Chris Abatsas is more than happy to show visitors the souvenir he received from city officials the day they raided his West 25th Street strip club, Monroe's Cabaret, last October.
"You can see how they tore it right off the hinges," he announces, pointing to the hollow steel door with a crumpled midsection.
The story of what happened to Abatsas's door has become the subject of one federal lawsuit (filed by Abatsas without an attorney) and a mountain of paperwork. It has also become symbolic of the heavy-handed and sometimes capricious tactics being used by the city to clean up adult businesses along a short stretch of West 25th that is home to six strip clubs, an adult bookstore, and one X-rated theater.
On one side is Abatsas and other adult business owners, who claim the city is using the Drug House Task Force--a team of police, health officials, and building officials that is responsible for closing properties out of which drugs are sold--to selectively enforce building codes against properties without a history of drug sales and ultimately shut them down.
City officials argue they are aggressively enforcing--citywide--zoning and building laws using the new Adult Business Task Force, an interdepartmental agency similar to the Drug House Task Force, created in 1998 to enforce the 1997 changes to the adult business zoning laws.
Standing next to his damaged door on a brisk but sunny afternoon, 31-year-old Abatsas seems hardly bothered by the cold as he talks about the morning of October 29, 1998. It was on that day that members of the city's Drug House Task Force plunged a battering ram into the center of his back door to gain entry to his club. At the time, city officials told Abatsas that they were acting on a tip that he had expanded his building without proper permits, and that his mother, who owns the building, failed to respond to requests to inspect the property. Once inside, inspectors, noting heating and ventilating code violations among others, declared the building "life-threatening" and condemned it. City crews already waiting with plywood sealed the building's entrance.
Inspectors found no evidence of drug sales.
Abatsas, a Florida-based contractor and business owner who now lives with his mother in Lakewood, admits violations existed at the time of the inspection, but says they hardly added up to a life-threatening situation worthy of condemnation. "I'm not a sleaze landlord," he says, his voice quickly rising before complaining about the presence of the Drug House Task Force at his property when no drugs had been sold out of his club. "Monroe's is not a drug house, has never been a drug house, and I don't operate a drug house there."
Despite repeated requests, city officials failed to make available before press time the police and building files of each adult business along West 25th Street. Requests for interviews with specific city officials were directed to Linda M. Hudecek, director of Cleveland's Department of Community Development, which oversees the actions of the building and housing department and Drug House Task Force.
Hudecek says the city is not misusing the Drug House Task Force, and that inspections of West 25th Street clubs were conducted by the Adult Business Task Force and prompted by building code violations and club owners' failure to give access to inspectors.
"We are aggressively going out and looking at these clubs," says Hudecek. "If adult clubs are violating codes, we will come back in."
Despite denials that the Drug House Task Force is being used for zoning issues, city officials admitted in a December court hearing that this task force was, in fact, involved in the raid on Abatsas's club. Standing before U.S. District Court Judge Paul R. Matia, City of Cleveland Attorney Pinkey Carr explained that the task force just happened to be in the neighborhood, and since Monroe's was on the way to the task force's next assignment, its members visited the club. "[Abatsas] may have seen somebody with a hat on that said Drug House Task Force," Carr said.
During the hearing, Abatsas complained about and produced paperwork bearing the name of the Drug House Task Force. This prompted Judge Matia to ask Carr, "If this has nothing to do with drugs, why did the Drug House Task Force issue permits to enter the premises and so forth?"
Carr responded by handing off the question to Cleveland's Building and Housing Commissioner, Lisa Thomas, who was present during the raid and oversees the task force.
"It's unfortunate, as Ms. Carr testified, the way we did this inspection," said Thomas. "[October 29] was a drug house day, and we added the inspection [of Monroe's] to the itinerary that day." Responding directly to paperwork produced by Abatsas, Thomas said, "It is common for us to issue such a letter to the owner . . . It is unfortunate it's on Drug House stationery."
"I would say that it's better if it's on Building and Housing stationery," replied the judge.
Abatsas is not the only club owner with a story about broken doors. During the last four and a half months of 1998, city inspectors visited every adult business on West 25th between Clark and Meyer avenues, resulting in the immediate but temporary closure of nearly all show bars. The clubs' owners all tell similar stories of ambushes and broken doors and difficulty in getting inspectors to sign off on repairs. Such attention from the city had business owners crying conspiracy during a recent neighborhood safety meeting sponsored by the Clark Metro Development Corporation, which is trying to redevelop the same strip of West 25th.
The meeting, held in a small dining room in the rectory of St. Michael Church, was one of several meetings demanded by residents who say they are tired of witnessing prostitution and public intoxication that they attribute to the adult businesses.
Facing a small wooden cross and standing next to a glass-encased carving of da Vinci's "Last Supper," Sam's Show Bar owner Nagi "Nick" Karim explained the virtues of topless clubs in the neighborhood.
"You guys are always hitting on the go-go bars," said a calm Karim, who just purchased the property on which the neighborhood Dairy Mart sits. "We are trying to make a difference in the neighborhood. If I'm investing in the city, and the city is hitting me with code violations, then I won't invest a dime."
In an earlier interview, Karim told Scene that he was ambushed by the city after he had agreed to allow the city's chief building inspector, Frank Koscho, to inspect his property for possible violations. On December 3, the day of the inspection, Karim says an army of people arrived, inspected the building, condemned it, and boarded up the doors.
"I was supposed to meet with Koscho; thirty guys later, I'm shut down," he said before referring all questions to his attorney. (Sam's Show Bar reopened earlier this month after making the necessary repairs.)
Don Ksiezyk, who owns West 25th Street's Peek-a-Boo Club and Harvard Avenue's Bug-a-Boo Club, also spoke at the meeting, but he declined to be interviewed because he has a lawsuit pending against the city. According to the federal lawsuit filed through an attorney on March 1, Koscho mailed a letter requesting to inspect both clubs. But according to the suit, Koscho never returned Ksiezyk's phone calls to arrange a time. Then, on Thursday, August 27, with search warrants the lawsuit claims were invalid, the city rammed open the door of the Bug-a-Boo Club and condemned and sealed the building. The task force then proceeded to the Peek-a-Boo Club and busted the doors and locks to gain entry. This location, however, was not condemned or boarded up.
Club owners' complaints were wasted, however, because the only city representative at the meeting was a community planner who promised to try to arrange a meeting for business owners with Building and Housing Commissioner Lisa Thomas.
Hudecek says it only appears that adult businesses along West 25th are being singled out, because of the high concentration of adult businesses in the area. She says the city has compiled a list of approximately forty adult businesses, each of which is subject to the same building inspection and zoning review by the Adult Business Task Force.
Still standing in the cold, Abatsas walks around his building pointing out the improvements he is making to his club and to the adjoining building. (Abatsas had knocked out a wall to expand the club into the adjoining building, which has since been replaced.) Abatsas says he plans to contribute to the redevelopment of the area by opening a dry cleaner and an inexpensive family-style diner within the next six months.
"It will cater to the neighborhood, and it won't be an overpriced Tremont restaurant. I won't make it no high-class restaurant."
Mark Naymik may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org