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New nuisance rules leave shops untouched

City toughens response to 'livability' issues, but they won't affect adult shops
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Pussycats owner Ben Cunningham runs several lingerie shops in the Portland area. Neighbors have complained for years about the racy atmosphere of the lingerie shops, but because alcohol isn't sold at the shops, city rules don't apply.

In a darkening gray that falls over Northeast 12th Avenue at Columbia Boulevard, a pair of half-dressed women known as the Lindseys smoke on the porch one July evening and watch the 6-year-old boy next door ride his toy power wheel.

The porch is attached to the Lindseys' workplace, Club Fantasy, a private adult business where nude women put on 'lingerie shows' for men who pay $100 for a half-hour exhibition.

Next door to Club Fantasy, the 6-year-old's mother, Tamara, was shocked when her son recently tugged on her skirt and asked, 'Mommy, are those girls hookers?'

City officials and police say neighbors frequently complain about Club Fantasy and the 11 other Portland lingerie shops, but there is little the city can do. The shops and other 'adult' businesses are protected by the Oregon Constitution, leaving the Portland Police Bureau and other agencies little enforcement power beyond the city's chronic nuisance ordinance, or breaking up disturbances outside the businesses.

That's not going to soon change, even as the city hammers out an update of Portland's 'time, place and manner' regulations, which affect businesses selling alcohol. The new rules add complaints about prostitution, drug use, weapons offenses and fire code violations to the list of nuisances hurting neighborhoods' livability.

The proposed rules could give police and other city bureaus a little more leverage when dealing with businesses that serve alcohol, but not much leverage with the adult businesses that dot mixed-use residential areas. That leaves families like Tamara and her husband in a legal gray area.

Some nude dance clubs sell alcohol and fall under Oregon Liquor Control Commission rules. However, lingerie shops don't sell alcohol, giving nearby residents little recourse but to call police every time there's a problem.

'It would be so nice to have something in place to deal with them,' says Stephanie Reynolds, city neighborhood crime prevention manager. 'The kinds of things that neighbors get upset about are all wrapped up in Oregon's liberal interpretation of First Amendment rights. Like girls in skimpy clothes: that's free speech. Owners can blow us off if they want to, because there's nothing illegal, or no way to prove it, and no mechanism like time, place and manner there to control livability issues.'

Right now, neighbors can complain about nuisances at businesses with liquor licenses, such as noise from amplified music, disorderly conduct, offensive littering (like public vomiting or urinating) and drinking in public. Under current rules, businesses hit with three nuisance complaints in 30 days must work with the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement to resolve the problems or face trouble with their state liquor licenses.

The City Council is expected to discuss the new time, place and manner rule additions in early September, with possible adoption in October. The rules also could change the frequency of violations requiring abatement from three in 30 days to three in 60 days.

Adding other nuisances to the list might be one more way to boost neighborhood livability, says City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who helped write the time, place and manner rules in 2004 addressing complaints about businesses with liquor licenses.

'When you have one problem, you have other problems under the same roof,' Leonard says. 'Sometimes neighbors feel powerless. That's where time, place and manner comes in.'

Preventing violence

Livability problems were the target of the code when Leonard proposed the rules allowing cities to monitor the time, place and manner of alcohol sales and service. Those rules can mean the difference between taverns and restaurants renewing their state liquor licenses or losing them because of repeated violations.

Theresa Marchetti, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement's liquor licensing specialist, says the proposed time, place and manner rule additions were prompted after a string of problems in the past year - including assaults and shootings - occurring at businesses targeted by neighborhood nuisance complaints that fell just outside the city's 30-day time limit.

As an example, Marchetti points to Portland's Club 915 on Southwest Second Avenue, and the 720 Room on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, two taverns that lost their state liquor licenses because of a parade of problems in several years. Neighbors and others had complained about nuisances at the clubs for months, but the incidents often were not inside the 30-day abatement time limit, she says.

Club 915 lost its liquor license in January after a New Year's Day shooting outside the business that killed bouncer Ruben Mata. OLCC investigators said the club had 19 serious incidents that led to the license suspension.

If new time, place and manner rules requiring abatement after three complaints in 60 days had been in effect, Marchetti says, it might have prevented the violence.

The 720 Room lost its liquor license in May 2010 after OLCC officials reported 90 serious incidents since October 2009. A 17-page report outlined complaints about public drunkenness, fights, altercations, harassment, criminal mischief, and disorderly conduct at the club. At least 18 of the incidents 'involved harm or the threat of harm, with feet and fists frequently being used as weapons as well as guns. Several times shots have been fired,' OLCC investigators reported.

Maria Gastelum, a janitor for Ortiz Community Center and a resident of the Clara Vista low-income apartments on Northeast Killingsworth Street, welcomes the proposed rule changes. For several years, the mother of six complained to the Office of Neighborhood Involvement about the Sugar Shack, a strip club across the street from her home that serves alcohol. She also organized Las vecinas en alertas (neighborhood alert), a group of six women who live in Gastelum's building.

'I see the girls asking the Mexican guys si quieres contrar canocha (if they want to buy sex),' says Gastelum.

But neighbors' complaints aren't the only criteria the city could use to compel business owners to solve alcohol-related problems. Any investigation into the incidents must hold up to the 'clear and convincing' standard of evidence required by the city, according to Marchetti.

Still, some business owners don't think that time, place and manner enforcement should hinge mainly on neighborhood complaints.

'The whole time, place and manner thing is ludicrous,' says Johnny Zukle, owner of Casa Diablo in Northwest Portland, which has a state liquor license. 'Just because some neighbor says something is true doesn't mean it is.'

