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4th Avenue: Proving Ground for Cleanup of City Sleaze

Times Staff Writer

It’s an early Thursday evening, not even 8--a slow hour at the Swank a Go-Go.

A few guys are at the close end of the bar, keeping to their drinks and themselves, an occasional glance to the familiar fellow in the mirrored wall. Two other men sit at the far end of this dark, musty place, where the bar curves to accommodate a small dance stage. A woman in high heels, red panties and nothing else laconically go-goes through the motions.

So it goes on a slow hour at the Swank, which in a few months could be gone, wiped away by the economic and political forces of the “new” downtown San Diego, the ambitious redevelopment campaign city boosters call “A Festival in Progress.”

It isn’t that the Swank is losing money, manager Sam Deltondo says. No, around the first and 15th of every month, when the sailors and Marines get their paychecks, the place is packed.

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But if San Diego’s ambitious urban renewal campaign is a success--if the Horton Plaza shopping and entertainment center, the waterfront convention center, the Meridian condominium tower, the refurbished U.S. Grant Hotel and other major projects transform downtown the way they are supposed to--then the proprietors of the Swank a Go-Go plan to cash in, too.

“I guess whatever goes with the trend, we’ll go along with it,” Deltondo says. “If they feel bars are disrespectful, we may go back to being something else, probably a restaurant . . . You know, this used to be one of the better corned beef and pastrami places in town.”

If that indeed happens at the Swank--and something similar happens again and again in other businesses that civic leaders have deemed economically and morally “undesirable"--then San Diego’s “Festival in Progress” would be complete.

That is the consensus of the City Council, the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), the Gaslamp Quarter Council and the big developers: They want the businesses they perceive as seedy and unsavory to be wiped away--or, at least, purged to a less seedy, more savory level, and then well-hidden.

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Already, they are getting tough. The City Council has enacted ordinances that will outlaw card rooms and video arcades from the Gaslamp Quarter, and the council has threatened condemnation actions to buy buildings on 4th Avenue from owners who refuse to rehabilitate their property.

Some local shop owners also suggest that police have been given orders to crack down on even trifling violations to help political forces build a case for clearing out various businesses. Police say that the area is rife with illegal enterprises such as drug dealing and prostitution.

At one time the consummate “Navy town” famous for its discreet, honky-tonk charm, downtown San Diego is now searching for a new identity. In recent years, it has had no distinct personality, perhaps even a kind of schizophrenia, a daytime Dr. Jekyll and nighttime Mr. Hyde.

Consider:

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The year is 1985. A wealthy Chicago businessman, say, has a $50 business lunch at a bayside restaurant before checking into the elegant Westgate Hotel in the afternoon. Soon he finds his high-priced room has an excellent view of the run-down, barricaded Grant Hotel and the street denizens lining the barricades to the Horton Plaza construction site. In the evening he goes for a stroll and discovers few fine restaurants and fewer fancy stores.

He decides to take in a movie. Hoping for “Amadeus,” he is left to choose between “Rambo: First Blood II” at the Balboa and “Bodacious Ta-Tas” at the Aztec. There are also a wide selection of movies that cost only 25 cents and last only two minutes--lots of action, but no real plot. Of course, he could skip the movie and go get a tattoo.

At least the weather was nice.

The year is 1986. The same businessman returns to San Diego and discovers dramatic changes. The new, $150-million Horton Plaza alone should provide a wide array of snazzy department stores, boutiques, restaurants, movie houses and even playhouses. Of course, there are still 25-cent movies and even a few places to get a tattoo.

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Initially, the opening of the major projects figures to intensify downtown’s schizoid personality. But in a few years, boosters say, there will be a transformation--into a city pulsating with money, culture and a night life that is both exciting and legal.

The Swank and adjoining Apache Club could be sitting on a small gold mine. The bars are on what seems to be a prime piece of downtown--4th Avenue just south of Broadway, cater-corner from the Grant Hotel and maybe 100 feet from the front door of the Robinson’s that anchors a corner of Horton Plaza. This site also happens to be on the eastern front in the redevelopment battle--the three blocks of 4th that the City Council has threatened to acquire through condemnation.

With a few exceptions, such as the refurbished Golden Lion Tavern, those blocks are now distinguished by such businesses as the Swank, Doc Webb’s Tattoo Studio, some card rooms, a few porn and peep emporiums, a gay bathhouse called The Top Deck, and an assortment of greasy spoons.

Just as the Swank may be reborn as a restaurant, there is hope that economic forces and simple persuasion will transform the rest of those businesses.

