Strip Clubs Pop Up on West Side Highway in Wake of Sex Laws

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani may have banished sex from Times Square, but the lucrative industry of upmarket strip clubs has simply moved on to a more hospitable home: Manhattan’s far West Side. That hospitality, however, may be short-lived, for the community’s politicians and business people are seething over their new neighbors, charging that the clubs will hamper the area’s fledgling renaissance.

“This is the de facto creation of a red-light district,” complained City Council member Christine Quinn, a liberal Democrat who represents Chelsea and Greenwich Village. “The entire [West Side] waterfront could become a triple-X supersite. People in my district don’t oppose the idea of there being some of these establishments here, but we’re worried that this will become a miniature version of 42nd Street.” The old 42nd Street, that is.

On a recent Friday night inside Privilege New York-a new “gentlemen’s club” on West 23rd Street at 11th Avenue-business was slow. A small, unenthusiastic audience sat quietly around the elegantly decorated main room, paying scant attention to a gyrating topless dancer on a small stage. One obese patron nodded in and out of sleep as his $12 drink sat untouched in front of him. A bouncer who looked as formidable as Sonny Liston in his prime assured customers that business soon would pick up dramatically. With improvements to the West Side Highway, the light traffic in the West 20’s, and the Chelsea Piers sports complex right across the street, Privilege would soon become “the hottest place in the world,” he said cheerfully.

This is clearly not the scene that a glossy magazine had in mind when it described the lower West Side as a “rejuvenated commercial district ablaze with art galleries, hot restaurants, photography studios and fashion boutiques.” But as a result of the Mayor’s crackdown on the city’s porn industry, which seeks to ban X-rated establishments throughout the rest of Manhattan, adult entertainment may soon become one of the area’s fastest-growing industries. The area is one of a few left where such establishments are allowed under current zoning law.

Privilege, which got its liquor license in late November after a prolonged battle with Community Board 4, is one of two new upscale strip clubs to have opened its doors across the street from the partially completed Hudson River Park in recent months. (The other, Sting Ray Lounge, is on West 51st Street at the West Side Highway.) And, according to industry insiders, several more prospective club owners are weighing the calculation that a relatively inaccessible location on Manhattan’s waterfront may actually be good for business, given the expensive legal hassles now faced by some of the more centrally located spots like Scores, Ten’s or the V.I.P. Club, located in the heart of midtown.

Some local leaders see the new establishments as the spearhead of a porn invasion of the West Side, and blame the Mayor’s zoning ordinances for providing the beachhead. State Senator Tom Duane complained, “It’s particularly absurd that at the same time they’re trying to create a beautiful park on the waterfront, adult establishments are being encouraged to [open up] there. Park people are going to be forced to walk through a new combat zone. And with the [West Side] Highway, there’s a very nice transport system for people from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey.”

The operators of some of the West Side’s long-established businesses also fear that their new neighbors could spoil an area that is just beginning to be regarded as a burgeoning home to startup Internet companies, media operations and maritime-themed ventures. “I think this is a real step backwards for the redevelopment for the West Side waterfront,” said Arthur Imperatore Jr., the president of NY Waterway, a commuter ferry service between Manhattan and New Jersey. “It’s not a desirable use and will only tend to diminish the attractiveness of this neighborhood for those who would open businesses here.” Bill White, chief operating officer of the Intrepid Museum Foundation, concurred. “If these places are not drawing friendly elements, it might get uncomfortable,” he said.

The dire predictions of large-scale despoiling of the Hudson River waterfront has First Amendment advocates crowing gleefully about what they see as a major backfire of a flawed City Hall policy. “You could ask why a store would want to open up and risk all this hassle from the city, which carries a legal cost,” said Beth Haroules, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. “But the business owners are relatively opportunistic, so if they see an opportunity here, why not? It’s the marketplace of ideas, whether they’re tasteful, distasteful, explicit or inexplicit. The owners and operators have bellied up to the bar and are willing to spend the legal fees to stay open. I hope they can continue to multiply and prosper and put paid to [Mr. Giuliani's] concept of free speech.”

Many in the adult industry said residents’ fears are overblown. They point out that most of the major strip clubs in midtown have found ways to survive, albeit at great financial cost, despite Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to outlaw them. And they said that even in parts of Manhattan that still allow adult businesses, operators have yet to figure a way around new rules that prohibit such businesses from operating within 500 feet of each other. “I don’t think there’s going to be anything like a red-light district on the West Side,” said Robert Bookman, the lawyer for Sting Ray Lounge. “For adult entertainment, there’s virtually nothing-a few blocks here and there where you could get an adult license.”

Is Location Everything?

Another factor, of course, is that the new places have yet to prove that they will be capable of surviving in Manhattan’s hinterlands. They have yet to experience the sort of legal onslaught by city authorities that their richer colleagues across town are weathering. And the far West Side is inherently scarce in paying customers, as numerous doomed entrepreneurs have found out over the years. “The bottom line is that places like Ten’s and Scores can maintain their upscale status,” said Mark Alonso, who represents Ten’s. “But when you hear about clubs along the West Side Highway, you know that the seedy clubs are always down around the docks, and you just don’t want to be there. I don’t think they’re going to be able to attract the same upscale business clientele.”

But it is precisely such attitudes that some local businessmen hope will change with the advent of more places like Privilege.

“As far as adult entertainment goes, its good for us,” said George Molinari, an owner of Frank’s Restaurant in the meatpacking district. “The people that go to those places, they have money to spend-they’re not cheap. And there’s usually no food there, so maybe they’ll come to eat here first. Normally, there’s no reason to walk to the Hudson River on 15th Street unless you want to watch the bus depot. We’re at the ass-end of the world here. So I say, the more the merrier. Bring them down.”

––with Karina Lahni