Zukle hopes to open a second Casa Diablo on Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard, a move opposed by the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League and the Ardenwald-Johnson Creek Neighborhood Association. About 70 people in the neighborhoods near the proposed Casa Diablo location filed a protest with the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement.

Police investigations of most complaints about lingerie shops often come up empty. Police reports show one arrest in the past decade related to prostitution at a lingerie shop and several suspended investigations, meaning that evidence wasn't sufficient to justify charges.

Of 303 other police contacts at the venues associated with allegations ranging from illegal drug use to identity fraud, only about 20 led to arrests.

Sgt. Mike Geiger, head of Portland's sexual assault detail and the vice detective responsible for investigating prostitution involving pimps, says the standard of evidence is more complex than some people realize.

'How do we prove what's going on inside a building with the door closed?' Geiger asks. 'The only witnesses of criminal activity there are the adults involved, and they're the guilty ones, so why would they tell?

'I'm not even saying the speculations are wrong, but as far as police reports go, there's little criminal activity at lingerie shops. There may be, but that doesn't mean anybody's calling the police about it.'

Tamara and her husband Juan, neighbors of Club Fantasy, called the North Precinct regularly and developed a relationship with Officer Steve Stahl before he retired at the end of July.

'The information was pretty vague and nondescript,' Stahl says. 'They see scantily clad girls and cars coming and going, of course, but that doesn't mean anything illegal is going on.'

Advertising gimmick

There's no shortage of allegations, though.

'They are houses of prostitution right in your town, right in your backyard,' says Dennis Hof, who owns the Moonlite BunnyRanch brothel in Mound House, Nev., featured in an HBO television series 'Cathouse,' and who sometimes visits Portland to catch up with club-owner friends here.

Ben Cunningham, who owns four Portland-area Pussycat lingerie shops, insists that the illusion of forbidden activity is an advertising gimmick that works at his locations, but stops short of legal boundaries.

According to Cunningham, he's a typical male who appreciates beautiful women and easy money and a businessman with an old-fashioned American ethos of working hard and climbing to the top.

'We're safe, legal and clean,' he says. 'This is a normal business. I'm making money just like my grandfather did, sticking my nose to the grind. It's easy to monopolize: you go to the place next door to Pussycats and some ugly thing answers. Walk 10 steps, you've got my place, landscaped with a beautiful model sitting there who makes you want to come in. I've just hooked you in the jaw like a snapper and I'm going to take all your money.'

Cunningham warns that many lingerie shops, however, are unfit to operate near families with children. 'Some are brothels run by madams and pimps,' he says.

A Club Fantasy employee who goes by 'Angel,' and prefers to keep her name confidential, has worked in lingerie shops since she moved to Portland from California in 2009. She wants to forget what she knows.

Angel began working in the adult shops after spending her first Portland Christmas living in her car, depressed in the wake of her stepfather's death and newly single. Plans to finish her medical-assistant education were cut short by financial desperation. She was exploring an adult video store for a lark when she picked up an explicit magazine and saw lingerie shop advertisements.

'I thought, 'what the hell?' ' she says. 'It was a last resort.'

Her mother, sister and daughter in California don't know about her livelihood these days, and she believes her stepfather, a man who sent flowers to her stay-at-home mother from work every weekday, would hate to see her in racy work outfits.

Though shop customers often make strange requests - Angel shudders as she describes a man who wanted to pretend he was a landlord accepting sexual pleasure from the 12-year-old daughter of a tenant in exchange for lowered rent - she refrains from crossing legal lines.

Indeed, Angel says, she feels she's performing a service to the community by providing an outlet to disturbed men who might otherwise explore their fetishes.

'A fantasy is better than real sex,' she says. 'Once you have sex, once you cross the line - that's when it all becomes ugly and you really mess up your life. Once you start selling sex, you kill your soul.'

'Trucker's delight'

Club Fantasy owner Richard Barajas is a newcomer to the adult industry who took over the business in May. He admits that he is sometimes at a loss to control his employees.

'Who knows what they do when I leave? It scares me. I don't want to get in trouble,' Barajas says. 'I wish there were some book I could read that would tell me the law about what crossing the line is. If I had any trouble with driving, I could refer to the driver's manual.'

At Sheena's G Spot on Southwest Barbur Boulevard, one employee (who asked that her name not be published) describes lingerie shop cash as easily won. She has worked at Sheena's for nine years, first full-time and then only occasionally when she began taking classes at Mt. Hood Community College. The 28-year-old is nearly done with her associate's degree and plans to major in psychology at Portland State University.

'I'd heard that lingerie shops were outlets for prostitution when I started, but Sheena promotes legal shows,' the woman says. 'I like what I do, getting dressed up and doing dances, and I get chances to study between customers. I don't let myself be degraded - if a guy is wanting me to do something I'm not comfortable with, then I say a firm 'no.' '

The only reason she plans to leave the industry within the next year, she says, is because she and her boyfriend are planning to have a baby. Her dream is to open a shelter for dogs, cats and ex-prostitutes where the women will earn room and board through the care of the animals.

Next door to Northeast Portland's Club Fantasy, Tamara tries to keep her children from paying too close attention to the lingerie shop.

'I tell the kids I don't want them out front, because I don't know who's coming and going,' Tamara says. 'Sometimes the girls will walk the curb. I see them strut in high heels like union ladies back in the day. I wanted to get away from it, so I tried to sell the house in 2009, but nobody made an offer because of the girls next door, even though the Realtor advertised it as a 'trucker's delight.' '

Whether or not illegal activity happens at lingerie shops, the sight of Club Fantasy employees lounging near the street in skimpy clothes isn't good for Tamara's three sons, she says.

'I like just standing and watching,' says Tamara's 12-year-old son. 'You can always tell the married customers because they're nervous. My friends' parents don't really like it here.'