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Originally published Thursday, November 2, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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When it comes to strip clubs, Portland has nothing to hide

In Oregon's largest city, the "4-foot rule" might be viewed as the distance between strip clubs. As Seattle votes on tougher rules, in Portland the clubs are a minor issue.

Seattle Times staff reporter

PORTLAND — At Mary's Club, this city's oldest strip joint, the classic vices are all close at hand.

You can watch dancers undress and twirl around a single brass pole on a tiny stage. And you can take in the show while sipping a vodka tonic, smoking a cigarette and gambling away your paycheck on video poker.

This place would be in so much trouble in Seattle.

Letting people smoke in a bar? A $100 fine from the health department. Video-poker machines? A felony worth up to five years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Dancers within 4 feet of customers? Seattle could try to shut the place down under a strict new ordinance.

But this is Oregon, where a liberal free-speech clause in the state constitution and several rulings by the state Supreme Court have rendered strip clubs and other sexually oriented businesses nearly untouchable.

Portland boasts more than 50 strip clubs — believed to be the most per capita of any U.S. city. Seattle has its knickers in a twist about just four.

Seattle Referendum 1


Seattle voters will decide Tuesday whether to throw out an ordinance imposing strict new rules on strip clubs. The rules require dancers to stay at least 4 feet from customers, essentially banning lap dances. Direct tipping also is banned, and clubs are to install brighter lighting.

Supporters say the new restrictions would be easier for police to enforce and would discourage the proliferation of new clubs. Opponents argue the rules are overly moralistic and would destroy legitimate businesses.

A vote of "approved" would keep the rules, which are not currently being enforced, pending the election. A vote of "rejected" would overturn the restrictions.

With Seattle's new "4-foot rule" on the ballot next Tuesday, the debate has centered on whether clubs are a harmless private business or a potential hazard for neighborhoods. If voters say "no" to the 4-foot rule, as clubs funding the Referendum 1 campaign hope, the city could see new clubs proliferate for the first time in decades.

Despite Portland's abundance of strip clubs and adult bookstores, it has a reputation as a desirable city to live in. The city's tourism promoters play up its environmentally friendly image, as well as its funky, offbeat neighborhood businesses, said Deborah Wakefield, spokeswoman for the Portland Oregon Visitors Association. That includes places like Voodoo Doughnut, where you can get married while munching on Bacon Maple bars.

Asked how strip clubs fit into that strategy, Wakefield said "they don't," but she added the clubs really haven't been a problem for the city's image. "You have to have a sense of humor about the place you live. Every place has its eccentricities."

In Seattle, some fret that do-gooders are sucking the life out of the city. They link Seattle's hostility to strip clubs with the new statewide smoking ban, local crackdowns on nightclub noise and limits on malt-liquor sales. A cover story in the Seattle Weekly captured the sentiment: "Big Nanny Is Watching You."

If Seattle exemplifies the Nanny State, Portland is the Naughty State.

Some Oregonians fear their permissive attitude has gone too far, especially after the state Supreme Court ruled last year that free-speech protections extended even to live sex shows.

Conservatives have launched an initiative campaign for 2008 to amend the Oregon Constitution so strip clubs can be regulated. The effort is being led by Salem attorney Kevin Mannix, a former state legislator who has twice run for governor as a Republican. He said the amendment would give communities more power to set local standards.

"I want to be able to protect my neighborhood and tell my City Council this strip club doesn't belong across the street from my home," Mannix said.

Oregon voters have rejected similar measures in the past, unwilling to weaken a constitution that provides one of the most liberal free-speech protections in the country. That tradition also explains why the state has no limits on campaign contributions, which also are considered free speech.

Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard said despite their devotion to free speech, his constituents still get angry when new strip clubs or adult video stores open near homes or schools. He has to remind them City Hall is powerless to stop that from happening.

"They do protest. They don't like hearing there is nothing we can do," said Leonard, a Democrat who served in the state Legislature for a decade.

He wants cities to have the power to enact modest zoning restrictions on strip clubs and adult bookstores.

Portland police say the strip clubs are not a big problem. "The strip clubs per se do not create a bigger crime problem for the neighborhood versus any other liquor establishments," said Sgt. Mike Stevenson, with the drugs and vice division.

Stevenson said the city does have problems with private "lingerie modeling" establishments that are basically fronts for prostitution.

Leonard said strip clubs are far from the most burning issue in a city where, like Seattle, school funding and transportation problems are at the top of the heap.

For the foreseeable future, strip clubs in Portland will remain so ubiquitous that one north Portland tavern makes an apology on a sign out front: "Sorry, no strip club." (Fortunately, the place has poker.)

The clubs range from tiny downtown watering holes to showy Vegas-inspired suburban clubs with huge parking lots and five stages. Most serve alcohol, and many offer full menus. At Lush, you can get sushi with your show. At Acropolis, the morning crowd drinks beer with their steak and eggs.

Mary's Club is considered a kind of local landmark, and its late owner, Roy Keller, was celebrated as a colorful character when he died this summer at the age of 90. He bought Mary's Club in 1954 and hired go-go dancers at first just to keep the crowd around when the piano player went on break. They proved so popular, Keller laid off the piano player and went with the dancers full time.

His daughter, Vicki Keller, runs the place now. One night last week, between serving cocktails, Keller explained she runs a tight ship. She doesn't tolerate lewd lap dances and her dancers don't roam around hard-selling private dances. "This is not a hustle club," she said.

Strip clubs can be good neighbors or bad, Keller said. "I don't care if you are a CPA or a barber shop. It's the way it's run."

In Seattle, the struggle between guardians of virtue and purveyors of vice is as old as the city's founding, said Walt Crowley, founder of Historylink.org, an online encyclopedia of local history.

In the 1850s, the teetotaling Arthur Denny and the imbibing Doc Maynard couldn't even agree on how to align the city's streets. They each filed their own plats, resulting in the "tangle of mismatched cross-streets along Yesler Way," according to Historylink. Denny groused that Maynard was "stimulated" on liquor.

Later, city leaders battled over "blue laws" that banned liquor sales on Sundays and forbade women from sitting at the bar. As late as the 1960s, Seattle had a film board that tried to restrict the showing of art films deemed too racy, Crowley said.

Referendum 1 is just the latest fight in that tradition. Two local strip clubs have spent nearly $1 million on advertising to try to repeal the city's "4-foot rule." (A vote of "approved" would keep the rule, which is not currently being enforced pending the election. A vote of "rejected" would overturn the restrictions.)

But in the end, despite the controversy they sometimes cause, strip clubs will not define either Portland or Seattle, said one free-speech expert.

"Would anybody say Seattle is a superior place to Portland because it has fewer adult bookstores or strip clubs? I think that's such a bizarre notion," said Charles Hinkle, a Portland attorney who specializes in free-speech cases and has argued against strip-club regulations in Oregon.

"I don't think anybody in Seattle would list that in the top 100 factors as to why they chose Seattle to live."

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

They've got more than we do
Portland is smaller than Seattle but has at least 12 times as many strip clubs. That's due largely to the Oregon Constitution, which has been interpreted to protect nude dancing as free speech.
Seattle Portland
Population 574,000 533,000
Strip clubs 4 50-plus*
Clubs

per capita

1 for every

143,500 residents

At least 1 for every

10,660 residents

State

constitution

"Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right." "No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right."
Sources: state of Oregon, state of Washington, U.S. Census

* Based on directory published by Exotic Magazine

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