clock menu more-arrow no yes
Photography by Jaclyn Campanaro

Filed under:

The Naked City

Can strip clubs survive in America’s gentrifying city centers?

"As soon as the high-rises start going up, it’s time to start looking for another job," a server at the Cheetah Lounge tells me. The Cheetah Lounge, with many other exotic dance clubs, is located in midtown Atlanta, an area that has recently become a hotbed of development. The Cheetah occupies a building that was previously a 1940s-era car dealership, and the garage door where the cars once entered the showroom is now the cheetah-printed-carpet-and-brass entryway. The streamline moderne curves of the building that once evoked automobiles remain, transitioned seamlessly to evoke the oscillating movements of dancers. However, unlike in 1973 when the Cheetah opened, the building is now flanked by new glass condominium high-rises on several sides, which to the server I spoke to are harbingers of the Cheetah’s eventual displacement. "I give it 10 years, but this land is so valuable now that I could imagine a developer coming in to buy it any time."


The recent return toward living and socializing in urban centers, and the corresponding hyper-growth of city centers that has followed, is having its effect on the longtime stalwart businesses in these areas, which are often strip clubs. A clear example of this displacement is on view in Santa Barbara, in the neighborhood called the Funk Zone, which until recently was known as Santa Barbara’s rougher area. In a 2013 feature on the zone’s renovation into a high-end arts and entertainment district, San Francisco magazine wrote, "When relentless development began gobbling up State Street two decades ago, artists sought refuge in this gritty tract. In the ’90s, a couple of artsy outposts sprang up, but still, the area wasn’t known for much other than the Spearmint Rhino strip club."

On a recent trip down the Santa Barbara coast, I stayed in the Funk Zone at the newly established Wayfarer Hotel, which occupies a renovated mission-style building alongside several blocks of wine tasting rooms and artisanal restaurants. Across from the hotel sits the Spearmint Rhino, its smoked glass window obscuring dancers from the views of passersby. The close juxtaposition of the Spearmint Rhino building, with its 1980s California Casual style of ochre brick and smoked glass, and the Wayfarer is striking, demonstrating not just two different decades of design, but also the two very different neighborhoods that have occupied this block.

The rapid conversion of seedy nightlife districts to high-end leisure destinations is a pattern repeating itself across America on some of its most valuable urban real estate. As Melissa Gira Grant writes about Boston’s "Combat Zone" in The Baffler, "There, as in London’s Soho, it was the sheen of sex that first attracted anyone to the neighborhood at all, and even as the developers move in to ‘clean’ things up by kicking out sex workers, the idea that sex was once sold here is still used to seduce the new cohort of urban-authenticity tourists, haunting the safely embalmed aura of long-tamed outposts of seediness."

The proximity of old dancing clubs and new boutique hotels is such a feature of contemporary urban transformation that most rapidly gentrifying areas will, like Santa Barbara, reveal this social and architectural history if you look around. (In Toronto, it was even advertised in 2014 that you could "buy a piece of the old Jilly’s strip club," whose wooden joists were being repurposed for a new boutique hotel.)

Many strip clubs of the 1970s and 1980s are endangered by development-focused city governments across the country as their Rat Pack-era owners age or pass on. After Atlanta strip club mogul Jack Galardi died in 2012, the Pink Pony strip club that he founded in 1990 on unincorporated county land was suddenly outlawed by the city of Brookhaven, which incorporated in 2013 on an area that included the Pink Pony. The Pink Pony’s owners then sued the city, claiming that nude dancing should be permitted on the basis of free speech. A settlement was eventually reached in which the Pink Pony can remain open for at least the next six years, in exchange for paying $225,000 a year to the city and deeding a piece of land it owns for a public green space. A final, somewhat ironic stipulation of the deal is that the Pink Pony repaint its exterior in "earth tones" instead of its trademark pink.

In a nation of cities obsessed with renovating themselves backward in time, the strip club may just offer a new space for gentrifying club owners to explore cool throwback themes, albeit with a stage and a pole as well as a cocktail bar.

In Downtown Los Angeles, I sought to discover which dancing club or several had been altered or displaced by the famously stylish Ace Hotel and the retail businesses, like Acne Studios and A.P.C., that are springing up on this until recently noirish stretch of Broadway. Sure enough, directly across the street from the Ace is a shuttered nightclub called Club Las Palmas, advertising hostess dancing in bold red and green type.

A few blocks away from the Ace, however, the elaborate art deco high-rises of this section of Downtown cede to lower lying industrial buildings. In this area, south of the newly high-priced Arts District, just west of the Los Angeles River, the strip club industry continues apace, with clubs from the Spearmint Rhino to Deja Vu to the Playpen providing nude and/or topless entertainment, primarily—according to Laura, a server at the Spearmint Rhino who has been in the business for 30 years—to businessmen from Downtown.