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“I don’t know if that’s wishful thinking,” Gerald Trimble, CCDC executive vice president, said of the idea that landlords, developers and business owners will voluntarily transform the block. “We’ve been talking with all the property owners. They have time schedules . . . Let’s wait and see what happens.”

Once the 4th Avenue conflict is resolved, some believe the battle could move to the rest of the Gaslamp, where the pornography business is even more prevalent. Another fight could eventually take place on lower Broadway, west of the San Diego Courthouse, where one adult entertainment emporium advertises “Hypno-Sex-Ism.”

In diplomatic moments, civic leaders simply describe such businesses like peep shows as “undesirable.” More often, they use the word “sleazy.”

“If there were more legitimate businesses, I think the adult entertainment business would be much less visible,” said Art Skolnick, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Council. “It’s a matter of scale and density. We want to reduce some of the sleazy ones . . . I don’t see any growing sympathy for leaving them there.”

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Of course, one person’s sleaze is another person’s entertainment--and still another person’s livelihood.

Attorney Tom Homann, who represents the 12 pornography dealers who have banded together as the Adult Merchandise Merchants Organization (AMMO) for legal purposes, says many city leaders “would probably like to see downtown San Diego turned into a Disneyland type of place, completely sanitized and suburbanized and homogenized and nothing like what the downtown of a major city should be.”

“You’ve got to have those places down here,” says Mary Pappas, who for 11 years has owned the perfectly respectable Athens Market restaurant around the corner from the Swank a Go Go. “You need to satisfy everyone. It’s human nature . . . They can be fine, they can be colorful--just so it’s legal.”

Up and down the Gaslamp, there is a wide range of perspectives.

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Un-de-sirable ,” Sam Deltondo says slowly, grimacing, as if the word has a bad aftertaste. “That leaves room for several big question marks.”

Deltondo, a 60-year-old grandfather of five, has a sense of history. He is sitting at his desk in his tiny office in the back room of the Swank. His thick arms are decorated with tattoos, souvenirs from his 20 years in the Navy--"Pearl Harbor, ‘Frisco, Norfolk, Cuba,” but no, he never got one in San Diego.

Deltondo has managed go-go bars on 4th Avenue for 25 years, starting at the Gay Paree (now boarded over) and then taking over both the Swank and the Apache upon their establishment in 1966. Those clubs and two other Gaslamp bars, the Singapore Club and China Doll a Go-Go, are owned by Charlie Pipitone.

Before 1966, the building housed the B&L; Buffet, which had been in business since 1908. And before that, word is that Wyatt Earp ran a saloon and card room at what is now either the Swank property or the Palace Pawn Shop next door.

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The B&L; Buffet had a good run, Deltondo says, but by the 1960s its clientele had grown old and literally seemed to be dying off. “Then we went go-go.” Actually, the bars were relative latecomers among the downtown businesses providing entertainment to the American fighting man.

In those days, regulations prohibited sailors from keeping civilian clothes aboard ship, so they would change into their civvies at the downtown “locker clubs.” Many other Navy hangouts were destroyed when 6 1/2 square blocks were leveled to make way for Horton Plaza.

“The locker clubs, the small bars, the go-go places--it all blended together,” Deltondo says. “It used to be a guy took a cab downtown, he stayed downtown. He didn’t want to go nowhere else. No, he stayed right here.

“Now there’s nothing much here, so let’s go . . . To me, it’s always been a military town. And the military supports this town. A lot of these kids have nowhere to go. They’re forcing them to spread out, forcing them to go to Tijuana, from what I see.

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“It was more fun 25 years ago . . . I’m not overjoyed about Horton Plaza. But I think of the memories, of things that are all gone now. I can picture people, see things--there are constant memories.

“I can understand change. They should definitely clean it up.” The Swank, Deltondo admits, “is a little run-down.”

But what would the go-go dancers do if the Swank becomes a restaurant? “I’d probably go to work at Dirty Dan’s,” said one. “I got four children to feed at home.”

Down the street, Adhan (Victor) Oraha, owner of Benjie’s Card Room, has a more immediate problem. Oraha and other card room owners are suing the city over an ordinance that would force them to move out of the Gaslamp by February. Oraha doesn’t seem optimistic, and he may also try to convert to a restaurant.

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“They said we are creating crime, that people hang around here and sell their dope,” Oraha says bitterly. “This is just incorrect. I’ve got nothing but family people here, retired people.”

