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Diverse Village Voices Decry Porn

As New York cleans up Times Square, a nearby neighborhood opposes the migrating sleaze. PORNOGRAPHY PROTEST

By Jonathan RoweStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 1989


THEY were walking the same picket line. But Frances Patai could have done without this particular company. ``See that sign,'' she sniffed. ``That's a Moral Majority sign.'' The offending placard denounced ``Cesspools of Depravity,'' and Ms. Patai, groomed and trim in a business suit, sensed a hidden agenda. Such people, she declared, were ``anti-sex.''

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In most places, a demonstration against a triple-X rated video store would be a fairly straightforward matter. But in Greenwich Village, where virtually all politics are sexual, the acceptable grounds for protest were as contentious as the protest itself.

And so earlier this month, on the 6th Avenue commercial strip just west of Washington Square Park, a chanting crowd gathered before a new video-porn shop called Crazy Fantasy. From a distance, the people could almost have been churchgoers from some small town: oldsters, business people, mothers with strollers, some carrying signs like ``No Porn in the Village'' and ``No Sleaze, Please.'' But up close, the diverse Village culture was on disputatious display.

There were jabs at religious fundamentalists. Longtime Italian residents griped about liberals. Some picketers opposed obscenity; others, just pornography. Homosexuals argued over whether an attack on pornography had broader and repressive implications - ``the thin edge of the wedge,'' as one put it.

The disagreements suggested the uneasy truce that lies beneath the anything-goes ambience for which the Village is well known. And the demonstration bared the dilemma facing social liberals, who pride themselves on tolerance, when a raunchy sex shop opens in their own backyard.

``I'm not a big fan of obscenity laws,'' said Tim James, a local lawyer and Democratic Party activist, who helped organize the protest. ``I'm an ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] member.''

Greenwich Village would seem an unlikely place for a demonstration against pornography - or against a lifestyle choice of any kind, for that matter. The birthplace of the Gay Rights movement, haunt for Jack Kerouac and other ``Beats'' of the '50s, the Village is probably most known to the nation through its main publication, the Village Voice, which sees portents of fascism in the slightest criticism of sexual lifestyle.

Outlandish rents have excluded most forms of counterculture not already ensconced in rent-controlled apartments. But tolerance is so sacred here that people walking the picket line were arguing with antipicket bystanders as to who supported the First Amendment the most.

The Gomorrah-on-the-Hudson image, however, is a caricature of Village life. The neighborhood is still home to first- and second-generation Italians whose families settled here early in the century. Its quiet, curving streets are among the few places in the city where affluent parents feel comfortable raising kids. ``The Village is first and foremost a residential community,'' said Nick DeCurtis, a longtime resident, uttering one of the few statements on which everyone at the demonstration could agree.

Which is why there was so much alarm when two X-rated video shops appeared here in recent weeks. The Village economy has been struggling, in part because of high rents and - some think - a street life that is going to the dogs. Gays have become more conservative and ``monogamous,'' merchants suggest, leaving a ``vacuum'' on the streets that is being filled by undesirables who hang out at the piers along the Hudson.

``We've watched business go down 30 percent simply because of the undesirable traffic on the street,'' says Robert Mirisola, who owns a men's store on Christopher Street. ``I have an expensive men's store. I'm selfishly looking at it that way.''