City quietly rolling back 1978 anti-prostitution zoning law

42nd Street west of Seventh Avenue (Credit: National Archives)

Measure originally targeted Midtown sex trade, now widely seen as burden on gyms, health clubs

By Adam Pincus

The New York City Department of City Planning is slowly carving out geographic exceptions to a once-powerful 1970s-era anti-prostitution law, following years of complaints by health clubs and gyms that the regulations were burdensome and archaic.

The change — if followed up with the decriminalization of prostitution that some elected officials are pushing — could make the sex trade another formerly illegal activity in search of real estate, alongside the sale of marijuana.

The new DCP carveouts follow a recommendation from a 2015 intergovernmental study called Small Business First, which suggested making it easier for health clubs and gyms to open.

The city is curtailing the reach of a two-pronged law from 1978 that, first, made it illegal to operate illicit massage parlors, dubbed “adult physical culture establishments,” which were rampant in Midtown by the middle of the decade. There is no change proposed for this portion of the law.

But there is for the second part, which imposed a new requirement on legal health clubs and gyms, requiring them, as “physical culture establishments” (without the word “adult”) to apply for a special permit to open up. The 2015 report said businesses trying to comply with that portion of the law could lose up to six months and $50,000 navigating the bureaucracy.

In a nod that the 40-year-old regulations were onerous, the Department of City Planning decided that in newly rezoned districts, for example those recently completed in East Harlem in 2017, and Inwood and the Jerome Corridor in 2018, physical culture establishments need no special permit and can open as of right.

“I think it’s wise. I think it’s a regulation that has outlived its initial intent,” said Mitchell Korbey, a land use attorney at the law firm Herrick, Feinstein, who has done a number of physical culture establishment applications.

In the 2017 Mayor’s Management Report, the administration reported that it, “Drafted updates to [the] zoning text related to physical culture establishments, with the aim of easing regulatory restrictions for physical fitness facilities citywide.”

The rollback comes even as the number of illicit massage parlors in Manhattan is almost certainly higher than it was in the late 1970s, and recent reports tie the sex trade to human trafficking nationwide. Despite that, there is no clamor for enforcement of the zoning law.

Why? Times Square was cleaned up. The Internet happened. The law is currently focused almost entirely on legal gyms and health clubs. And elected officials are looking to decriminalize prostitution.

A once ostentatious sex trade

During the mid-1970s, the city estimated there were as many as 170 massage locations, between 30th and 60th streets, from river to river, according to a 1978 article in The New York Times.

And the owners were aggressive hustling for clients. The Times reported that year that each of three large locations being targeted by law enforcement had, “hawkers outside its front door distributing leaflets and urging passing men to enter and visit with ‘girls.’”

And there were also pornographic theaters with bold facades, along with raunchy bookstores, bath houses and more.

At the time, the city was using various strategies to stifle the sex trade, the most visible being the Midtown Enforcement Project, launched in 1976. In addition to health, fire and anti-vice regulations, the city adopted zoning changes that year that made it illegal in Midtown to operate a massage parlor. That led to a drop from 170 massage parlors in Midtown to just 25 in the whole city by late 1978, when the Board of Estimate passed its citywide ban on illicit massage parlors. Carl Weisbrod, then the director of the Midtown Enforcement, predicted the massage industry would be all but finished within a year.

“We are confident that by December 1979 there will be very few, if any, left,” Weisbrod told The Times.

And their broad enforcement efforts had an impact. Although it took nearly a decade, the publicly visible sex business — pornographic theaters, bookstores and the like — has been nearly entirely scrubbed from Manhattan.

The sex trade today

The public attitude toward the sex trade has changed dramatically since the mid-1970s, which has allowed the city to make the change to the zoning regulations with virtually no public backlash.

The most important change was the complete transformation of Times Square from a seedy red-light district, into a teeming family-friendly, 24-hour, big-business carnival.

The other change was wrought by the Internet, which now allows the scores of illicit massage parlors operating in the city to draw clients even as they maintain modest or even no public advertising or signage.

And there are certainly dozens of illicit massage parlors in Manhattan alone and many others in Flushing, Brooklyn and other parts of the city, a quick review of websites catering to massage clients, such as RubMaps, reveals. Some of the sites offer racy photos of women while others offer detailed and explicit reviews of sexual services. The Times reported in March that some of the Flushing locations figure in national human trafficking schemes.

This growth in the online presence has not been matched by any public outrage. The New York Police Department made very few arrests in Midtown for prostitution last year, compared with the hundreds made in Jackson Heights, a PincusCo Media review of NYPD arrest records for prostitution shows. In part that’s because there are so few complaints of prostitution to the police, a review of the city’s Open Data portal found, with only seven found for Manhattan last year.

The Department of Buildings has also slowed its enforcement of the physical culture establishment law, a PincusCo review of Environment Control Board violations found. Those violations are issued for buildings that allegedly don’t comply with the zoning laws or construction codes.

There were 42 buildings hit with ECB violations related to the physical culture establishment regulations in the first quarter of 2019 compared with 61 buildings in the first three months of 2018.

And the state, which licenses massage therapists, only sanctioned one person last year in New York City for inappropriately touching a client, a review of the New York State Office of the Professions found.

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