POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 3, 2014
NEW YORK » With its fish-market perfumed air, waste-transfer stations and a moored prison barge visible just off its coast, the industrial peninsula of Hunts Point in the Bronx has long been somewhat of an indifferent haven for the city's topless bars and pole dancing parlors.
With names like Club Heat and BadaBing, they proliferated amid the warehouses and next to the Bruckner Expressway after restrictive zoning laws instituted by the Giuliani administration forced them from other neighborhoods.
But one by one, the clubs began to close: Just two years ago, there were four strip clubs in Hunts Point's 1.6 square miles. Now there are none.
The strip club industry is under broad attack in New York, as opponents have embraced a startlingly effective strategy: Spare the strip clubs, but punish their liquor.
In the last several years, community leaders have found increasing success petitioning the State Liquor Authority to revoke the liquor licenses of numerous strip clubs in New York, and deny the applications of new clubs. The opponents cite crime, noise or other quality-of-life issues, or highlight a club owner's lack of qualifications or possible criminal ties.
The tactics have led many owners to try to operate without selling alcohol - a status that, ironically, because of vagaries in the rules governing exotic dancing, allows the clubs to be totally nude. But the resulting loss of customers makes clear that the presence of alcohol is far more important than the absence of pasties.
And when there is no Champagne in the Champagne room, the flow of revenue also dries up.
"You go after their liquor license," said Rafael Salamanca, the district manager of Bronx Community Board 2, which covers Hunts Point. Salamanca has spearheaded efforts that led to the closing of four clubs in the last two years. "They can't make any money if they don't have a liquor license."
In determining whether to award a license, the authority considers criteria like the proximity of other such establishments and the background of an applicant. The authority also "places substantial weight on the recommendations of community boards and residents living near a proposed bar or restaurant."
Some of the arguments against a club can be rather straightforward. Salamanca cited one Hunts Point venue, Club Eleven, that he said was a magnet for trouble; the police were called to numerous fights and assaults that stemmed from the club. And in December 2011, a woman was shot and killed outside.
Other battles require more effort. Club opponents have set up their own taskforces and begun to investigate club owners, reporting any dirt to the Liquor Authority. As a result, established venues have seen their liquor licenses contested for reasons that sometimes amount to technicalities.
In the case of Platinum Pleasures in Hunts Point, club owners did not notify the authority and surrender its license when it was temporarily shut for construction work. The owners also failed to disclose that they received $126,880 from an unidentified interest. The authority revoked the club's license, saying that officials must know who is providing financing. The club closed in 2013; last week, a state Supreme Court justice upheld the decision to revoke its license.
Platinum Pleasures' sign, featuring female silhouettes, has now been replaced by a For Sale banner. A local pastor has expressed interest in converting the space into a church.
"I feel like we're being censored," said Jeff Levy, the executive director of the Association of Club Executives of New York, a trade and advocacy organization for the industry. "Just because the community board or legislators don't like this type of entertainment doesn't mean it's wrong."
Nonetheless, the more potent community pressures, combined with the restrictive zoning measures, have made it exceedingly difficult for a new strip club to open in New York City. Most if not all new clubs that have opened in roughly the last five years have done so in the footprints of former strip clubs, taking advantage of a city Buildings Department stipulation grandfathering in clubs that existed before 1995.
Rick's Cabaret, the first publicly traded strip club company, opened its first New York City location eight years ago, and has opened 40 more across the country. But it took the company until last year to find a location for a second club in New York; it found a space on West 37th Street that had served at one time as a fetish dungeon, and opened Vivid Cabaret, a strip club, this winter. "It was not just finding the needle in the haystack, it was finding the needle in the whole farm," said Allan Priaulx, a spokesman for the company.
Some clubs fight back. Show Palace, a strip club in Long Island City, Queens, filed a lawsuit challenging the Liquor Authority's denial of a liquor license in 2012. In its rejection letter, the authority cited development planned for the neighborhood, and how a strip club would be inconsistent with the vision for the area's future.
Samantha R. Darche, who is chief of staff and legislative counsel for Aravella Simotas, a state assemblywoman who represents Long Island City, said the clubs were hardly the welcome banner the neighborhood needed.
"Nothing says, 'You should move your family here,' like getting off the Queensboro Bridge and getting smacked in the face with a strip club," Darche said. In August, a new law spearheaded by Simotas was passed, requiring sexually oriented businesses to more fully disclose their nature when they apply for liquor licenses. It is intended, proponents acknowledge, to give communities more time to gird for battle.
However, in April, Show Palace was handed a victory by a state Supreme Court justice who overturned the Liquor Authority's denial on grounds that some of the arguments against it were "capricious" and "arbitrary," according to the ruling.
In deciding in favor of Show Palace, Justice Manuel J. Mendez affirmed the authority's prerogative to weigh public sentiment, but said that decisions could not be based "solely on community reaction, and the views or recommendations of elected officials, without factual basis."
Show Palace, an opulent Vegas-like club, celebrated with a Prohibition-themed party in May. Nine months later, however, the club is still without its liquor license, and serves mocktails with its lap dances; the lower-court ruling was appealed by the authority, and the matter, now before an appellate court, is likely to be decided in about a month.
Those in the industry, including owners, trade groups and some of the dancers themselves, say strip clubs can be a boon for desolate neighborhoods. Citing sociological and industry-sponsored studies that show how a strip club can improve its surroundings, they say the establishments increase nighttime foot traffic to the forlorn locales to which they are banished - and where no other business would invest.
They also contend that the campaign against strip clubs is out of touch in a city where today nudity raises few eyebrows, whether flaunted on cable television or plastered on billboards.
Albert J. Pirro, a lawyer representing Show Palace, said the Liquor Authority is catering to a segment of the public "who are more, shall we say, conservative."
"Whether a girl is dancing naked in front of other people, people who are paying for the privilege, what does it really have to do with the liquor license?" he said.
While most club owners have decided to shut down rather than proceed without alcohol, Show Palace is operating as a juice bar, serving no hard liquor. As such, Show Palace can push a selling point other clubs lack: There may be no vodka, but the dancers are in the raw.
The politics of it all seemed mystifying to one dancer, a 23-year-old woman at Vivid, who declined to give her real name because she hadn't made her occupation widely known.
"Pretty much any kind of outcast is OK in New York," she said. "So why are strip clubs getting the hammer so hard?"
She then stepped onto the stage, removed her dress and smiled.
Sarah Maslin Nir, New York Times