Hot and bothered

Mark Graham

It's close to midnight at Baby Dolls Saloon, a popular topless club north of Love Field near Bachman Lake, and the place is electrified. Dancers in nothing but g-strings gyrate on elevated stages as young and middle-aged men ogle them from below and shell out a steady stream of dollar bills. Top 40-style pop music, ranging from Shania Twain to Christina Aguilera, blares from the sound system, while waitresses in tight outfits take drink orders amidst neon lights and mirrored walls.

Almost all of the dancers appear young and gorgeous, although some are prosthetically augmented past the point of credulity. Real breasts don't stand up like that, of course, but men don't come here for reality.

Bursts of strobe lighting add to the heady atmosphere, while well-dressed bouncers with headsets discreetly roam the club guarding against improper touching, although it seems that little is deemed improper here.

One by one, the center-stage dancers are announced excitedly by a DJ, who also plugs their appearances on porno Web sites. About five dancers work smaller stages.

While only a handful of girls actually "dance" at a time, about 80 girls are working on a recent Thursday night. Hundreds of men stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the 435-person capacity club, but it gets even more crowded on weekends. About 150 women will be here on Friday night, a dancer says.

Those not dancing ply the lucrative lap-dance trade. This is what lures the legions of men, mostly business types. The action occurs at the far end of the rectangular-shaped club. In this darkened section, cordoned off by several pillars, men sitting on bar stools and plush chairs fork over $20 a pop for lap dances that can only charitably go by that title. In many other clubs, dancers merely hover over their customer during lap dances. At Baby Dolls, "dry humping" seems a more appropriate term when the dances heat up.

Observing this scene of pawing and pelvic thrusting between scores of clothed men and women in various stages of undress is like observing a rehearsal for an orgy. Four men sitting around a table drink beers and pass along a blonde dressed in a schoolgirl skirt, which is quickly unfastened. She spends about five minutes in the clutches of each man before moving on to a buddy -- and another $20 -- the next seat over.

For a while, she banters amiably with the men while sitting on their laps. Then she puts the bump and grind of her lap dance into gear. The men paw at the area around her breasts and buttocks as she twists and undulates on top of them; eventually, they are emboldened to let their hands roam more freely. A few tables over, a long-haired brunette wearing a red g-string lies nearly horizontal on top of a young man. They are approaching a second half-hour of slow pelvic thrusting.

Here's how it works: If a clubgoer sits alone for long enough and doesn't appear too freaky, one of the dancers invariably finds her way into his lap. The girls wander the club, waiting to be called over or approaching solo men. Before the "performance," it's customary to make some small talk, but one's memory of extraneous chit-chat is obliterated after a dancer presses your face between her breasts and renders other acts of sexual pantomime.

All of this open fondling, rubbing, and touching was supposed to be outlawed in 1997, when the Dallas City Council passed a law forbidding bodily contact between "adult cabaret" employees exposing their anatomy and customers. But because of a technicality, Dallas police will not enforce it, and Baby Dolls barflies can watch violations occur literally every minute.

So while the men at Baby Dolls remain hot and bothered, Bachman Lake residents and other North Dallas activists get incensed by reports of such debauchery.

It's a "Mexican brothel bar" right here in Dallas, says local activist Mary Lou Zijderveld, who lives near Walnut Hill Lane and has long fought the clubs. Grassroots opponents, who commissioned undercover video of close-contact lap dances in Baby Dolls, demand an immediate crackdown by city vice cops under the law, technicality or not. But hidden-camera video was only the latest salvo in the activists' 15-year crusade to shutter a cluster of clubs along West Northwest Highway in the once thriving Bachman Lake area.

They claim the clubs are responsible for the steady decline of the residential area and erosion of property values. Their agitation helped pass several laws by the Dallas City Council in 1986, 1993, and 1997 to rein in sexually oriented businesses (SOBs). Even the city's latest SOB ordinance, however, is treated as a joke that will likely be overruled by a federal judge. For now, it's ignored by clubs that factor lewdness citations and endless litigation into the cost of doing business.  

