2% in 1973 from the previous year. In an effort to curtail crime, the clean-up led to a 20.6% increase in arrests. 400 johns were apprehended for patronizing prostitutes.

Lindsay had called it a “dramatic breakthrough.” That was an illusion. The number of arrests might have risen, but rather than catching the perpetrators of violence, the police were mostly taking in prostitutes – 1,495 prostitutes of them that year. 98% of whom were convicted.

It was just the beginning of one of the many unsuccessful attempts by the city to curb prostitution and pornography. By the end of the year, the peep shows, parlors and adult film houses were back. Among them was the Palace. Cleaned up and restored after the firebombing, it was back in business.

Source List

Interviews:

  • Annie Sprinkle
  • Veronica Vera
  • Josh Alan Friedman
  • Robert Brenner
  • Simon Bankeof
  • Leland Bobbe

Archives:

  • Veronica Vera, “The Odyssey of Annie Sprinkle”, ADAM Magazine, June 1982
  • Times Square Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee, 1973, NYC Municipal
  • Colin Quinn, “After Midnight: A Scrapbook of Late Night New York,” New York Magazine, March 2015
  • NYPD Crime and Statistics Reports, 1973
  • Office of Midtown Planning, 1970-1977
  • “Prostitution”, research material by Linda Baxter, Tamiment Library, NYU
  • Letters by Percy E. Sutton, Manhattan Borough President, 1974, NYC Municipal Archives
  • Correspondence of Mayor Abraham Beame, 1974 – 1977, NYC Municipal Archives
  • New York Public Library Picture Collection, 1970-1989

Books and reports:

  • Josh Alan Freedman, Tales of Times Square, 1986
  • Samuel R. Delaney, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, 1999
  • Personal collection archival collection of Veronica Vera
  • Vivienne Mariecevic, The Show World Interviews, The Rialto Report, December 17, 2017
  • The Rialto Report