Upscale restaurants, majestic theaters, and luxury condos line the streets of downtown Boston today. Students, office workers, doctors, and shoppers navigate the busy sidewalks along Washington and Boylston Streets, giving little thought to the historical significance of their surroundings. The bustle distracts passersby from what may be the city’s dirtiest little secret: these blocks were once home to Boston’s most notorious neighborhood. The Combat Zone, a five-plus-acre, city- sanctioned adult entertainment district, was as sordid and alluring as anything found in Amsterdam or Vegas. Indeed, Boston’s now tony neighborhood once resembled the set of HBO’s The Deuce, all with the blessing of city officials.
In her provocative new book, Inside the Combat Zone: The Stripped Down Story of Boston’s Most Notorious Neighborhood, veteran reporter Stephanie Schorow recounts the stories that made the Zone infamous. Meet the dancers who stripped to punk rock, the cops who tried to keep order on the streets, and the hookers who turned tricks and slipped wallets from gullible tourists. Go beyond the enticing marquees promoting all-nude revues to discover how the Zone—in an era dogged by miserable economics— remained one of Boston’s most profitable neighborhoods.
With Inside the Combat Zone, Schorow examines the constitutional and societal issues that led Boston to engineer an audacious social experiment, heralded across the nation as the solution to the pornography epidemic. She introduces the players who made it all possible and the antics and tragedies that unfolded as a result of their decisions. The streets come alive through interviews with former city planners, strippers, and porn merchants. Some nostalgically recall the Combat Zone as a seductive adult playground where men and women alike found the freedom to express themselves; others remember it as a dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhood. Schorow deftly captures a moment in Boston’s history that helped shape the city today—and that will likely never be seen again.
Schorow is the author of six books on Boston history, including Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits, The Cocoanut Grove Fire, and The Crime of the Century: How the Brink’s Robbers Stole Millions and the Hearts of Boston. She has worked as an editor and reporter for the Boston Herald, the Associated Press, and numerous other publications.