God Doesn't Like Pornography Stephen Baldwin and America's Culture War

A battle over a sex shop in a small town near New York shows how a local problem can quickly turn into a culture war in America. At the center is a famous actor who became a born-again Christian after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

By Alexander Osang


In January 2006, almost four and a half years after the attack on the World Trade Center, the planning board of the village of Nyack, New York, issued a permit for a new sex shop on Route 59, a busy access road. The shop was to be housed in a former car dealership on the outskirts of town and feature eight video booths for porn flicks. The five members of Nyack's planning board saw no connection between the sex shop and Sept. 11.

The planning board's decision was unanimous and seemed to be the result of careful preparation. The members of the board, which holds a monthly public meeting in Nyack's white-painted town hall building, spent a year discussing the shop. They examined the legal situation, specifically a 1992 local law detailing Nyack's zoning requirements for sex shops and strip clubs. They discussed sewage, lighting, window coverings and parking lot lights. They issued specifications for the width of the sidewalk and the dimensions of the eight video booths, for warning signs, minimum age restrictions and hours of operation. They evaluated construction plans, models and the planned porn shop's inventory, consulting lawyers, architects and other experts in the process.

In one public meeting, 37 Nyack residents -- 34 named and three anonymous -- commented on the sex shop being applied for. The minutes of the board's meetings, filed in the village archives, include the full text of each of these statements. In the minutes, citizen Elizabeth Chapman voices her concern over so-called "glory holes" in the walls of the video booths, citizen Larry Jameson points out the potential hazards of turning left into the sex shop's parking lot, and citizen Irving Feiner says he is against porn shops but in favor of their right to free speech. An unnamed older man enlightens the group over the benefits of masturbation.

The future operators of the sex shop, "Leslie Fernandopulle and the Algama Family," never appeared before the planning board. According to the minutes of one meeting, they were stuck in traffic while en route from the New York borough of Queens -- not exactly a far-fetched excuse, given the normally heavy traffic on the 40-mile route from New York City.

A crusade in small-town America

Nyack is an attractive little artists' town in the Hudson Valley. It's a place of small streets, bookstores, cafes, antique shops, art galleries, old trees, old leftists and aging celebrities like actors Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn and TV news personality Diane Sawyer. Real estate prices are high, and the citizens of Nyack have no interest in seeing their little town fall victim to American commercialism. No major fast-food chain has gained a foothold in the town, where citizens put a stop to a proposed ferry line to New York and where planning board meetings sometimes turn into bitter battles over individual trees.

On the day the sex shop was approved, a representative of Dunkin' Donuts also came before the planning board to petition for a small store on the other side of Route 59. It was Dunkin' Donuts' sixth appearance before the board.

Nyack's planners really have no interest in allowing the corporate chain to open a store in their village, but instead of saying so directly, they've spent the last year discussing landscape plans. The Dunkin' Donuts file is twice as thick as the porn shop's.

Nyack is what Americans would call a liberal town. The mayor is openly gay, and the overwhelming majority of residents are Democrats. But this majority wasn't the problem for the owners of the proposed sex shop; it was the devout Catholics who took up the cause at some point, especially Stephen Baldwin, who launched a veritable crusade against the adult business.

Like his three older brothers, Alec, Daniel and William, Baldwin is an actor. He played his best-known role 11 years ago in the film "The Usual Suspects," which won two Academy Awards. He has also starred in a host of insignificant films, has done a few sex scenes, has been featured on reality shows, has smoked, gambled, and gotten drunk. Like his brothers, he's always been considered a bit rough around the edges -- and a Democrat. But on Sept. 11, 2001, Baldwin became a born-again Christian. He gave up smoking, stopped drinking and started showing up at US President George W. Bush's campaign events.

Baldwin grew up on Long Island, spent some time living in Arizona with his wife and then moved to Nyack nine years ago. The town's residents are used to celebrities and hardly even noticed him. At least not until two years ago, when Baldwin began posting large signs bearing scripture on his front lawn. Last February, he showed up in front of the future porn shop with a digital camera to take pictures of construction workers, who were updating the building to meet the planning board's requirements. Baldwin told a reporter with a local paper that he planned to photograph each of the porn shop's patrons and their license plates. The photos, he said, would be offered to newspapers or posted on the Web.

"It's the only way to protect us against these pigs," he said. "The town administration has failed, so I have to do something." He also repeated his threat in brief, almost amusing statements to a few TV stations. But anyone looking into Baldwin's eyes could see that there was more on his mind than just a sex shop.

The unusual suspect

Baldwin is sitting in his agent's office on the 21st floor of a Manhattan office building on a spring evening, explaining the motives behind his Nyack fight. A heavy, black rain falls outside. His agent, a nervous, overweight man in shorts, sits next to him.

"River towns like Nyack have always played an important role in American history, both culturally and politically. They're Americana," says Baldwin -- whatever that means. "Unfortunately, there is little will among politicians and with the police to protect these achievements, these visions."

What visions?

"There isn't enough police presence, drugs are permitted and tolerated and there are bums all over the place. If you allow lawlessness, it'll lead to decay. Ever since I became a religious person, I've noticed how much our country is deteriorating. We're more worried about trees and rivers than about people. How can people who are so concerned about the environment allow a porn shop? The answer is easy. We stare at our constitution, which is so full of rights that everything gets mixed up and there are no more limits. For example, if one state after another allows gay marriage, maybe it'll be legal for a father to marry his daughter in ten years. What'll happen next? Can a woman marry her German Shepherd dog? Twenty years ago, the US mainstream considered gay marriage just as wrong and misguided as a woman marrying her dog. Where is all this going?"

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