Hot and bothered

The city's ordinance governing topless clubs is a joke. But Bachman Lake-area residents are determined to get rid of the clubs by any means necessary.

Meanwhile, the Caligula blaze remains under investigation by arson investigators, but the conflagration at Bachman Lake burns more brightly as anti-club activists press their cause by seizing on any hint of malfeasance they can.

To the dancers and patrons at Baby Dolls, everything that occurs inside the club is harmless fun -- and should be allowed to continue free of static. Club managers deny they are responsible for the decline of the Bachman Lake area and pooh-pooh any correlation between the location of their clubs and crime. Police statistics and even some scholarly research generally support that assertion.

Mark Graham
The bright lights of Déjà Vu on Northwest Highway, one of four clubs in a compound that has long drawn ire from neighbors
Mark Graham
The bright lights of Déjà Vu on Northwest Highway, one of four clubs in a compound that has long drawn ire from neighbors

But a loose coalition of morality watchdogs and neighborhood stalwarts isn't persuaded and won't relent in its 15-year jeremiad against topless entertainment. Over the years, they have organized numerous pickets and packed dozens of hearings to condemn the clubs. For their latest tack, they obtained hidden-camera footage of activity inside the clubs they claim -- incorrectly, it turns out -- is indisputable evidence of law-breaking.

First, some background: Dallas, a city where hordes of horny conventioneers run amok and it's socially acceptable for businessmen to gaze at cleavage with lunch, is one of the nation's biggest markets for topless clubs and SOBs. There are at least 60 clubs, bookstores, and other types of sex-themed busineses citywide that range from seedy to upscale. But while clubs in other neighborhoods coexist with Tom Thumbs and Office Depots, Bachman Lake residents claim clubs have chased off respectable and family-oriented businesses from their area.

A 1998 list counts at least 25 restaurants, hotels, and other establishments that have departed the area, including family restaurants such as Chili's, Steak and Ale, and the Black-eyed Pea. "All the decent places not related to strip shows and criminal activities have just left," says Jerry Bartos, a former city council member who fought to regulate the strip clubs. "It's a nice place for lower- and middle-income people to live, and the city just wrote it off."

The reason why restaurants are fleeing is simple, says city Councilman John Loza, whose district includes Bachman Lake. Families aren't "going to want to go to a restaurant that's right near a topless club," he says.

Indeed, in the early '70s, Bachman Lake was an upwardly mobile if not affluent section of North Dallas for families and a hot place for pilots, flight attendants, and young singles to rent apartments. But all of that changed in 1974, when DFW International Airport opened and Love Field lost much of its air traffic, sending Bachman Lake into a slide that has only begun to abate with the arrival of many working-class Latino families.

The neighborhood, now an island of blight surrounded by better-off North Dallas neighborhoods, is home to some of the city's poorest residents. The remains of Bachman Lake's middle class have all but departed, and home values have bottomed out at around $50,000 to $60,000. Neighbors report prostitution, drunk driving, burglaries, and gunshots as frequent problems. Responding to neighborhood concerns, police recently launched a three-week "crackdown" to tame the rowdy area.

Opponents admit the topless clubs didn't sow the original seeds of Bachman Lake's decline, but they assert the bars have made things worse and are inhibiting a turnaround. "They attract these huge crowds to the area," says Randy Staff, who owns the American Bank on Northwest Highway with his wife Roxan Staff, chairwoman of the Dallas school board. "There's so much activity and so much alcohol consumption. It makes it not a very nice place to live."

Staff, whose bank's assets have fallen from $35 million to $24 million since 1985 as the neighborhood emptied out, has spent tens of thousands of dollars in his unsuccessful fight to force the Burch clubs to comply with zoning regulations. He sees it as "not a big moral issue; it's an appropriate-land-use issue," because the Bachman Lake area isn't zoned for dance halls.

A few blocks down the street, Jerry Blake, who owns a 30-unit apartment complex that faces Bachman Lake on one side and Northwest Highway on the other, complains of drug dealers and prostitutes who congregate there. He faults police for poor enforcement and says the city hasn't done enough to clean up the area. "I've lost a lot of money, and the city government is doing squat," he says. "All we ask is that people enforce existing laws."

But defenders of topless clubs say their businesses have been made scapegoats for Bachman Lake's ills.

"Northwest Highway went downhill when Love Field quit being the major airport for this area, and it has nothing to do with the clubs," says attorney Albright. Bachman Lake, he says, is at the low point of a real-estate cycle that will rebound like other once-struggling parts of the city, such as the area near Greenville Avenue and Park Lane, where the Million-Dollar Saloon, another upscale strip joint, resides.

Others point out that Bachman Lake's topless clubs fatten municipal and state tax rolls considerably. For example, Baby Dolls ranked seventh statewide and third citywide in mixed alcohol sales tax receipts last November, with $88,900. In Dallas, only the Wyndham Dallas Market Center hotel ($564,123) and the Wyndham Anatole Hotel ranked higher ($129,509). "That is a lot of tax dollars to throw out the window," says A.J. Crowell, publisher of Sundown, a statewide adult-entertainment listings guide based in Dallas.

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