We often think that zoning codes, the string theory of our cities big and small, as shaping every inch of the built environment. But really, zoning is more like the mold into which we pour our hopes and desire. Emphasis on desire.
The Times reports that a zoning law meant to bar smut sellers and strip joints from residential neighborhoods has been struck down in court. It used to be common for shops to carry a mix of licit and illicit goods, pretending, life those softcore flicks on Cinemax, that it wasn’t what it really was.
To stop these so-called 60-40s, for their mix of nice and naughty merch, any shop with 40 percent or more sexual goods would have had to move at least 500 feet from a residential area.
As usual, the First Amendment trumps all.
On Thursday, Justice Louis B. York of State Supreme Court ruled that the mixed-use establishments were not shams and did not create a public nuisance in their communities, and that the city had sufficient tools to close any establishment that skirted the 40 percent rule.
In a discussion of the case attached to his decision, Justice York wondered whether the city’s failure to study the negative impacts of the 60-40 establishments suggested that “what the city is really regulating is the content of expression, clearly a violation of the plaintiff’s rights to freedom of speech.”
Justice York’s decision included nine pages of descriptions on how some of the mixed-material establishments segregated their sexually oriented material and included nonsexual material of legitimate interest to consumers. For example, an area in Ten’s Cabaret in Manhattan that is separate from the establishment’s topless dancers has held events featuring the pop singers Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, he wrote.
But come on. Would the Village really be the Village without those skeezy shops on West Fourth Street? Times Square has been cleaned up, even as the 2001 law has had no effect. Do we really need it now?