Bathhouse Owner Fights Restrictions : AIDS Battle Imperils Civil Liberties, Silver Lake Leader Says
As chairman of the Silver Lake Merchants Assn. for two years, Steve Downard has won praise from politicians, police and fellow businessmen for his efforts to improve the shopping districts along and near Hyperion Avenue and Sunset Boulevard.
Downard, they say, has helped focus attention on police protection, street lighting, parking and zoning, matters that don’t usually grab headlines but keep a business area alive.
But now Downard finds himself in the spotlight for a much more controversial reason. It involves the survival of his own business--Healthworks, which bills itself as “L.A.'s Only Co-Sexual Bath Club"--and the wider question of civil liberties during a health crisis.
Like all bathhouses, the club at 2114 Hyperion Ave. has seen business decline sharply as fear of acquired immune deficiency syndrome increased this year. Healthworks, which mainly attracts heterosexual men and women, along with some homosexual men, is attempting to conform to tough new county regulations that could put patrols inside bathhouses to ensure that patrons don’t participate in sex acts considered to be unsafe.
Downard had previously given Healthworks a low profile in the neighborhood, even as he and the merchants’ association were in the forefront of some Silver Lake issues. But he recently began to speak out forcefully against the county rules and against calls, even by some prominent gays, for bathhouse closures.
He says he hopes that people in Silver Lake, a traditionally tolerant mixture of Anglos, Asians, Latinos, heterosexuals and homosexuals, will be able to separate his role as merchants’ association chairman from that of bath owner. He says he tries not to mix the two.
“Silver Lake has always been a place for unconventional people, unconventional thinking, maybe for people who think, period. I think the kinds of merchants and people we have here are not easily shocked. This is definitely not Orange County. If there is any informal pressure, it is to be nonjudgmental,” said Downard, 37, who is known as a skillful public speaker and has been widely quoted the last few weeks in the gay-oriented press.
‘A Lot of Things’
“I think the politicians who represent this area understand that it is probably not politic to think that because I own a bathhouse that I lack any credibility in Silver Lake. I was a lot of things before I was a bath owner and I still am. For instance, I am a college graduate, a native Californian, a registered Republican.” Downard, who is homosexual, is also the president of an industrial credit company.
The issue of AIDS and bathhouses is clearly agonizing and divisive, particularly for homosexuals. Some Silver Lake merchants, heterosexual and homosexual, say they fear that Downard’s outspokenness and resulting publicity may hurt the local businesses.
“What those merchants have in common is not sexuality but making a buck,” said one local activist who asked not to be identified.
However, many other merchants and public officials from the Silver Lake area appear to support Downard’s right to speak out, even if some privately disagree with his claim that restrictions or closure of baths will not necessarily decrease the spread of the deadly AIDS virus.
“If someone showed me data substantiating a correlation of the spread of this disease and my club, I would deliver the keys to City Hall tomorrow. But so far it’s only been speculation, hysteria and panic, " Downard said.
“The sexual activity at the club is the same as at the Biltmore Hotel, but there are no health posters, no monthly health screening and no free condoms at the Biltmore.”
He later added: “You can’t go in or out of our place without having seen some information about health protection.”
Capt. Robert Taylor, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division, says he basically agrees with Downard. Taylor said some people had “mixed feelings” about having Healthworks in the neighborhood but that the only complaints concern illegal parking by customers. There has never been a prostitution arrest there, he said. Taylor said he fears dangerous sexual trysting in Griffith Park will increase if Healthworks and Mac’s, a homosexual bath club a few blocks away on Hyperion Avenue, close.
The police captain stressed that Downard’s own business has not affected his effectiveness on other issues. “Steve Downard has been a real stalwart in providing the merchants’ association leadership. He has a great deal of charismatic abilities,” said Taylor, who has attended association meetings. “Like many other people there, he doesn’t hide the fact of what his business is or who he is. He shows that people can have different life styles or philosophies of life and still work together to improve the community as a whole.”
Ted Knoll, a Republican political consultant who ran against Assembly Majority Leader Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) last year and has been active in fund raising for AIDS research, said of Downard: “Steve has a right to try to defend himself. People appreciate what he has done for the Silver Lake community, and that far outstrips any kind of image his business might project to the world at large.” Knoll is a member of the merchants’ association.
Peter Taylor (no relation of Robert Taylor), an aide to Roos, said: “As far as we’re concerned, Steve Downard is the leader of that merchants’ organization and that’s what matters.” Under Downard, the association has come to be courted for political endorsements, a sign of its growing importance and ability to get action on such matters as garbage pickup and street signs, he said.
Downard is angry about the county supervisors’ recent vote requiring clubs where so-called unsafe sex occurs to monitor their patrons’ activities. Under those rules, unsafe sex is defined as anal and oral intercourse between men, with or without a condom. Clubs with repeated violations could face closure.
The fact that the county rules make no mention of heterosexual acts, which also can spread AIDS, is proof, Downard says, that homophobia, not health concerns, are behind the regulations.
Yet, he seems even more scornful of the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, the influential Westside gay political action group which last month called for voluntary closing of all bath clubs. The next day, Downard participated in a debate sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. He delivered a blistering attack on MECLA and was “the star speaker,” said Richard Labonte, the Los Angeles city editor of Update, a gay-oriented newspaper.