Ironically, the businesses that are widely perceived as the most offensive are the ones that are the most likely to hang tough against the forces of change. Those are the porn shops, where sexually explicit magazines and “marital aids” are sold, and peep shows offer a two-minute viewing of videotaped sexual gymnastics for 25 cents.

Bernard Van Meter, a clerk at the Lux porno palace on 5th Avenue, scoffs at the notion that the city will be able to eradicate the porn dealers from downtown.

“They’ve been trying to put us out of business for years,” Van Meter says around midnight while manning the Lux’s cash register. “They pass a law, and our lawyer thinks of an appeal.”

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Moans of pleasure could be heard from the videotapes in the peep shows.

“They’re not going to put these places out of business,” Van Meter says. “People, they all like sex. They’re gonna have to accept that sex is here to stay--in kinky ways, in all ways.”

In fact, Skolnick acknowledges, if San Diego were a European city, one could make a strong argument for making the Gaslamp an adult entertainment district, such as the one in Copenhagen. Today, several porn dealers have adopted a good-neighbor strategy in their relations with the redevelopment forces, and have remodeled their stores. “This place actually lost some business because of its remodeling,” Van Meter says.

But most pornography merchants have refused to comply with a city ordinance requiring them to remove the doors from their peep show booths. Police say the booths are popular spots for prostitution and drug deals. Homann is fighting the ordinance on behalf of AMMO.

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A decidedly homely porn shop, Joe’s Books has a reputation to some people as among the sleaziest of the sleazy. That’s because two years ago two men associated with the store were arrested and later convicted for selling child pornography.

But R. Harold Williams, the present manager, says the store was sold by the former owners, and now Joe’s Books is just a law-abiding, “old-fashioned looky-looky place.” It even has collector’s items, such as the 1935 nudist magazines “Sunbathing” and “Sunshine & Health.”

“You won’t find whips and chains here, no black masks,” Williams says proudly. “We only have two boxes of gay material--not that we have anything against gays.

“Even couples, if they want to go back in our booths (to watch peep shows), they gotta have their rings on. And two guys? That’s an absolute . . . no-no.”

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Still, Joe’s Books is in more immediate danger than several other porn stores because it is on the blocks targeted for condemnation. Gesturing toward Horton Plaza, Williams doesn’t hide his resentment: “It all boils down to this: Money over there is talking, and it’s talking very loud.”

Not far from Joe’s Books is another 4th Avenue business that faces the possibility of extinction, Doc Webb’s Tattoo Studio. Doc Webb retired a few years back; the studio is now owned by “Trader” Jim Gunkel.

It’s not clear whether city officials consider tattoo parlors to be “undesirable” or not. Even though Gunkel expects to close his 4th Avenue shop and move to his other tattoo studio on lower Broadway, near the hypno-sex-ism place, he says he is excited about Horton Plaza.

“Whatever’s good for the city is good for me,” says Gunkel. Contrary to common belief, plenty of people who will shop at Horton Plaza will also be visiting tattoo parlors, he says.

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“It’s just as artistic as the buyer desires. An attorney’s wife from La Jolla wouldn’t want the same design as the bar girl across the street.”

Ironically, Gunkel’s “art” studio is in the Balboa Theatre building, which is slated to be converted into the San Diego Art Center--a museum with a series of art-related shops. Gunkel says he would like to stay, but he figures he won’t be welcome.

Gunkel is right. The retail section of the Art Center is reserved for “design--furniture and artifacts, good graphics . . . along those lines,” says arts patron Danah Fayman, a prime mover of the planned center. “I don’t think it (a tattoo studio) would fit with what we have in mind.”

“Some people deny it, but I still claim it’s art,” Gunkel says. “And it’s one of the oldest. All their art is Johnny-come-lately stuff compared to this.”

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Gunkel says that, although he has “high hopes” for the new downtown, he expects that it will simply become more of a middle-class place. There will be a few more rich people, a few more well-to-do, some additional young urban professionals. But there still will be plenty of regular folk, and plenty of poor.

“A mix,” he says.

Mary Pappas, the restaurant owner, says the change will be more dramatic--but gradual. “Ten years ago, people would say this would be a great place in five years,” she says. “I always said then that it would be 10 or 15 years.

“It will take time. It’s not going to happen in August. But I really think that in five years, this will be a great downtown.”

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There’s another theory: Clean things get dirty before dirty things get clean. This idea is voiced by Williams over at Joe’s Books.

“It’s not going to be the clean kind of Disneyland they want,” Williams says. “Horton Plaza will become, I predict, the center to pick up drugs, prostitutes--whatever you can imagine.”


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