Underneath Baby Dolls' street sign, which features the word "TOPLESS" in big glittery letters, several cabs idle their engines and wait to pick up fares too drunk to drive home. Eyeing this cabbie conglomeration, a politically astute doorman is inspired to crack wise over the club's public address system. "Al Lipscomb, please come to the front," he says. "Your Yellow Cab is waiting."

Most patrons, too busy eyeballing or fondling dancers, ignore this reference to the long-serving city councilman convicted last month of 65 federal counts of bribery and conspiracy charges for pocketing $1,000 monthly payments from Yellow Cab owner Floyd Richards. But the doorman's jest is ironic in light of allegations that Lipscomb also took $7,700 in "bribes and gratuities" in the early '90s from Caligula XXI owner Nick Rizos. In exchange for that wad of walking-around money, Lipscomb allegedly met with Dallas police and persuaded them to curb "excessive" enforcement at the Northwest Highway club.

These recent revelations fed a frenzy of rumors and paranoia and seemed to confirm the worst fears of topless-club opponents. They claimed the bribes were "the tip of an iceberg" suggesting widespread corruption and explained why police allegedly have a hands-off policy toward area topless clubs. It also reveals, they say, why the clubs haven't budged despite SOB and zoning restrictions that should have forced them to pack up years ago. "It's the first direct tie from a lack of enforcement to corruption," says Tim Dickey, an activist and former Channel 5 investigative reporter who has lived in the Bachman Lake area all his life.

Innuendo also swirled around fears that the city will sell out Bachman Lake residents by settling lawsuits challenging the city's SOB law. The lawsuits were filed by Burch Management, owner of Baby Dolls, and other topless clubs. In the past, city leaders pledged to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court in defense of public morals and property values. Embittered by years of fruitless fighting, activists no longer trust city officials and fear they will do nothing as topless-club owners turn Bachman Lake into the city's de facto red-light district.

The Bachman Lake clubs, which together contribute at least $160,000 a month in liquor taxes to city and state coffers -- an incredibly high amount for a cluster of nightclubs -- strongly deny they have dragged down the neighborhood. Like other Dallas topless clubs, they have aggressively fought city attempts to regulate them as sexually oriented businesses and zone them out of neighborhoods, characterizing them as unfair and an infringement of their rights to free speech.

The idea that a dancer shoving her breasts in your face during a lap dance is a bona fide expression of free speech seems farcical, and it's doubtful Jefferson or Madison ever envisioned the Constitution casting such a wide net. But that's just what owners of the topless clubs have argued for years -- with great success.

Indeed, a visitor can't help but wonder during a pawing session at Baby Dolls: Is this legal?

Of course it isn't.

But yes, it is.

Touching is forbidden in the clubs under the law passed by the Dallas City Council in 1997. But practically speaking, dancer-patron contact persists unchecked because of an odd technicality. That's because in a preliminary injunction issued in early 1998, a judge upheld the no-touching section of the 1997 law but suspended the section that spelled out what exposed body parts (breasts, buttocks, etc.) require establishments to obtain city SOB licenses.

So touching is illegal, but touching survives since it's unclear what kind of touching is illegal. Eventually, U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer will clear up the mess when he rules on a lawsuit that about 20 Dallas clubs, including Baby Dolls and Burch Management's two "Fare" clubs, brought to get the law thrown out as unconstitutional. But the legal hairsplitting surrounding an issue as seemingly clear-cut as touching another person illustrates why, in Dallas, laws don't have much effect on topless clubs besides increasing their legal bills.

How do the clubs prevail in court? They are tireless "champions" of the First Amendment, ingenious loophole locators, and ceaseless circumventers of zoning restrictions. For instance, they evaded a 1986 city ordinance that cracked down on sexually oriented businesses by requiring them to be 1,000 feet from churches, schools, residential zones, and other SOBs. To dodge the law, they simply said they weren't really SOBs, but seemingly non-sexual "dance halls." By requiring their dancers to wear tiny, see-through pasties over the areolae of their breasts, the clubs covered up enough skin to attain this nebulous status.  

