Giuliani Understood How “Small Things” Matter

Richard Morgan writes about Rudy Giuliani’s approach to adult use regulation for City Journal in “Free to Strip?”

From the drumbeat of criticism, you’d think that something Orwellian had gripped Mayor Giuliani’s New York. “His vision is…authoritarian, repressive, and antithetical to our rich tradition of tolerance for the right to protest and dissent,” thunders New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Norman Siegel. Rumbles self-styled First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams: “We’re talking about constitutionally protected speech. You can’t drive them out of town.” Echoes Kathleen Camuti, a bar owner from Queens: “This is not a free state anymore.”

Are newspaper offices being padlocked, or political dissidents herded onto buses for New Jersey? Is an avant-garde publishing house being closed? No: all this fuss is over 100 or so “sex shops,” where people take off their clothes, gyrate, and reveal body parts usually kept covered in civilized society…

Rudolph Giuliani came to the mayoralty understanding one very big thing that had eluded his immediate predecessors–that to reduce crime and reverse the infamous decline in the city’s livability, little things counted. He had absorbed the broken-windows thesis of George Kelling and James Q. Wilson–that low-level disorder and vandalism drive law-abiding people from the streets and encourage more serious offenders–and he grasped the implications of Nathan Glazer’s famous 1979 article that showed how subway graffiti induced fear in riders by sending the message that “no one is in charge down here.” Giuliani put this understanding to work in his crackdown on quality-of-life crimes and his campaign for civility in public places.

It also moved him to take on the pornography business. Neighborhood decline accompanies sex joints just as surely as it does broken windows and graffiti. The associated prostitution and rowdiness are bad enough, even putting aside the assault on public morals–a subject of no concern to carousing college students or conventioneers, but crucial to families trying to raise children on the block.

For decades, the chattering classes have been instructing government in America not to take pornography seriously: relax, who’s to judge, don’t be a Mrs. Grundy. But Giuliani knew that commercial sex was one of the little things that counted, and in 1995 he secured passage of a new law barring “adult establishments” from operating in purely residential neighborhoods, within 500 feet of residential buildings or schools–or within 500 feet of one another, to ensure that, even within the commercial and manufacturing areas where they could legally operate, sex shops could not cluster into red-light districts, like the old Boston Combat Zone.

NPN lived in New York City before, during and after the Giuliani administration. As is well known, the city became safer, more prosperous, and was far from censored during this period.

Read New York City’s Adult Entertainment Study (1994), which documents the secondary effects of adult businesses.

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