Last November, when Felix Cuesta walked through his South Bronx strip club, there were no naked women dancing on the poles, or men throwing bills at them. The club was pitch-black and completely silent.
Cuesta had closed down the strip joint, Platinum Pleasures, several months earlier when he lost his liquor license. But every week, he came back with a flashlight to inspect the shuttered gentlemen's club. In the unlit main room, he could only see what the beam of his light shined on: some red drapes, metallic poles running from the floor to the ceiling, and a golden glass-cased shower.
"That was for the weekly shower shows," said Cuesta. "We were one of the only clubs in the city that had one."
Platinum Pleasures was the latest strip club to close down in the South Bronx amid the crackdown led by local and state-level politicians. Their tactic has been simple and effective, particularly in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx: Instead of going after the clubs themselves, they went after their liquor licenses.
"From day one, when I became district manager, we learned the process of liquor licenses," said Rafael Salamanca Jr., who serves as the Community Board Manager for Hunts Point and is leading the battle against the neighborhood's clubs. As of now, the five existing strip clubs in Hunts Point have all been shut down.
The legitimacy of the methods being used by Salamanca to close the clubs down has been questioned by researchers and those in the industry who believe a witch-hunt is underway without much factual evidence of wrongdoing.
There's a battle that goes on every day to keep the clubs open. - Jeff Levy
The secondary-effects doctrine, a legal tool that has empowered government officials to regulate strip clubs and adult-oriented expression, has come under scrutiny from those who believe it gives too much power to municipal officials to restrict adult entertainment and infringe on First Amendment Rights.
Using the secondary-effects doctrine, government officials claim adverse side effects, such as increased criminal activity, prostitution, and lowering property values around strip clubs. But the doctrine also allows officials to camouflage their aversion to businesses like strip clubs behind declarations of harmful effects. In 1988, Justice Brennan warned that the doctrine "could set the court on a road that will lead to the evisceration of First Amendment freedoms."
"There are people who love this industry and people who hate this industry," said Jeff Levy, the executive director of the Association of Club Executives of New York, a trade and advocacy organization for the industry.
"There's a battle that goes on every day to keep the clubs open."
On Motherboard: Although the government seems to directly be after adult entertainment businesses, it turns out that 2013's shutdown lead to an inadvertent boost in sex business.
For many cities, choosing where to permit different kinds of businesses is a hot-blooded political struggle. When it comes to zoning strip clubs, this fight becomes particularly fiery.
In 1976, Detroit became one of the first cities in the US to introduce zoning laws that were designed to counter the clustering together of adult businesses into a red light district. The law banned strip clubs from locating within 1,000 feet of any two existing adult businesses or within 500 feet of any residential area.
Eagerness to follow the Detroit zoning method quickly spread to other cities. New York City's former Mayor Rudy Giuliani famously abhorred New York City's adult establishments, once calling them a "corrosive institution." It was during his reign in 1995 that New York City Council amended certain zoning laws to ban adult entertainment in commercial districts like Times Square and barred them from operating within 500 feet of residences, schools, or places of worship.These restrictive zoning laws are what forced strip clubs to sprout in neighborhoods on the peripheries of the outer boroughs, like the South Bronx, an industrial zone.
"You had to be in certain zone requirements, and if you weren't in those zones, you couldn't operate as an adult entertainment establishment," said Levy. "As a result, adult entertainment was put in the worst zoning in a particular municipality."
Bordered by the Bruckner Expressway to the West and North, the Bronx River to the East, and the East River to the South, Hunts Point is located in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. It has long held a reputation as a hub for drugs and prostitution, and the 41st Precinct, which polices the area, consistently records some of the highest violent crime rates per capita in the city.
"For years, Hunts Point has been known as anything goes," said Salamanca, "It has a huge portion that's industrial, so legally, it's where a strip club is supposed to be at."
Salamanca's campaign to rid his neighborhood of topless entertainment is part of his wider effort to change perceptions about Hunts Point both from within the community and outside of it. A year ago, Salamanca donned a bulletproof vest when he joined police on a nighttime raid of two strip clubs in Hunts Point. Afterwards, he encouraged other Community Board managers to do the same.
Between 2006 and 2009 there was a murder, three stabbings, three shootings, and two bottle slashings inside the strip club.
Platinum Pleasures had seen its share of violence. Before it was taken over by Cuesta, it was a strip club called BadaBings. Between 2006 and 2009 there was a murder, three stabbings, three shootings, and two bottle slashings. On most nights, a 41st Precinct police car could be seen outside the club, a use of police resources that Salamanca said distracted police from other quality-of-life issues in the neighborhood.