Inside the Spearmint Rhino, with its faux fireplaces and leather club chairs, one feels transported to the kind of placeless "gentleman’s den" that was the innovation of corporate strip chains in the 1990s, where for the price of the entrance fee anyone could take a seat at a velvet-trimmed banquette and feel like Hugh Hefner. According to Chelsea G. Summers, a New York City-based writer who danced in strip clubs from 1993 to 1999, the more corporate spaces are "pre-designed for you to have a certain experience. They are already narratively predetermined, in the same ways that an amusement park is narratively predetermined. They funnel you in in one direction, move you in another direction, provide specific views, and put you in these spaces for a specific ride."

The nearest strip club to gentrifying Downtown LA, however, exemplifies the non-corporate strip club’s talent for adaptive reuse, which they were practicing long before hipster restaurants started repurposing old buildings. Sam’s Hofbrau is an old German restaurant from the 1960s—replete with brick walls, red banquettes, and colorful stained glass lamps—that was repurposed by a later owner into a topless bar and restaurant. The conversion, as one would say in renovation speak, "respected" the original restaurant by leaving most decor in place, adding red lighting and a stage, and hanging signs that read "topless" and "cocktails" from the glittering original Sam’s Hofbrau sign outside. These days, Sam’s attracts not just the workmen nearby, but businessmen, celebrities, and even adventurous food writers looking for new dining experiences to write about.

This confluence of working and creative class interest in Sam’s Hofbrau and similar vintage nightlife spots is where the transformation of gritty urban centers to lookalike stacks of condos starts to raise interesting questions. That is, in areas like Downtown LA, whose transformation is occurring in part because of the appeal of the gritty industries that once occupied these neighborhoods, is it possible that the grittier establishments can adapt to a new kind of clientele? Or to put it another way, can the new clientele adapt to the existing clubs and adopt them as part of their social routine? What is the social end game of gentrification, and is there a better downtown it can imagine than the one that results in block after block of cookie-cutter condos, scrubbed of the last traces of vibrant, colorful, and perhaps risqué culture that first drew artists and then developers?

Portland, Oregon, which has changed rapidly over the past decade from an old port city to one that drives contemporary tastes, is an apt place to observe the overlapping of strip clubs and gentrification. Portland’s economy has accelerated due to its centrality to a confluence of new trends, from artisanality to startups. But even as Portland has became famous for its pickles and tech, it remains known also for its permissive approach to naked dancing, which has been defended as a form of free speech ever since a landmark 1982 legal case, as writer Susan Elizabeth Shepard explained at SB Nation last year.

Perhaps Portland’s most famous and visible strip club is Mary’s, occupying a prominent place on SW Broadway in an area that, once a seedy end of town, is experiencing the familiar gentrification march of sleek bars and bespoke small-plate restaurants. A WeWork coworking space recently opened several blocks away.

What is the social end game of gentrification, and is there a better downtown it can imagine than the one that results in block after block of cookie-cutter condos, scrubbed of the last traces of vibrant, colorful, and perhaps risqué culture that first drew artists, and then developers?

But Mary’s is taking the gentrification in stride, its vintage signage not dissimilar to the branding of Portland’s many nouveau-vintage bars and restaurants. Inside, the club’s decor is unrenovated but still appealingly vintage, with deco-esque, handpainted murals depicting ships, sailors, and mermaids, and a small stage on which one dancer entertains at a time. The club’s website proudly details the history of the club, from its beginnings in the ‘40s as a piano bar for seamen and its transition to a topless bar in 1965.

When I visited, the dancer danced to songs from Washed Out’s Within and Without album, a 2010 indie classic that has now become the de facto soundtrack to third-wave coffee shops. As I sat with my soda in the late afternoon and watched the crowd of men and women watch the dancers, talking amongst themselves and to the dancers performing onstage, I had the thought that those coffee shops may well fill the urban dweller’s need for a place to sit, have a drink, and mingle that downtown clubs like Mary’s once filled.

But are coffee shops, however elaborate and showy with their pourover offerings, truly an adequate social replacement for the higher contact and higher energy nightlife that once characterized America’s downtowns? Will the conversion of seedier nightclubs to crisply stylized coffee shops and cocktail bars be complete, or will we witness any innovative integrations of vintage and modern forms of nightlife?

The degree to which strip clubs can function as sites of urban entertainment has much to do with the culture and laws of the city in question. New York famously uprooted its sexually-oriented district in Times Square in the 1990s under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, sending its clubs packing to industrial areas like those along the West Side Highway that have now themselves become gentrified into high-end restaurant and shopping districts. Atlanta, on the other hand, is known for its friendliness to strip clubs as sites of general entertainment. When I visited the city, nearly every bartender, server, and hotel worker I spoke to about the strip club scene freely offered that they had danced in a club once, and spoke enthusiastically about their experiences.

"When you’re young, it’s an amazing way to make money while having a good time," said my bartender at the lounge atop the Hyatt Regency. "In Atlanta, people go to the strip clubs just to go out, it’s not like a lone-man-in-a-raincoat-type of thing," said my manicurist, an entrepreneur who had just started her own salon. "I mean, I might even go to Magic City tonight!"