Then the clubs easily disposed of a 1993 amendment that sought to require dancers to wear bikini or halter tops rather than mere pasties. Another "content-based" infringement of free speech, ruled a judge, who said the city failed to prove how near-bare breasts endangered the community.

Next, a coalition of Dallas topless-club attorneys succeeded in delaying the 1997 city law aimed at closing the pastie loophole by enlarging the definition of what constitutes an SOB to live entertainment intended to provoke sexual "stimulation" featuring genitals or exposed breasts, with or without pasties. But the clubs argued the city again had violated the First Amendment and passed a law so far-reaching it restricts mildly racy movies at Blockbuster and the saucier women's magazines.

"You look in Cosmo and Glamour and you can see a bare breast," says Roger Albright, attorney for Mainstage Inc., which owns Santa Fe Cabaret and other clubs, echoing a point made by Judge Buchmeyer in his preliminary injunction that blocked enforcement of the law. Both the city and the clubs await the ruling from Buchmeyer, who in early 1998 hinted where he was leaning by calling the city's latest attempt to push dance halls into the SOB category "possibly unconstitutional."

On top of that whole fracas, however, the topless bars have skillfully evaded zoning laws. The properties where most Bachman Lake strip clubs reside don't permit "dance hall" use under their "community retail" status, so city zoning officials told Burch Management to vacate by January 20, 1999. But club lawyers delayed enforcement of that edict by contesting the relocation schedule as unfair and perhaps unconstitutional.

Terrifying the citizenry, some owners also issued vague threats to open new clubs in areas without SOBs if they are forced to move. The bottom line: SOBs have plenty of cash to keep the legal process going through endless appeals and legalistic permutations. And meanwhile, the clubs will stay open. "We plan on litigating as long as we have to," Scott Burch, vice president of Burch Management, a respected company nationally among SOBs, told The Dallas Morning News in 1997. "We've been winning in every court for years."

A recent legal tactic may be the clubs' most audacious move yet. On December 9, Burch Management slapped about 24 city officials, activists, and former city workers with subpoenas, ordering them to provide testimony for a possible lawsuit. With the depositions, the company will prepare a suit alleging "they have been denied fair hearings and due process claims" in 14 instances before police, zoning, and other regulatory boards in recent years, says Assistant City Attorney Corky Davis.

This latest tack has sent fur flying like never before. "Many people see this as just an attempt to bully the community," fumed Dickey, who was served by Burch and testified last week. Neither Scott Burch nor Charles Quaid, an attorney for Burch Management, responded to repeated requests for comment from the Dallas Observer.

The company, Dickey surmises, is trying to build a case that city assistance to neighborhood organizers in Bachman Lake amounts to a conspiracy against them. The neighbors invited bureaucrats to their meetings to explain complicated laws and procedures to them, Dickey admits, but he insists that's a far cry from collusion. "This is what neighborhoods do," he says. "You get involved and you learn. It's all part of this democratic system."

The clubs' dexterity in skirting laws makes some people wonder whether it's worth passing them in the first place. The point many opponents don't realize is that the First Amendment guarantees SOBs the right to do business. Closing them all isn't an option. To some extent, regulating them through zoning and other avenues is, but it's a tricky enterprise made trickier by increasingly high public demand for adult entertainment. For example, adult-video rentals grew from $75 million to $665 million from 1985 to 1996, according to one study.

Regulation is hampered by the fact that nobody wants SOBs forced out of one neighborhood to arrive in their own 'hood. In addition, upscale SOBs resist moving to the few areas zoned for their businesses, which are often shabby industrial tracts, such as the skanky collection of clubs on Industrial Boulevard amidst bail-bond purveyors. That's part of the legal ruse used by "gentleman's clubs" to maintain their turf. But fruitless legal machinations continue to grind on since most politicians want to be seen as doing something to fight the clubs.

More on that later.

Things are quiet on West Northwest Highway when some patrons shuffle out of Baby Dolls shortly before closing at 2 a.m. The three other clubs in the compound -- the Fare West (also a Burch club), Déjà Vu, and the Santa Fe Cabaret -- are also closing for the night.  

