This was where hookers, johns, and trouble met

By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / March 7, 2010

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Once upon a time, there was a slice of Boston called the Combat Zone, and in that zone was a long block named LaGrange Street. LaGrange was the core of the Zone. What it was was a rodeo.

On any given night from the ’60s into the ’80s, you’d find scores of prostitutes on parade on LaGrange. They leaned into open car windows, teetering on elevator platforms, talking to men inside while trying to steal their wallets. They worked the sidewalks like they owned them, which they did.

“Scores of them? Try 60 some nights,’’ recalls Bill Dwyer, a 32-year veteran Boston detective, now retired, who worked the Zone in various capacities from 1971 to 1984. “LaGrange was insane. It was the O.K. Corral. Wall to wall traffic. People would be coming down from Maine and New Hampshire to see the sights. It was like a circle, the cars would drive through and then come around again.’’

But then the whole Combat Zone was a rodeo. It ran roughly from Tremont to Washington and from Boylston down to Kneeland, extending west onto Stuart Street. The area was infamous for its strip clubs, peep shows, dirty bookstores, booze, drugs, and violence.

The ladies were, in the street parlance of the time, “on the stroll.’’ They would swarm like silverfish near Good Time Charlie’s, a bar on the block that poured men into the night. The women would be there in daylight too, their ranks thinned, working hard for the money.

You had men trolling, undergraduates ogling. You had small seedy men leaning on parking meters, eyeing and smoking, and people punching each other’s lights out. It was a gamy playground for anyone interested in adventure of a certain kind. The Zone was nothing but sleaze.

“It had something there for everyone,’’ recalls John Goodman, a photographer who took some of the photographs mounted on the Howard Yezerski Gallery’s walls in “Boston Combat Zone: 1969-1978.’’

Goodman all but lived in the Zone during the ’70s. He and five other photographers shared studio space in a huge deserted kitchen atop the old Bradford Hotel, which had once offered rooftop dinner dancing. “Some of the girls lived below me. We were on the elevator together all the time.

“One girl was with me one day,’’ he adds, “and I asked if I could shoot some pictures of her,’’ he says. “One second later, she was totally naked in the elevator.’’

The names are gone but not forgotten - places like the Naked i, the Two O’Clock Club, the Pilgrim Theatre, the Intermission Lounge, and the Pussycat Lounge. Strip clubs festooned their front windows with 8-by-10 pictures of their performers, their breasts barely covered by pasties.

Violence always lurked beneath the street theater. Many of the street women preyed on drunken men coming out of the clubs. “That’s where the tricks were,’’ says Dwyer. “They were there to rob. Some of the clubs would put mickeys in drinks and run up a guy’s tab.’’ A fair number of prostitutes were murdered over the years, he adds, and Andrew Puopolo, a Harvard University football player, was stabbed to death in the Zone in 1976.

The roots of the Combat Zone were planted in Scollay Square, where Government Center is now, known for its burlesque theaters and good times. It was seedy but not particularly dangerous, and it had its charm. Scollay got torn down in the name of urban renewal, and some of the trade moved over to what became the Zone. This new turf lacked the style of Scollay and was more dangerous.

Places opened, hookers showed up, and off it went. The Zone was named for the brawls that unfolded between the biker gangs and sailors and soldiers, going way back, says Dwyer. “These were colossal fights. The M.P.s maintained a large force near there. Organized crime moved in, too.’’

Cops, in plain clothes and in uniform, wandered around. Police cars would glide by sometimes. Every now and then, some of the working women would get hauled into Boston Municipal Court to keep up appearances.

Retired BMC judge Dermot Meagher, who saw the detritus of the Zone at the end of its days blow into his court, recalls a trio of regulars who would appear before him. “They dressed like suburban matrons,’’ he recalls. “Nice blue suits, white blouses. Stylish. They worked the hotels, but they also worked the streets. They flirted with every judge, man or woman.’’

“The pimps were always in the back row of the court,’’ he adds. “They would nod to their women if they planned to bail them out.’’

You also had some gay sex in the Zone. On LaGrange was the Club Baths, up on the second floor of a building. Over on Carver Street was Lundin Turkish Baths, known by some patrons as “the blackfoot club’’ for the dirt on its floors.

AIDS arrived in the ’80s, followed by crack and heroin toward the end of that decade. The city increased its efforts to clean up the Zone. Prostitutes headed elsewhere - Brockton, New Bedford, Providence. Real estate developers later swooped in to build huge projects like Millennium Place, which includes, among other things, condos and a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Goodman knows all this, but he gazes at his pictures on the gallery walls and still asks, “Where did everything go?’’

Sam Allis’s e-mail address is