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Looking back on Boylston and Tremont's badder days....

Melissa Kloc

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Media Credit: La Grange Street/John Goodman 1976


Emerson College, situated between Boston Common, the Theatre District, and the Public Garden, seems to be in idyllic territory. This is now.

However, as recently as the early 1990s, this area was known to Bostonians and the world as "The Combat Zone," named by off-duty servicemen who spent their free time touring the local strip joints that used to comprise the majority of businesses there.

Zoning laws created in the early 1970s required all adult entertainment and shops to stay in one area. The city government at that time assumed this would maintain the high standards of certain areas, such as Beacon Hill, but allow shops to continue to operate, since sex shops were not illegal.

What officials, however, didn't expect, such a large influx of sex-trade crime and prostitution. Combat Zone simply wouldn't operate within the law and city officials spent years trying to make up for the zoning failure and keep crime out of Boston.

From 1974 until 1976 adult entertainment businesses operated without much crime but they continually pushed legal boundaries by openly violating state obscenity laws and by encouraging drug use and sale as well as prostitution.

The 1976 murder of a Harvard University football player Andrew Pupollo, allegedly by three pimps prompted public outcry for the abolition of the Combat Zone.

In 1989, the city sold property in the Zone to developers, hoping new businesses would push out the adult entertainment industry, which cannot legally operate outside the Zone. In addition, intensive crackdowns by the Boston police force with covert operations lead to greater arrests of prostitutes and their customers.

By 1993, much of the Combat Zone had been squeezed into just two blocks by aggressive entrepreneurs and those living in Chinatown. With more than 9,000 residents in 1993, the area was a bustling neighborhood. Though the peep shows and red light district had not yet completely disappeared, the Combat Zone was certainly seeing its last days in Boston.

In 1993, Emerson College purchased the Little Building for dormitories. Up until then all Emerson dorms were located in Back Bay, from the Public Garden to Kenmore Square. The decision to move the dorms downtown was a bold one, considering the recent history of the area. However, other developments, including the building of luxury condos, the upgrading of Chinatown, the addition of four-star hotels, as well as a renewed emphasis on the Theatre District, made Emerson's decision more palatable. In addition, students claimed it would be better for them to be near the entertainment and communication hub of Boston.

Since 1993, Emerson has moved all of its on-campus residential areas to the Boylston and Tremont Streets area. Emerson currently houses some students in hotels around the city, but this is viewed as temporary housing for an unexpectedly large freshman class.

Today, the area that was known as the Combat Zone is home to students from Suffolk University and Emerson College, as well as Chinatown residents and fans of the theater. Emerson's move into this area was not only beneficial for Emerson but for the city of Boston.

"It's so important to us that when people come into our city they have an attractive entryway to downtown," Mayor Menino said in a 1994 IGlobe interview. "He promised to do what he can to help advance a process he said is already under way. 'Tremont Street,' he pronounced, 'is on the rebound'," the Globe said.

Manino was counting on Suffolk University and Emerson College to move to the two ends of the Common on Tremont Street, something that eventually happened.

John J. Bowen, vice president for Boston's resource development, in the same Globe article said Emerson's expansion into the Boylston-Tremont Streets area would help change it "within five years." He told the Globe he hoped for "the complete elimination" of Boston's adult entertainment district, known as the Combat Zone, which is already in retreat with only five 'venues' - strip joints and sex shops - left'."

Most Emerson College students today know little about the history of their surroundings, but back in the early 1970s
Emersonians appeared to be fully aware of their Combat Zone options, and were not afraid to used them.

Berkeley Beacon reporter Gary Fontaine, for example, wrote about a strip show he saw at the Pilgrim Theater. In an article called "COME ONE, COME ALL: Chesty Morgan at the Pilgrim Theatre, formerly on Boylston and Washington Streets," Fontaine, commenting on the state of the downtown area, and on how disappointing the strip show was--with the exception of Chesty Morgan herself, a woman with an alleged 73-inch chest.

Fontaine had this warning for students who might venture to the Pilgrim: "If any of you, after reading this, are planning on taking in a future performance of Burlesk… do not take any of it seriously… bring along a couple of friends… and as for Chesty, treat her with respect; THIS GIRL HAS A LOT OF TALENT."

Now you know....
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