Long a sanctuary of reflexively liberal tolerance, Greenwich Village has provided an accommodating home for hippies and yippies, strays and gays, and every imaginable sort of wacky bohemian other communities didn't want.
Some of our newer neighbors, however, have been met with uncharacteristic provincialism. Late last year, Yagal and Yaron Mizrahi opened two adult video stores on Sixth Avenue between West Fourth and Eighth streets.
About two dozen Village residents and shopkeepers, including Chamber of Commerce president and local bar owner Judith Joice, have staged noisy demonstrations outside the stores.
These righteous crusaders say their complaint isn't against pornography per se; rather, they think the Village is an inappropriate location for purveyors of smut. In a recent Newsday article, a demonstrator said the picketers were not advocating censorship; they just wanted the porn merchants to go someplace else. "We want…pornography [to] be zoned out of residential neighborhoods," said Diane Whelton, president of a local block association. "We don't want landlords and rental agents to rent to these kind of stores." The activists have harangued the Mizrahis into removing neon "XXX" signs from their storefronts, papering over the window displays, and placing partitions near the doorways to block visibility from the street.
Ironically, the demonstrators have either ignored or equivocated about the presence of the Pink Pussycat Boutique, an 18-year-old Village institution literally yards away from the video stores. The boutique offers a vast selection of latex phalluses, inflatable sex dolls, and satin bondage equipment—all easily viewed from the street. According to Joice, "The Pink Pussycat isn't offensive. It's like Halloween or the circus. It's been a part of the neighborhood for many years."
That the Pussycat has been around for a while doesn't make its merchandise any less pornographic, only more difficult to dislodge. This kind of bald double standard makes the protesters' umbrage difficult to fathom. Perhaps they've never noticed the many Greenwich Village newsstands, several located near the video stores, that prominently display porn magazines, many of which feature far bawdier tableaux then the airbrushed covers on adult videotapes. Perhaps they've never seen the immense horror section at Blockbuster Video, a self-described "family-oriented" franchise located across the street. The section includes truly pornographic tapes such as Scream and Scream Again, whose cover art depicts a voluptuous, half-naked woman drowning in a vat of flesh-corroding acid.
Protester Diane Whelton told the West Side Spirit she wants the video stores removed so children walking past "aren't eye-to-eye with anything that's inappropriate for them to see." I suggest she redirect her penchant for eradicating visual menaces from adult video stores to the Village's hundreds (thousands?) of homeless beggars, whose gruesome visage and putrid stench must surely assault a child's sense of security more than a brightly lighted storefront. While it may be difficult to explain to children the lascivious poses on an X-rated video box, telling them why our neighborhood permits foul-smelling, badly clothed vagrants to pick through the trash for their lunch proves a much harder task.
I assume the real (unstated) reason Whelton and a few other Village residents are making a stink isn't the high-profile presence of pornography in our neighborhood but the "undesirables" these stores allegedly will attract. While Whelton denies this is the case, she does say, "We don't want the Village to turn into Times Square."
Anyone who has ever observed customers walking into a Times Square video store knows that most of them are white male professionals, many of whom could very well afford to live in the Village. Following the much-touted "redevelopment" of Times Square, adult video merchants have had to go elsewhere: Why not near some of their best customers? Although the subways provide easy access to the Mizrahis' stores, which are located near the north and south exits of a major station, the majority of their patrons seem to be nearby residents who appreciate the shops' low prices, large selection, and convenient location. (Many Villagers, myself included, find the drunken NYU students coming out of Judith Joice's bar a greater nuisance than well-behaved video shoppers.)
A recent visit to the stores revealed several middle-aged males quietly perusing a cornucopia of fetish-arranged selections, many of them with boxes featuring partially clothed breasts and thighs—sort of like the typical Cosmopolitan cover. Although the Mizrahis have been so relentlessly hounded by the local news media that they no longer grant interviews, one of their employees said the well-dressed, non-drug-dealing patrons taking home copies of Crocodile Blondee and Butts Motel were typical.
Part of what makes the Village the Village is the eclectic lifestyles many of its denizens prefer, whether politically, artistically, or sexually. We should let our neighborhood evolve naturally, letting supply and demand dictate the makeup of Greenwich Village. With residents casting their dollars as votes, the shopkeepers quickly will learn whether they are welcome. The video stores' revenue—or lack thereof—should determine their fate, not the obstreperous rantings of a few offended citizens.
Michael Konik, a journalist, critic, and playwright, is a longtime resident of Greenwich Village.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "New York: There Goes the Neighborhood".