Federal judge freezes New York City law on sex businesses

Monday, March 2, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) – Pinning their hopes on the First Amendment, workers at New York’s sex shops kept a low profile as a federal judge temporarily halted the city’s efforts to crack down on their industry.

A ruling Feb. 27 by U.S. district court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, temporarily restraining the city, meant another week of business as usual for the shops. Cedarbaum is expected to hear legal arguments in the case next week.

The new city ordinance in question could force as many as 150 of the 177 sex businesses in New York City to move if they are within 500 feet of each other or near schools or houses of worship.

A tour of more than a dozen topless bars and adult video stores near Times Square and the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street Friday found virtually all employees and patrons silent when approached for public comment.

“We have nothing to say,” said John Colosanti, a manager at Bare Elegance on West 50th Street and Broadway, where bikini-clad women greeted men during the lunch hour. “We have every intention to comply with the law.”

At an adult store on 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, one attendant who declined to give his name sounded like a man whose execution date had been postponed.

“It just buys me another paycheck,” he said as men handed him one-dollar bills before entering small cubicles. “If they want to clean up Times Square, they’ll do it. But the business isn’t going to go away, it’s just going to go underground.”

At Runway 69, one of the few topless bars left in Times Square, an attendant who declined to identify himself said topless bars provide legal employment for an uneducated population.

“What are we supposed to do?” he said. “Most of the people that work here don’t have a college education. The girls, they have kids, they are moms, it’s better than being on welfare.”

But Vicente Martinez, who stood on the corner of 53rd Street and Broadway handing out coupons for a topless bar on 53rd Street, said he agreed with the move to try to drive the industry from the heart of the city.

“These kind of places should not be here,” Martinez said in Spanish. “Kids walk around, tourists. It’s just not a good image.”

Herald Fahringer, a lawyer for 107 of the businesses, had predicted an icy response to requests for comment from those working inside the city’s sex shops as they circle the wagons to face an attack from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s quality-of-life campaign.

The mayor scored his biggest victory yet when the state Court of Appeals ruled 6-0 that the city is within its rights to banish shops with X-rated movies, books and strip shows to industrial districts.

Cedarbaum has agreed to hear arguments about the legality of the city’s plans, temporarily protecting the adult establishments from about 20 inspectors Giuliani had planned to unleash in a crackdown on the businesses.

Giuliani spokeswoman Colleen Roche noted that the state’s two highest courts have “unanimously upheld the city’s position.”

“We are confident that Judge Cedarbaum is acting only out of an excess of caution,” she said.

Fahringer said prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings favored the sex shops that were forced to move to less desirable areas of the city.

“No court in the country has ever sustained an order that eliminates 85 percent of the businesses,” he said.

Fahringer said the locations the city has designated for relocated shops were isolated, if not dangerous. They include a city Department of Sanitation office, a vehicle pound, the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island, junkyards, marshes, oil tank fields and rubble piles.

“There isn’t a theater there, not a bookstore,” Fahringer said. “It’s just wasteland areas they say you can go to. It’s appalling.”

City attorney Lenny Koerner said the restraining order was a routine move that does not decide the merits of the case. He said the lawyers argued at the state level over the locations for the businesses to be moved and lost.

“These locations are within 10 minutes of all mass transit,” he said. “We pointed out there were ample places for them to relocate. Indeed, the properties we made available easily exceeded the number of businesses.”