When Cuesta took ownership of the club, he bolstered security and tried to create what he called a "high-end gentlemen's club"—the kind where "you couldn't wear sweatpants." According to Cuesta, violence at the club diminished during his time running it, but Salamanca already wanted him out.
For Salamanca, the fight isn't personal, but he holds no ill feelings towards the owners themselves.
"It's a business, and these are businessmen," said Salamanca. "You can't knock their hustle, you can't knock them for that. However, the type of business they wanted to open was not appropriate for our community."
"We had power of voice when it came to liquor licenses, and we advocated," said Rafael Salamanca Jr. By working with locally elected state officials and requesting the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) to revoke licenses, Salamanca closed four clubs in two years.
In Cuesta's case, he did not notify the authorities of the temporary closure of Platinum Pleasures due to construction work. Because Cuesta failed to obtain permission for a "substantial alteration," he lost his liquor license.
Once a liquor license renewal is rejected, owners must apply for a new license, which is far more challenging to obtain. Though the women kept dancing even without a liquor license, at Platinum Pleasures the patrons stopped showing up, and in 2013 it closed its doors. A giant FOR SALE sign was put up.
"They will do everything and anything within their power to put pressure on gentleman's clubs," said Levy. "Customers won't come if they don't have a liquor license. It's not very profitable."
One prospective dancer at Platinum Pleasures was turned off by the lack of job security once the club ran into trouble with the Community Board.
"It was a light switch—one day it was opened, the other it was closed," said Zionyi, 26, as she shook her mane of long black hair. "It seemed like an irregular job. Then you have to wait or find somewhere else. When I came back, it had shut down."
In February 2014, Pastor Reggie Stutzman of the Real Life Church walked by the closed doors of Platinum Pleasures and had an idea. For four years, Stutzman and his wife have been working in Hunts Point without a permanent location. His "church without walls" had grown to around 50 congregants who met in a nearby recreation center.
"We've had a four-year identity crisis," said Stutzman. He called the number on the FOR SALE sign and was inside the club 30 minutes later being shown around by the building's owner.
"I've never been in a strip club before," said Stutzman, "so it was just kind of crazy."
As the owner of the building gave Stutzman a tour of the club, they came across the golden-cased shower. A shower in the middle of a bar didn't make sense to him.
"I asked the owner what it was," said Stutzman. "He said guys get a turn-on by watching a woman shower."
Still, even standing in the presence of the shower, strip poles, and bottles of booze gathering dust, Stutzman saw a potential home for his congregation and began fundraising. He took his plans to the Community Board and Salamanca, who instantly supported him.
"It is unheard of," said Salamanca. "He's taking a piece of property which had a negative impact on this community, and he's turning it into something positive."
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The bizarre symbolism of a strip club turning into a church was not lost on Stutzman. He used the attention he began receiving in the media to raise awareness for his church.
Yet, the main barrier between Stutzman and his new church was money. He didn't have much of it. Stutzman said that when he contacted Cuesta asking to buy his lease, Cuesta named his price: $1 million. He later lowered the asking price to $100,000.
After fundraising for the better part of a year, Stutzman had only raised about $50,000. Though one large donation of $10,000 was made, most of the donations only amounted to a few hundred dollars here, or a thousand there.
"I'm really waiting for God to put it on one person or a couple other people, and just say, 'Hey, we want to get this done,'" said Stutzman.
Pastor Reggie even began inviting his congregation to pray with him outside Platinum Pleasures. Lined up outside the building, the small number who showed up would put their hands on the padlocked doors and pray as cars whizzed past.
Cuesta, who met with Stutzman, never believed Stutzman would raise the money required to take over the lease.
"He had no money, he had no way of doing this," said Cuesta. "I just think, personally, it was a way of him getting on television, asking for donations."
Cuesta said he was willing to work with Stutzman by bringing down his price.
"I wasn't against him putting a church there, I just needed to get a certain amount. I brought my price down. I did everything I was supposed to do."
Stutzman, still without a home for his church, has lost congregants in recent months.
"We're in limbo, and it's been very uncomfortable," said Stutzman. "This building has been a cesspool of a lot of bad things in Hunt's Point for a long time, and it just continues to be the thorn in everyone's flesh."
When Cuesta was 18, he was a bouncer in Manhattan nightclubs and had dreamed of one day opening his own. When he finally opened his club, albeit a "high-end" strip club, he felt he found his stride as an entrepreneur. He liked the high-energy and the respect he commanded inside the walls of Platinum Pleasures.
"You become a celebrity in your own right inside a club," said Cuesta. "And they make a lot of money… that was one of the lures to it."
For Cuesta, the fight to keep his club running has ended. For Levy, the fight is far from over.
"For me, it's always been about First Amendment rights, and being able as an adult to choose for myself," said Levy. "This industry is nothing more than part of the colorful mosaic called America."