Other clubs in the Bachman Lake area include Chez Pussycat, a low-end strip joint a few blocks east that faces the lake, and the Men's Club, an upscale club a few blocks west that has an actual SOB license and no legal quarrel with the city. The former Caligula XXI, a club half a block west from the Burch compound, burned to the ground in November after fire broke out in a rear storage area. It's unclear whether owner Nick Rizos will rebuild the club, which hosted performances by marquee porn stars such as Jenna Jameson.

Even though Lipscomb appears to have illegally accepted bribes from Rizos, police brass deny they did anything wrong by acceding to the councilman's wishes that they halt "excessive" enforcement. Police Chief Terrell Bolton said that patrol officers simply stopped doing an unusual number of spot registration checks on cars in the Caligula parking lot. Those duties were passed on to the department's abatement unit, which normally handles such matters.

Federal officials concur that police did nothing improper and haven't pursued an investigation. Police officials insist they never stopped enforcing laws inside the club and say they didn't know about the payments. The activists, however, still demand to know which higher-up officer gave the order for a police lieutenant to meet with Lipscomb and Rizos, after which enforcement duties were transferred to the abatement unit.

"If there are police officers being intimidated, I want to know about it," says city Councilwoman Donna Blumer, who is pressing for an investigation by the city auditor's office.

Since the FBI didn't deem the affair worth its time, approval of an audit by the city council seems unlikely. For now, without any evidence of payoffs to other clubs, the incident may only illustrate the opportunism of one official and the cultural confusion of a club owner. "He comes from Greece," Rizos' attorney Bill Roberts told the Morning News last month in a quote for the ages. "He thought this was expected. He thought this is how business is done."

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.

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.

And while angry activists charge that the city has abandoned them, officials dispute that characterization. They point out that they have battled in court to uphold the 1997 SOB ordinance. The case went to trial in September 1998, but Judge Buchmeyer has yet to issue a ruling. The lengthy holdup has angered residents and spawned rumors that Buchmeyer is delaying his ruling in anticipation of alleged city plans to settle the costly lawsuit. The gist of the rumors is that city leaders want to prevent the spread of skin-gazing clubs to other parts of the city by containing them in Bachman Lake.

The hearsay caught fire last month when the lawsuit appeared on a list of legal cases to be discussed during closed-door executive sessions of the city council. Activists smelled betrayal, but Blumer insists the council never discussed cutting a deal. And City Attorney Madeleine Johnson says there is "no settlement proposal out there," although as a matter of lawyerly principle she will not rule out "ongoing discussions on how [the lawsuit] can be resolved."

The clubs scoff at the idea of settlement, since it would require the approval of the council. "It's hard to get eight people on the city council to be in favor of a topless bar," Albright says. Off-base or not, the din of rumormongering among activists underscores the fury that has built up during years of unsuccessful protesting.

"This is why we are all such radical assholes," Dickey says. "We're battle-hardened urban fighters, and we don't trust anybody."

Standing in the living room of his north Bachman Lake home, located in a shaded middle-class area that seems far removed from the working-class neighborhoods a few blocks south, Dickey vents consternation bordering on rage toward his longtime nemesis: the Bachman Lake clubs.

He fumes that Northwest substation police officials have praised Burch Management at community meetings for doing a "great job" in preventing crime outside of the clubs. He doesn't accept that assessment, but says it's only half the picture regardless. Dickey's beef of the moment is alleged crime inside the clubs. The steamy interactions between dancers and patrons at Baby Dolls and other clubs, he charges, are proof that city police neglect their duties.  

He points to section 41A-18.1 of the city's 1997 SOB law, which prohibits touching between customers and dancers who are exposing "specified anatomical areas." The verboten areas include "human genitals," pubic regions and hair, and female breasts revealed "below a point immediately above the top of the areola." Interestingly, the law also outlaws woodies, even those kept under wraps. The definition bans dancer-patron contact involving "human male genitals in a discernibly erect state," even if completely and opaquely covered. "The whole nature of the business now is lap dancing," Dickey argues, "and that by its very nature is against the law."