MECLA Stance Opposed
The MECLA stance, Downard later repeated, was “an act of cowardice and an attempt to appease the homophobes on the Board of Supervisors. History is replete with people who tried to buy appeasement from their oppressors. But appeasement won’t buy us respect and it damn well won’t buy us freedom.”
Asked whether the closing of his club might not save at least one life, he responded: “Yes, it might. But so would closing all the bars and recriminalizing sodomy. And when all that is done, see what your rationale has left for the living: a life without civil liberties.”
Downard says business at Healthworks had dropped about 70% since last year, hastened by publicity surrounding the AIDS-related death of actor Rock Hudson. He says that the club, which he has owned for four years, now makes little or no profit and that, as a result, he is thinking about closing it. “It is a day-by-day decision,” he said.
Meanwhile, Downard is thinking about putting up a sign stating that the club is heterosexually oriented. “It pains me greatly that my best path to survival may be to discriminate against my own people, to make sure we have as little homosexual activity as possible,” he said.
Two-thirds of Healthworks members, he said, are male, the “overwhelming majority of whom consider themselves straight. But there are endless possibilities in a place like this and sometimes they decide to experiment.” Some homosexual and bisexual men do go to the club, attracted by the possibility of seducing an otherwise heterosexual man, say other people familiar with the club.
From its exterior and modest sign, Healthworks gives no hint of what goes on inside, that it once received a favorable mention in Playboy Magazine’s “Year in Sex” review. Its brown-shingled front makes it look more like a two-story beach house than an establishment whose advertisements picture a young woman and two young men clad only in sunglasses and towels. Even a homeowner across the street says he doesn’t mind having the club there.
Inside, the club contains a locker room, a corridor of small, semi-private rooms with cots, a large screen and viewing area for pornographic movies, a sauna, a shower room, an outdoor Jacuzzi and a patio for sunbathing. Membership for six months is $35, plus $7 for each admission.
On a recent Thursday night, about 10 men and two women, ranging in age from early 20s to 50s, were in the club. Inside a mirrored room, one of the women engaged in a menage a trois with two men, while most of the other customers stopped from time to time to watch through peep holes. A couple of other men fondled each other. Mainly, people watched the movies or relaxed in the sauna and whirlpool.
“It’s been pretty quiet,” explained one middle-aged man, who said he visits the club about once a month.
Sanitation at Healthworks is generally good, said Richard Rinaldi, director of environmental protection for the county’s Health Services Department. In an October inspection in preparation for the new regulations, officials found two minor code violations for having absorbent materials over seats in the sauna and in the linen shelves. The club has since changed the materials, Rinaldi said.
As the club’s exterior belies its nature, some people might be surprised when they meet Downard. He is amused by a comment that he looks more like a preppie banker in pinstripes, which he is, than any stereotype of a shadowy bath owner. After all, he said, he is still the person who won an American Legion oratory contest in high school, who has a master’s degree in business administration and who rose through the corporate ladder in such well-respected companies as Oliveti and Citi-Corp until he decided to become an independent entrepreneur.
Reasons for Business
The bathhouse existed as a homosexual club since the 1950s. Downard bought it in 1981 and changed it to co-sexual. He said there were two reasons he got involved in a sex club:
“One is to make money, obviously. It is a good absentee business with cash flow that frees up my hours for other business interests.
“Two, while I’m not a bathhouse patron myself, I do believe in individual freedom and in the societal context that allows an individual to congregate and associate as he wishes without fear.”
Advocates of bath club closure say that, during the AIDS crisis, some people have to be protected from their own abuse of such freedoms and that no one should be making a financial profit from possible promiscuity.
No matter what happens to Healthworks, Downard says, he is committed to helping Silver Lake. He speaks fervently about it as a unique area, a pocket of urban hipness in a charming setting of hills, as a place where people get to know each other.
The merchants’ association has 200 paid members, mainly owners of the small shops, restaurants and bars, he said. For a long time, the merchants were without a unified voice. But a group representing Hyperion Avenue was formed three years ago, joined by a Sunset Boulevard contingent a year later to create an overall Silver Lake group.
‘Melrose of the ‘90s’
The organization’s goal is to get better services from government and upgrade the area, making it, according to one of its newsletters, “the Melrose of the ‘90s,” referring to Melrose Avenue. Downard stresses that the group wants business growth only in areas zoned commercial and would oppose construction that destroys hillsides or the low-density feel of the neighborhood. “We’ll fight against anybody who tries to make the place look like Van Nuys,” he said.
The association’s encouragement of business growth sometimes annoys local homeowners and groups who fear that low-income and minority families might be priced out.
But the merchants’ association and Downard have won respect from the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance, a much more liberal group that runs an annual street fair to promote understanding between homosexuals and Latinos in Silver Lake, said John Brown, co-chairman of Sunset Junction. “Their primary concern is what something will mean for their businesses, while our concern is what does it mean for the overall community,” Brown said. “But, most of the time, what is good for one is good for the other.”
Of Downard, Brown said: “Steve is a very shrewd business person. And I think, even if his bathhouse goes away, he will open some other business here. I think he will go on in Silver Lake.”