One grim November long ago, in the wee hours of the night, a reputed pimp stabbed two Harvard football players during a street melee in Boston’s seamy Combat Zone, mortally wounding one of them. The crime shocked a city where morale was already at an all-time low, where the economy had stopped working, where residents of means were fleeing by the thousands. The authorities had to do something.
So they cracked down on — strip joints?
It was 1976. Jimmy Carter had just won the presidency. After Vietnam, Watergate, and a harsh recession, the national mood was unsettled. A sexual revolution was underway, even in Boston. For the previous couple of years, there’d been a thoughtful debate among planners, cops, and politicians about how to contain Boston’s burgeoning adult entertainment industry, whose epicenter lay along Washington Street just west of Chinatown. But when blood is shed, especially in a place with a lurid name like “Combat Zone,” nuance is the first thing to go.
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Then and now, senseless crimes lead to senseless policies.
The murder victim was a Harvard senior named Andrew Puopolo, a Boston Latin graduate and starting cornerback who hoped to attend medical school. On the Monday night after the Harvard-Yale game, he and his teammates gathered with supporters for an end-of-the-season “breakup dinner” at the Harvard Club. Afterward, seven of the players paid a visit to a Combat Zone bar called the Naked i.
Shortly after the bar closed at 2 a.m., as the students headed to their van, they walked into a common pickpocketing scam. Prostitutes approached them, and in the course of soliciting business they made off with one player’s wallet. Puopolo and others pursued the women but encountered a group of men working with them. In the scuffle, Puopolo was stabbed in the chest.
He died a month later — a cautionary tale, for many Bostonians, about the dangers lurking in Boston’s official adult entertainment district.
“There was just a horror,” recalls Lawrence DiCara, then a young Harvard alum serving on the Boston City Council. As it happened, DiCara attended the breakup dinner. “It was just assumed that if you were a Harvard football player and there were a busload of you and you went to the Combat Zone, you would leave at 2 o’clock and go back to Cambridge — and that would be that.”
A couple of weeks after Puopolo was stabbed, Boston police raided three Combat Zone bars in search of prostitutes — after first alerting the media. The Licensing Board began suspending and revoking liquor permits for violations that police had previously ignored. The secretary of state took bar owners to court for their failure to file annual reports. The Combat Zone’s PR agent — seriously, there was one — protested to no avail that “there are problems here, but the problems are out on the street and not in the clubs.”
In the next few years, Boston’s pursuit of unruly nightlife expanded to include “juice bars” — overnight clubs that lacked liquor licenses because they didn’t sell alcohol. Puopolo’s murder, and the subsequent raids and arrests, had given ammunition to those who believed that nothing good happened after midnight; that sex and booze and dancing added up to trouble; that urban life was an endless battle between cops and the dark forces of the night.
“Police now are almost everywhere in the Combat Zone, as they were the night young Puopolo was stabbed,” Globe columnist Jeremiah V. Murphy wrote a month after the incident, “but so are the whores and the pimps and the johns and those tortured souls who are looking for something they themselves cannot describe.”
To this day, discussions about making Boston a 24-hour city inevitably bring up to the same question: Don’t you remember the Combat Zone?
Named for its rough atmosphere, the servicemen who went there on leave, or both, the Combat Zone was the handiwork of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. At the zenith of its power, the agency tried to move pieces of the city’s urban fabric around like pieces of furniture. In the 1960s, when the BRA razed Scollay Square, the city’s previous red-light district, the peep shows and exotic dancers moved southward to a low-rent stretch of Washington.
That wasn’t the city’s explicit goal, at least not at first. But as courts eased limits on sex-related businesses in the 1970s, just as property values were languishing throughout Boston, adult venues spread to more respectable areas of the city. (“Deep Throat” in the Back Bay?!) In an attempt at Northern European-style progressivism, the city designated the Combat Zone as an official adult entertainment district. By steering such establishments toward a two-block area along Washington, the city hoped to supervise them closely — and ban them everywhere else.
This first-in-the-nation approach attracted interest from other cities. But powerful players in Boston were skeptical, including the Suffolk district attorney. Police struggled to patrol the red-light area; word on the street was that officers took payoffs to ignore illicit activity in strip joints. A week before Puopolo was stabbed, a Police Department internal report alleged widespread corruption in the district that included the Combat Zone.
To moralists who opposed the concept from the start, the Harvard student’s tragic fate settled the matter. The city’s preeminent religious leader, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, denounced the district at a Mass: “Are we to countenance assaults and murders as a necessary byproduct of the sex business?”
Soon after the stabbings, law enforcement moved in to smother vice in the place where progressive technocrats had corralled it. To the extent the crackdown on sketchy bars was intended to thwart prostitutes, it didn’t work; the arrests merely pushed the problem into surrounding neighborhoods. “I’ll tell you right now we’re getting the toughest broads that worked the Combat Zone walking the streets,” a Back Bay police detective told the Globe at the time. “These are the type of girls that want to rip off a guy, not turn a trick.”
In another old news story, streetwalkers urged the city instead to make a distinction between “honest prostitution” and the kind of sidewalk ripoff scams that led to Puopolo’s death. But even for cities far less straitlaced than Boston was back then, the concept of “honest prostitution” did not compute.
The real problem in Boston in 1976 wasn’t the Combat Zone. The problem was everything. The school desegregation crisis had left the city divided and exhausted. Just that spring on City Hall Plaza, a white antibusing protester had attacked a black lawyer with an American flag. By the end of the year, Mayor Kevin White was begging Beacon Hill to give him new ways to raise money. There were rumors that Boston would declare bankruptcy by April.
The withering of public-morality laws posed one more challenge. “It means that everything’s wide open,” a Combat Zone business operator had told a Globe reporter in 1974, after the state’s highest court struck down an obscenity law. “Now anything goes.” Ironically for a city that used to ban everything risqué, adult entertainment was one of Boston’s only growth industries.
To change the Combat Zone, Boston needed a better economy, and it needed patience. Eventually, adult businesses got squeezed out as real estate values rose. The videocassette recorder killed porno theaters. The Internet undermined adult bookstores and took the prostitution business off street corners. The solicitation arrests you read about today involve online stings.
At this point, Boston has lived under the shadow of the Combat Zone for longer than there was a Combat Zone. The city isn’t a doomed battleground between light and darkness, despite what the murder of a promising young son of Boston might have suggested at the time. It’s a resilient system with the power to correct itself.
Produced by Elaina Natario, Laura Colarusso, Heather Hopp-Bruce, Alex Kingsbury, Jeremy D. Goodwin, and Mary Creane
Lead image by Associated Press