Sweet Cherry, a Sunset Park strip club once notorious for violence and disorder, sits shuttered, metal gates pulled down and padlocked, on the corner of 42nd Street and Second Avenue. Farther over on 39th Street and First Avenue, another strip club, Corrado’s, is now a construction site, with nothing left to show where it once stood. Along Third Avenue, where adult video stores appear once every block, retailers and pedestrians go about their business, paying no notice to the hand-painted signs on the windows of Spice Video and Gold DVD advertising the best prices on lingerie and adult movies.
Fifteen years ago, Sunset Park became home to the kind of adult establishments that were forced out of Manhattan in the 1990s. Zoning regulations enacted by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1995 banned sex stores and strip clubs from residential areas, school zones and near churches, as well as from opening near one another. With nowhere else to go, those businesses made their way to neighborhoods zoned as industrial or manufacturing areas, including Sunset Park. But as soon as the adult businesses arrived, community leaders and church figures in Sunset Park tried to push them out, claiming that the stores and clubs led to increased rates of drug use and sexual assault.
Those community groups were unsuccessful in their efforts, but the decline in the neighborhood’s adult businesses has gone on regardless. Over the last five years, as the police have cracked down on the prostitutes on Third Avenue and as the strip clubs have closed their doors, Sunset Park’s designation as the borough’s red-light district is fading away, if not disappearing altogether.
“We are perhaps on the cusp of a decrease,” Jeremy Laufer, the district manager of Community Board 7, said of the adult stores. Laufer has fought against the stores since he started working in Sunset Park in 2000. Though he still hears complaints about the stores and clubs—that they’re serving as fronts for prostitution, for example—he noted that the adult establishments were no longer the biggest concern for residents.
“It’s always on people’s minds,” he said. “But it’s not the number one priority.”
Ten years ago, the adult stores were the focus of Bishop Joseph Mattera of the Resurrection Church on 40th Street. Mattera, along with other religious leaders and local politicians, protested the adult establishments and tried to get them closed. He succeeded in forcing stores east of Fourth Avenue to leave, but admitted that his group was unable to put a dent into the Third Avenue establishments. Mattera believed that people had simply lost interest in fighting them.
“It flies in the face of a lot of moral values of people,” Mattera now says. “But if they don’t think they’re going to be able to stop it, they just co-exist with it.”
Sunset Park locals like Mark Sarachick have made their peace with their bawdy neighbors.
“They’re not the focus of the area any more,” said Sarachick, who is the manager of a pet supply store at Third Avenue and 25th Street that sits across the street from an adult video store. “They’re still here, but it’s being absorbed in.”
It’s not just the attitudes of residents that have changed. The businesses themselves have undergone substantial loss. Where there were once four strip clubs in the neighborhood—Sweet Cherry, Coronado’s, Club 37 and Peyton’s—only the latter of that quartet is still open. The New York Times reported in 2006 that Sweet Cherry closed after a plea deal with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office in which the club would shut its doors as a way to get a litany of felony charges against them dropped. Coronado’s and Club 37 have also left, though no one can say exactly why. All that remains is Peyton’s, formerly known as the Wild Wild West, located on the far-removed corner of 39th Street and Second Avenue.
While the strip clubs have disappeared, the adult video stores remain, though they don’t seem to be thriving. Much of why they stay is because of a regulation that, if a video store keeps at least 60 percent of its merchandise as non-X-rated, it won’t be categorized as an adult business. That allows the adult video stores, so long as they keep enough non-pornographic films on the shelves, to open where they please and cluster together, as they have on Third Avenue. But the clerks behind the counters at stores up and down the street said that, despite the freedom to stay open, sales had nosedived in the last year.
“Day by day, business is going down,” said Harain, an employee at Blue Door Video.
Sandwiched between a bodega and an empty storefront on Third Avenue between 36th Street and 35th Street, Blue Door Video has been in the neighborhood for close to 10 years, but is struggling to stay afloat. Harain, who declined to give his last name, said that the owner of the store has recently been unable to pay salaries to employees. He added that the store would likely be out of business within the next month, joining two other stores that he said had recently closed. Asked why the stores were doing so poorly, Harain said that the bad economy was mostly to blame.
“People don’t have money,” he said while checking inventory in a store devoid of customers. “They don’t want to do sex without money.”
The fear of 10 years ago—as Mattera put it, that Sunset Park “was going to become like another Times Square”—has given way to more pressing issues, such as increasing the amount of affordable housing or revitalizing the waterfront. Laufer said that the community board continues to monitor the adult stores to be sure that they’re operating within the law, but that he was unsure if the community could do anything more.
Now, storeowners on Third Avenue talked more about foreign companies taking away their business than they did about prostitutes and porn being next to them. On the street, the video stores kept their doors open, allowing pedestrians to take a glimpse at the merchandise. But as the people walked by, they kept their eyes forward, never giving the stores a glance.