Bare Knuckles and Bare Breasts

Does Dallas have a red-light district? Does the Pope live in Rome?

It's 2:30 a.m., closing time on a Sunday morning, and customers are swarming out of the topless bars on Northwest Highway like fire ants somebody just stomped on. They stumble, they fall, they trot, they wobble, squinty-eyed from booze and smoke, yelling and yahooing in boy voices, from country poor to expense-account slick: These men are far from home.

That's part of the appeal, after all. The men pouring out of clubs at closing time are a "destination" crowd: They travel some distance to get to this place. Stacked around the edges of this parking lot and down the street near Bachman Lake are other topless clubs that have crowded in close in recent years to capture the same customer base.

You gotta get 'em while they're in town, and now they're leaving. Stamping their feet and flailing as if battling a gale-force wind, some men beat a crooked path across 15 yards or so of beer-soaked tarmac to a long queue of waiting taxicabs. A handful of middle-aged rascals in rumpled dress shirts push and shove playfully, waiting their turns to lunge headfirst into a long white limousine like clowns into a barrel; a herd of men in dress-up western wear clamber aboard the rusty bus that brought them here for the evening, they say, from Tulsa, Oklahoma; in a stream of curse words out on the far parking lot, a lone cowboy is calling to his lost pickup truck.

A rough-looking hooker in a late-model automobile circles the scene with her window rolled down, calling out invitations to engage in specific sex acts. Whatever went on inside the clubs, not one man in this large crowd has any love left for the lady of the night. She keeps cruising, and the invitations keep getting more specific.

This is it, the Place Pigalle of Dallas, Boys Town, the city's Zona Rosa. A blind hog could find this place if it were horny enough. The ambiance here has caused many a first-time visitor to gawp and wonder, "Is this legal?"

...and then plunge in.

The question of whether it's legal--whether the city of Dallas can or should shut it down--has produced more than 15 years of bitter and expensive litigation; it has sparked cyclical political scandals at Dallas City Hall in which several council members have been scalded for accepting money from the topless clubs; and it is at the center of the current police chief's ongoing political woes.

And now once again, as at various points in the past, persistent political rumors have it that a "settlement" may be in the works, a truce, a cease-fire, an arrangement by which the city and the clubs could quit making all the lawyers rich.

Several club-owning companies have brought a legion of lawsuits against the city in both state and federal courts. By some counts, as many as 20 separate legal actions are now in various stages of activity, dormancy, appeal or plain-old threat. An official at one topless company estimated the cost to his firm alone at approximately $100,000 a month "when we're at the height of litigation." The city has consistently refused to estimate its own legal costs, saying it can't break out staff time for lawyers who are on the city payroll, but sources familiar with the litigation argue that the city's costs are not all that different from the clubs'.

The key lawsuit right now is the one in 191st State District Court before Judge Catarina Haynes, in which hearings are to begin April 27. In that suit, Burch/Northwest Entertainment Group, Inc., owners of Baby Dolls and the Fare West on Northwest Highway, challenge the basic legitimacy of the city's licensing procedure for sexually oriented businesses, a process by which the Burch licenses have been revoked. A spokesman for City Attorney Madeleine Johnson explained that the clubs are only open now because the lawsuit hasn't yet been decided. If the city wins, the Zona Rosa at Northwest Highway and Webb Chapel Extension is history.

Unless there's a deal.

As settlement offers are by their nature secret, and as various settlement rumors have gone up in smoke in the past, it's difficult to measure how real the new round of rumors may be.

Real or not, all settlement rumors drive the people who oppose the clubs up the wall. "If it's true, I'm going to war," says Bachman-area banker Randy Staff, "and you should know I take no prisoners."

Staff, like the rest of the anti-topless cohort, believes any settlement will leave the Bachman area as some form of red-light district, somewhere on a scale from well-landscaped red-light district to poorly landscaped red-light district. Staff, the husband of Dallas school board President Roxan Staff, insists no red-light district can coexist with mainstream business or residential communities--period.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze