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Wilmington’s Topless Bar May Bottom Out Through Land Sale

Times Staff Writer

Even a drunken sailor couldn’t miss it.

Shipwreck Joey’s, at the foot of Figueroa Street in Wilmington, is the kind of place one expects to find along the gritty waterfront. It has an electric red-orange paint job (the color of a ship’s undercoat), a bare-breasted blonde caricature rising seductively from the roof and signs on every side declaring “TOPLESS” in yellow letters 4 feet high.

As longtime resident Bill Schwab said, in what could safely be described as an understatement, “It really stands out, you know.”

But a possible land sale may sink Shipwreck Joey’s.

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The owners of the 53,000-square-foot parcel have put the property on the market. Should the land sell, Shipwreck Joey’s could lose its lease and be forced to move.

“Joan Milke Flores has said that it might be a sign that Shipwreck Joey’s may at last be shipwrecked,” said real estate agent Dan Posson, quoting the Los Angeles councilwoman who represents the area. “She’s right.”

Called an Eyesore

Flores said she has been trying for years to use city ordinances to shut down the nightclub. As the first building visitors notice when entering Wilmington from the Harbor Freeway, the bar is “a blight on our community,” she said.

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According to Posson, the property, which is bounded by B and C streets, has been for sale for six weeks. The asking price is $1.5 million.

One potential buyer is the Los Angeles Harbor Department, which has a policy of buying all available land between the two streets. Port officials intend to develop a landscaped buffer to protect the residential neighborhoods north of C Street from the noise and heavy traffic on B Street, which is used by trucks going to and from the port.

Although the land acquisition program has so far been voluntary, the department intends eventually to claim by eminent domain what it cannot purchase on the open market.

Despite the policy, harbor officials have not made an offer for the Shipwreck Joey’s site. Port spokeswoman Julia Nagano said the department’s property management staff believes that the price--$28.50 a square foot--is too high. She said the port has recently purchased land in the area for about $13.50 a square foot.

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In addition, Nagano said, port officials backed off because the owners of the land indicated that they may develop it themselves.

The owners, brothers Maurice and William Rosenfeld and their sister, Sally R. Harris, could not be reached. Posson said he knew nothing of plans for them to develop the land.

The owner of Shipwreck Joey’s, who rents the building on a monthly basis, also could not be reached, and the manager did not return telephone calls.

Shipwreck Joey’s was built as a drive-in restaurant, the Bayview, in the late 1930s, and its semi-circular construction from those days remains. The restaurant’s bay windows, however, have been boarded up and painted over in Joey’s signature red-orange decor.

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It was converted into a nightclub during World War II, attracting those who worked at the shipyards nearby, and later served as a Western-style bar. Shipwreck Joey’s has provided topless and nude entertainment there since the 1970s, Schwab said.

Hollywood types think Shipwreck Joey’s has character. It has popped up in the television show “Houston Knights” and the film “To Live and Die in L.A.,” in which the colorful building was a meeting place for a cop and an informant.

Flores has another opinion:

“It’s bad enough that it’s a nude bar. The building itself is hideous. The signs are terrible. They clash with the environment. . . . To have it so visible and to have it that hideous color. . . . It’s at the entrance to the community and it just looks terrible.”

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