San Francisco — In city after city around the United States, progress is being made to curb the spread of pornography: * After years of unsuccessfully struggling with the nettlesome "free speech vs. morality" issue, many communities now are using zoning and urban planning to contain and in some cases reduce "adult entertainment."
* Utilizing inspection and police powers, New York has seen a marked reduction in sex-related businesses in midtown Manhatan.
* Since its birth in San Francisco three years ago, the feminist movement against violence and pornographic depictions of women has grown to nearly 30 cities and its influence is being felt.
A breakthrough occurred four years ago when the US Supreme Court upheld Detroit's zoning ordinance limiting the location of "adult" theaters. In previous cases, the high court had never settled on a clear-cut and easily enforcible definition of obscenity. In the Detroit case, the Supreme Court did not define what is obscene, but did hold that erotic content is sufficient grounds for a special zoning classification.
Detroit's dispersal ordinance prevents sex businesses from locating within 1, 000 feet of each other or within 500 feet of residences.
"I think it has performed very well," says James Eichstedt, senior planner in the city's department of community and economic development. "We have denied a half dozen such uses on the basis of neighborhood use."
The National League of Cities recently surveyed cities that have followed Detroit's lead. Dwight Smith, director of the league's urban environmental design project, says, "For the most part, they are working."
In Rochester, N.Y., for example, amending zoning ordinances to include adult entertainment has helped prevent the encroachment of such businesses into the legitimate theater district.
"It has inhibited it from spreading into areas where it's not wanted," says city planner Alvin Russell. "There's a definite procedure they have to follow and there wasn't anything before."
Philadelphia also has copied Detroit's model. Chief of project planning Richard Lombardo reports: "It's put a cup on [pornoggraphy] and basically stopped expansion of it." When the city's Market Street East urban renewal project is completed, Mr. Lombardo adds. "we feel that the number of [ pornography] stores will diminish."
Denver and Dallas also have adopted zoning amendments designed to prevent a concentrated "combat zone," the term used to describe Boston's adult-entertainment district. Seattle's ordinance limiting adult theaters to certain areas has been upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court, and the city now is considering ways to control other sex-related businesses.
"It seems to have been really quite effective," says Seattle zoning administrator Joyce Kling.
In New York City, the "midtown enforcement project" has cut the number of sex-related businesses between 30th and 60th Streets from 117 at the start of 1978 to 86 as of April 1, 1980, a 26 percent production. In the Times Square portion of that area, the drop has been even more dramatic -- 29 percent -- reports project director Carl Weisbrod. But the situation there still looks grim to the visitor.
Boston, with its relatively small geographic area, has continued to rely on "containment" rather than "dispersal" to control adult entertainment. This has been a persistent problem, since the notorious Combat Zone is right next to the legitimate theater district.
But increasingly, says Boston Redevelopment Authority spokesman Ralph Memlo, the area had become "surrounded by large-scale development. . . . The general feeling is that other uses are about usurp the Combat Zone."
That may be more wish than prophesy at this point regarding an industry that is estimated to total $4 billion nationwide. But aside from the zoning victories elsewhere, there also is the increasing perception among women's rights activists that all pornography treats women as "objects" not people and therefore is basically misogynous (hateful of women).
Three years ago, the San Francisco feminist group Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media began directly confronting pornography shop operators and conducting "take back the night" marches through the North Beach topless entertainment area.
There now are similar organizations in more than two dozen other communities, including groups in New York, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and Ohio.
"It's a rapidly growing movement," says Julie Greenberg, coordinator of the San Francisco organization. "I don't see anything prudish about it."