Magic City is the strip-cum-nightclub in Atlanta that could serve as a model for how to maintain a vibrant downtown club culture in the modern age. "Magic City changes lives, it’s like another level; women working there are launching careers as entrepreneurs or actors. They have huge Instagram followings," a server at an artisanal whiskey bar tells me. Magic City, founded in 1985, occupies a building in Atlanta’s downtown, across from the Greyhound station and not far from the neighborhood’s robust collection of brutalist 1970s concrete buildings.The club’s near-legendary status in 2016 is due largely to the collaboration between its in-house DJ Esco and the widely beloved Atlanta rapper Future, whose musical paeans to the club, the city, and its culture have become mainstream hits.

Arriving at Magic City at night, the club’s exterior glows blue and purple, a gray New Wave panel rippling across the building, and a pink cityscape rising above it toward the stars. Inside, the club is minimalist but cool, with the sleek, Nagel-esque logo of a woman’s silhouette on one wall and blue light suffusing the room. None of the heavy-handed Hugh Hefner-esque props of the 1990s "gentlemen’s club"—like the fireplaces, rugs, and animal print of the Spearmint Rhino chain—are on display at Magic City; the decor is spare, as if to let the dancing—by dancers onstage and patrons alike—serve as the club’s main focal point. By midnight, the air is literally cloudy with fluttering cash, and the entire crowd of men and women is dancing. At this moment Magic City is both a strip club and full-fledged dance club, and the distinction between them seems slight.

Atlanta’s high profile in the national music scene and its status as the economic capital of black America are two reasons why Magic City, whose patrons and performers are mostly African American, has become not just a local but a nationally recognized cultural institution, bringing publications like GQ to devote profiles to it. And there are signs that, in the social media age that launched Future and DJ Esco’s fame from Magic City, this model of entertainment is becoming more widespread; the Ace of Diamonds club opened in 2015 in West Hollywood, and is attended by a new class of social media celebrities like the Kardashians. As the popular press reported, Amber Rose and Wiz Khalifa recently celebrated their amicable divorce at the club, turning the strip club into the contemporary equivalent of a fine dining establishment in which one celebrates a life milestone.

In Downtown Los Angeles, near the Ace Hotel, one can see old theater marquees advertising new "burlesque" shows and male revues designed to fill the need for edgier evening entertainment. One gets the sense that, regardless of what it is called or where they perform, the combination of dancing and nude performance is going to be difficult for gentrifiers to eradicate entirely. But then, one wonders whether eradicating nude dancing is actually desirable to developers capitalizing on proximity to urban "grit"; if the rise of the burlesques is any indication, club owners may be realizing that the dancing show is quite congruent with the gentrifier’s interest in recreating desirably vintage urban experiences.

Amber Rose and Wiz Khalifa recently celebrated their amicable divorce at the Ace of Diamonds, turning the strip club into the contemporary equivalent of a fine dining establishment in which one celebrates a life milestone.

Perhaps the problem for strip clubs in gentrifying areas is not that they are old, but that some, particularly the corporate chain strip clubs that arose in the 1990s and became popular for their middle class uniformity, simply aren’t the right vintage for today's tastes. That is, Mary’s Club in Portland has a sailor-adventurer aesthetic that fits rather seamlessly with the aesthetics of the restaurants and shops encroaching on it. In Santa Barbara, however, the 1980s-style Spearmint Rhino looks out of place because the neighborhood around it has renovated itself into a quaint, recreational version of its industrial days.

One begins to wonder: how would the Santa Barbara Spearmint Rhino or a similar club update itself to match the antiqued and minimalist wine rooms and hotels that suddenly surround it?

I asked Shepard, who besides being a writer also dances in Portland, if she had seen any reclaimed wood and Edison bulb-decorated strip clubs yet. "I’m honestly disappointed there hasn’t been a full on example in PDX," she answered, but pointed out The Lodge gentleman’s club in Dallas, which opened in 1996 and, with log walls, antler decor, and onstage granite cave, anticipated the woodsy cabin aesthetic long before it became a hipster standard.

In Portland, the successful strip clubs do seem to exhibit their own interpretation of the city’s aesthetics and its commitment to staying "weird"; at Casa Diablo, a strip club that is housed in what looks like a barn-like, medieval-themed pizza restaurant, dancers wear goth outfits and dance to Peter Murphy and other gloomy ‘90s New Wave hits while the DJ announces the day’s vegan specials. In a nation of cities obsessed with renovating themselves backward in time, the strip club may just offer a new space for gentrifying club owners to explore cool throwback themes, albeit with a stage and a pole as well as a cocktail bar.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the Spearmint Rhino in Santa Barbara had closed; it is still open.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler
Photographer: Jaclyn Campanaro

Longform

How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis

Longform

The Neighbors Issue

Longform

Bungalow Courts Make the Best Neighbors

View all stories in Longform