Sleezy 14th Street Porno District

14th St. in the 1970s (Washington Post)
14th St. in the 1970s (Washington Post)

If you lived in or visited Washington in the 1970s or 80s you probably remember how nasty this city was. I remember my father taking me to the 1988 Washington Auto Show at the old convention center, parking a few blocks away next to an X-rated book store. I was a kid, so I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but I knew it wasn’t good.

So, for the vast majority of GoDC readers, you’ll find this to be both shocking and fascinating.

We all know that the riots rocked the city in 1968, destroying the commercial corridors and much of the local economy for years to come. The lingering impact was a major depression in the real estate market, driving down rent. The former commercial corridor of 14th St. NW became a dirty, sleezy porno district.

Casino Royal Adult Theatre advertisement in the Washington Post - July 13th, 1978
Casino Royal Adult Theatre advertisement in the Washington Post – July 13th, 1978

In the late 1970s, the Washington Post reported on a real estate upswing that would eventually lead to market forces driving out the unwanted porn and sex shops. Below is an excerpt from an article written on August 9th, 1978.

The rising tide of development in downtown Washington is about to break over a barrier to business for nearly a decade–the porno district along 14th Street N.W.

Today 14th Street’s sleezy sex shops, running north from H Street NW, are considered the most obvious roadblock to the spread of redevelopment eastward into the old downtown.

But optmistic developers content economics will eventually accomplish what law enforcement has failed to do–drive out the peep shows, “book stores” and other fronts for the sale of sex material.

Hard to believe that where many of you likely go to work in generic office buildings, once the dark underbelly of the city, much like Amsterdam (though not as charming) or Bangkok (not as crazy freaky).

“Creation of a new red light district is impossible” under the present D.C. zoning law, said [city planner J. Kirkwood] White. Rejecting the “combat zone” approach to controlling sexually oriented businesses–setting aside designated areas for them–the city opted for what is known as “the Detroit approach”–diversification.

Porno shops, massage parlors and the like are not permitted to open within 300 feet of each other or within 600 feet of a church, public building or apartment building, or in any residential or commercial zone.

The area near Franklin Square was particularly bad with the infamous Casino Royal Adult Theatre sitting at the corner of 14th and H streets.

Casino Royal Adult Theatre advertisement in the Washington Post - December 15th, 1977
Casino Royal Adult Theatre advertisement in the Washington Post – December 15th, 1977

I’d have a hard time believing anyone would prefer the 14th St. of the late 1970s over what we have today … unless you’re into a nasty 4 a.m. late show.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • At 14th and Mass, cars with Pennsylvania and Delaware plates would circle for hours, negotiating deals with the ladies. Thank goodness it’s all indoors at massage parlors now.

  • I prefer it.

  • Ron

    Sure, it may have been “unwanted” to some, but it never would’ve survived in that area if they had no customers.

  • MB

    The late 70s were a time of transition for downtowns…it wasn’t just here in DC. White flight, civil unrest, no historic preservation to speak of, and cities with no budget for clean-up, etc. only pushed this sort of business environment. Also, remember, the VCR was still a few years away so if you wanted porn you went to a movie theatre or a book store.
    I’ll take today’s 14th St over that one anyday.

    • White flight was starting to wind down in the 1970s. That was when middle class African-American flight to the suburbs started ramping up, culminating in the crack epidemic and Murder Capital status in 1990.

  • Ron

    I don’t know, if they can manage to keep a little of old Chinatown in Chinatown, they should keep a little of the porn district on 14th Street. It’s unfortunate that the powers that be get to decide which parts of history are remembered, and which parts are swept under the rug.

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  • Ed

    I remember those times as there were red-light pockets throughout the city.

    >14th and H Streets, NW a few blocks from the White House.
    >9th and F Streets, NW across the street and few blocks from the FBI building
    >8th Street and Pennsylvania Avenues few blocks from the US Capitol

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  • Peoples Hernandez

    Does anyone remember Chesty Morgan?

  • SteveK

    “If you lived in or visited Washington in the 1970s or 80s you probably remember how nasty this city was.” What an over-broad dumb generalization.

  • Popeye D. Saylorman

    If you go back in history you will see that DC has has a strong red light district even in the 20s 30’s and 40s maybe even earlier.

  • Bob Cole

    I helped build th
    e 14th Street strip. My stepfather owned all of it.I worked there as a teenager. I managed Adam and Eve bookstore .And worked on the construction of the Casino Royale theater. Even run the movies there.worked the strip bars and massage parlors . It was one hell of a ride .

  • Dennis Lewis

    From 1970 to 1973 I was a DC police officer, the 800 block of 14th St NW was part of my beat, needless to say the area has changed quite a bit, I would say for the better.