On his VCR, Dickey plays a video he obtained by sending a spy with a hidden camera in his jacket into Baby Dolls. The shaky amateur footage from the darkened club shows a bored-looking woman sitting on a man's lap and undulating in front of him. Then she turns around to face the man, and he fondles her rear. In the background, a dancer on a stage hugs a man who just gave her some money.

All illegal, says Dickey, who claimed on the Internet he now held incontrovertible proof that the police aren't enforcing the law in the clubs. "If the city wanted to," he says, "it could send vice in there and make these cases nonstop and put some pressure on these clubs." On, a Web site run by local dissidents, Dickey declared: "Now the truth is out there, and no one can deny it."

Not so fast, city officials and police told Dickey, who now admits his error. They point to conflicting parts of Buchmeyer's preliminary injunction against the 1997 SOB law as the reason why anti-groping laws aren't being enforced.

Their interpretation: While Buchmeyer's ruling denied the clubs' motion to throw out the law's anti-touching provision and predicted it would be upheld (Houston and Arlington have similar restrictions), he also suspended another provision stating definitions of body parts, arguing they "restricted the essential expressive nature of the Intervenor's business." So Buchmeyer said city officials can enforce part of the new SOB law, but then he gutted the specifics of what constituted that provision. This confounding ruling convinced officials to lay off for now.

"I don't think it's practical to enforce something we don't have a definition for," says Corky Davis, the assistant city attorney.

In the meantime, police enforce the lewdness statutes embedded in Texas penal law, which basically allows for plenty of contact as long as genitalia or animals aren't involved. Breast touching is illegal, but light breast rubbing by patrons isn't usually prosecuted, law enforcement officials say.

Despite activists' charges that police have a "hands-off" policy toward the clubs, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission records show a record of periodic vice enforcement. TABC largely relies on local vice cops for reports of lewdness and other infractions, and the vice cops pass on arrest information to TABC, which docks the establishments administratively.

For example, TABC has recorded 10 lewdness-related offenses at the Fare West since 1994, as well as a handful of solicitation charges, while Baby Dolls has racked up 13 lewdness-related offenses in that time. Such offenses normally occur when the bumping and grinding of a lap dance crosses into the realm of arousal, says Christopher Burnett, a TABC staff attorney in Austin. When undercover agents get aroused during a lap dance, they somehow manage to snap out of their reverie and spring into arrest mode.

TABC regulations call for clubs either to close their doors for 60 days or to pay $9,000 fines for each offense -- pocket change to larger clubs. But clubs rarely are forced to close for lewdness alone. While clubs are often shuttered if a patron drives home drunk and gets into a deadly accident, Burnett says TABC "normally settles the lewdness cases out, because that's the nature of the beast."

A top city vice cop insists his detectives are responsive. "We work on complaints," says Deputy Chief John Sullivan, head of the police department's narcotics and vice division. "Somebody gives us the info, we work the complaints." Undercover vice cops, he says, went to Baby Dolls Saloon in early February after receiving lewdness complaints, but they left after they failed to witness any lawbreaking. Perhaps they weren't sufficiently aroused.

Sullivan's answer doesn't satisfy the irrepressible Dickey, who asks: "Since when is law enforcement supposed to be reactive instead of proactive?"

Cops have better things to do, retorts the TABC's Burnett. "There's not a single police department or sheriff's department in Texas that is not undermanned and overworked," he says. "If they've got a choice between getting drunk drivers off the road or busting some dancer in a titty bar for squeezing some guy through his pants, it's just a matter of priorities."  

The bitter dissatisfaction of Dickey and other activists with police enforcement at Bachman Lake topless clubs underlies their real wish: to run the clubs out by busting them for every niggling infraction of the law. Eventually, paranoid patrons would refuse to come back.

The topless clubs' opponents, who have not been successful in recruiting low-income residents of Bachman Lake to their struggle, chatter hopefully about this scheme. Jerry Bartos, the former city councilman, says he went to Chicago in the early '90s to observe that city's tactics for hounding out strip clubs, which he believes should be imported south to Dallas. "I noticed they had shut down all those topless bars," he says. "I came back like a Cub Scout and said, 'Here's how they did it.'"

