Jen Davison
The building is unassuming. Sitting along Sandy Blvd, ringed by chain link fencing, from the outside, it looks no more threatening than a Blockbuster or a 24-Hour Fitness. But early next year, Steam Portland, a bathhouse catering to gay men, will open in the Hollywood district. To hear some residents talk about it, you would think that it was the second coming of Gomorrah.

"Once this goes in, the cancer spreads," Norm Stoll reportedly told a recent neighborhood meeting. "San Francisco has become a sewer, but they outlawed places like this." A longtime resident in the area and owner of a local dance studio, along with his wife, Stoll has led the charge against the soon-to-open bathhouse.

Just like "escorts" have little to do with handholding and pleasant dinner conversation, it's no secret that bathhouses are synonymous with gay sex. In the late '70s and early '80s, six such clubs operated in Portland. But the spread of AIDS and a culture of anxiety that permeated the gay social scene shut down foot traffic through those establishments.

(In truth, despite opponents' claims, bathhouses are banned by neither the city nor county of San Francisco. Several prominent clubs line the upscale, decidedly gay Castro District, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Even the stuffy weekly periodical the Bay Guardian proudly nominates the "best sex club" in San Francisco every year. This year it was Eros, a popular bathhouse along Market Street.)

The first such bathhouse to open in Portland in nearly a decade, Steam Portland would have launched discreetly and with little fanfare had neighbors not thrown up their arms in dismay. Five years ago, say residents, the Hollywood neighborhood was a bona fide red-light district, crawling with prostitutes and plagued by seedy strip clubs and adult bookstores. Due to untiring neighborhood policing and pressure, the area has about-faced. Only a few strip joints remain on the east end of Sandy Blvd, and hookers are as rare as Starbucks is common. But, say a handful of residents, Steam Portland will re-introduce seediness, amorality, and crime.

According to architecture plans, the business will feature a hot tub, a steam room, and 40-plus private rooms. The owner has assured that condoms will be available and has indicated that he hopes to maintain a scene of decorum. Even so, residents are unyielding in their objections.

"We're curious what sort of exercises they will do in cubicles," posited Helen Stoll in a message left for the Mercury. Opponents' objections have walked a fine line between moral condemnation of gay culture and concerns about the safety of their neighborhood. "It will be a magnet for crime," asserted Stoll. She went on to explain that she plans to mail evidence of the "crimes" committed by Steam Portland patrons to the business' owners. When asked what sort of evidence, she said, "used condoms, needles, sex toys."

(Stoll also pointed out that she objects to the Mercury. "You exploit women," she explained, referring to the newspaper's escort ads. "When we go to a restaurant where your magazine is, there will be three guys looking at the magazine. They will look up and undress you with their eyes. It is the same thing that happens outside strip clubs," she claimed.)

But legally, there is nothing that residents can do. Although opponents say that the owner lied to the city, all permits have been issued; the business fits within the current zoning and business plan for the district. Outside basic zoning guidelines, a business cannot be regulated based on moral considerations. Unless the operation of the business does, in fact, break laws, create a nuisance or attract crime, there is little that neighbors can do but raise their voices at neighborhood meetings.

This scenario is akin to what St. Francis Church has struggled through in the past few months, as neighbors in the Buckman community complained that the church's dining services for the homeless were attracting petty criminals. Facing closure from the police, two weeks ago the church hammered out an agreement to contain patrons on their own property. Similarly, members of the Hollywood Development Community have reportedly suggested that they work out a "good neighbor agreement" with Steam Portland. Under such an agreement, Steam Portland would voluntarily offer conditions under which they would operate.