For starters, Bartos recounts, Chicago officials unleashed a heavy police presence on the clubs, carding everyone every few days. They conducted frequent weapons checks. Then they flooded the bars with inspectors of every stripe: health, electrical, plumbing, the works. And if cops made an arrest, they never erred on the side of leniency. "If you can make a felony out of a misdemeanor, it's always a felony," Bartos recounts glowingly.

So it's that simple: Dallas officials lack the political moxie to impose draconian policing strategies on legal but unfavored types of businesses. "In this city, the top people would leave us out to hang when pressure comes," Bartos laments. "The rank-and-file police are eager."

What can be done to rein in Dallas' SOBs -- short of busting heads? Laws motivated by moral approaches to restrain SOBs are unrealistic, since adult-entertainment venues have a constitutional right to exist, says Donald Lyons, a geography professor at the University of North Texas in Denton who has studied SOB location-control efforts in Dallas. The Supreme Court sets guidelines every four or five years for SOBs, he says, but clubs quickly find loopholes.

And while New York City and some other cities have herded SOBs into backwater areas, more prosperous Dallas clubs have fought such moves, a situation that has led Lyons to conclude that regulatory strategies are flawed as well. "As the industry grows larger and more sophisticated, their ability to frustrate and circumvent zoning ordinances is likely to increase," he writes in a study on Dallas' SOBs published last year in Applied Geographic Studies, an academic journal.

He suggests a more positive approach, based on the premise that most cities' SOB laws spell out where SOBs can't locate, rather than where they can. "You can't have them near a church, you can't have them near a school," he says. "Well, where do you want them? Until people honestly ask that question, it's as much our fault as the SOBs."

Lyons cited a proposal advanced by former city Councilman Don Hicks in 1993 and 1998 as a more realistic solution. Hicks proposed the creation of a "red-light zone" in a seven-block area of Downtown, arguing such a zone was needed since the city's costly efforts to fight lawsuits and disperse the clubs had failed. Both times, however, the measure failed to gain traction. After all, which city council member would want a red-light zone in his district?

Lyons, whose study identified 61 licensed and nonlicensed SOBs within city limits in 1997, also doubts that SOBs are the danger to the community that opponents portray them as. He compared arrest records and found no evidence that adult businesses attract serious crime, such as murder, robbery, and rape. Only prostitution and indecent exposure, he asserts, occurred with greater frequency in SOB zones -- and not necessary because SOBs are there. "You can't say SOBs are causing prostitution or vice versa," he says, "because there's a demand for both and both are linked." SOBs, he says, "look [to locate in] transitional areas, which are in the same areas you find prostitution in."

Lyons does believe the presence of SOBs can undermine neighborhoods over time, even if they don't set the initial spark. "Once the process will be much harder for neighbors to halt the decline of their property values," he says.

But warding off SOBs will become increasing difficult, he says, with the advent of growing pornography sales and swelling industry coffers. Roger Albright, attorney for Mainstage Inc., suggests another tack for city officials and neighbors: "Instead of complaining the topless bars are running everybody out, throw some money in and help the neighborhood."  

Already, this process is occurring. Bachman Lake residents have begun the hard work of rebuilding their neighborhood with graffiti paint-outs and grassroots organizing to block zoning exemptions allowing more bars and clubs -- sexual and non-sexual -- to move in. City planners and community members last year drafted a revitalization plan that calls for a pedestrian bridge over busy Northwest Highway to Bachman Lake, beautification measures, and an analysis of streetscape design. State officials recently rejected a grant request to fund the plan, but city officials will try again soon.

Without a doubt, neighborhood improvement is a much better use of city funds than fighting lawsuits. A city-brokered accommodation that settles most SOB lawsuits could allow the city to focus more on citizens -- and head off eventual victory by legal-minded SOBs that strikes down all or most regulation of their industry.

But selling this message will prove difficult, because even well-thought-out compromises produce losers. "The only problem is that with the accommodation, our neighborhood gets turned into the city's red-light district," Tim Dickey says. "Our message to the city: Stay the course. Don't blink. Full speed ahead."

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