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Can the Lap Dance King De-Sleaze Broadway?

To class up the city’s raunchiest street, Joe Carouba first had to clean up himself.

Joe Carouba

Joe Carouba

 

To be Joe Carouba is to rule a fiefdom of flesh. It’s to walk through a strip club in an Alexander McQueen pinstripe suit, swinging your hands wide and clapping them like you own the place—because you do. It’s being treated at every turn to a “Hey, man!” from hulky doormen with boss-man smiles and viselike handshakes. It’s disregarding the naked blonde writhing on the Penthouse Club stage to focus on the fact that only a handful of dudes are watching her—near peak hour on a Wednesday night. It’s jumping into the backseat of a black Escalade and hearing the driver ask, “Where we goin’, boss?”—the same driver who chauffeured you from your Jackson Street condo to rehab eight years ago when you finally decided to sober up.

These are your men. It’s different with the women. When you walk into the Gold Club dressing room—the space packed with 30 G-stringed pairs of buttocks and thick with hairspray—and announce (rather incongruously), “Hey, guys!” the women don’t recognize you (“I know of a Joe,” says one). Ever since you got clean and reduced your visits to the clubs, they rarely see you—in fact, they seem a tad annoyed that you traipsed in. At Centerfolds, a beauty in an orange push-up mistakes you for a customer, asking, “Is this your first time here?” (Look at the shoes, strippers say, to size up the wallet. Yours are pointy-toed and French.) Watching a naked dancer jackknifing the pole, you wax philosophical: “It must be hard to be sexy when you’re the only naked one in the room, don’t you think?”

To be Joe Carouba is to be San Francisco’s hardest-working, most misunderstood strip club king. Carouba runs and partly owns 10 of the 13 strip clubs in the city, including all 8 in a two-block stretch of North Beach. And business—despite the poor showing on this Wednesday night and the common assumption that online porn has killed old-school fleshpots—is booming. “We’re selling intimacy,” Carouba says in nearby Caffe Puccini as opera plays in the background, “and you can’t get that online.”

The first dot-com boom—“nice kids spending money like this was the new reality and was never going to change”—made his cash registers jingle, and the city’s latest boom, Carouba claims, has only made them ring more merrily. His top-grossing establishment, the Gold Club on Howard Street, is packed every Friday with 300 people (a third of them women) scarfing the $5 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, and his other clubs are making bank as well. He has reinvested the profits by freshening up the venues one by one: The Gold Club and Penthouse on Broadway have a flashy Miami vibe, with LED lights, VIP rooms with tinted windows, and smartphone-charging outlets; the Hungry I nods to its jazz and comedy club legacy with dark wallpaper and chandeliers; the Condor, where Carol Doda kicked off America’s topless craze in 1964, has a retro look, all velvet curtains and vintage photos of burlesque dancers. The entire empire is wired, and you can even download a mobile app that sends notifications of one club’s promotions. But Carouba isn’t satisfied with success as a strip club impresario. His aspirations are loftier: He wants nothing less than to revitalize Broadway—and he’s unabashedly pitching his girly joints as the key to the upgrade. Purveyors of entertainment that involves naked women are not generally welcomed into Chamber of Commerce–style deliberations on how to improve a neighborhood. But because this neighborhood is North Beach, keeper of the city’s lurid Barbary Coast past, Carouba has become the unlikely ringleader of the clean-up-Broadway movement. Fleshpot mogul as civic benefactor: It’s a little weird—but very San Francisco.

Broadway is one of the stranger streets in town: A garish four-lane thoroughfare that separates two of the city’s most historic neighborhoods, Chinatown and North Beach, it was the Embarcadero Freeway’s main artery until the Loma Prieta earthquake. The strip’s golden years were the ’50s and ’60s, when top-name jazz and comedy clubs and legacy eateries coexisted happily with the topless bars, the topless bands, and even a topless shoe-shine parlor. But by the ’70s, Broadway was sliding toward sleazy. In the ’80s, former Hungry I proprietor Enrico Banducci lamented: “There was a great feeling and great smells on the street. Now you just smell the street.” The glamour was gone. The street’s north side was—and still is—a motley stretch of tattoo palaces, pizza joints, and convenience stores topped by floors of run-down rooms and apartments. The south side is filled with big dance clubs. And change on either side is discouraged by planning restrictions that ban chain stores and require special permissions for new restaurants.

But today’s Broadway is worse than just cheesy— it can be dangerous. On weekend nights a rough element sometimes invades the strip, often arriving in party buses. There have been brawls and shootings, even a murder. “Now we have the thugs and wannabe gangsters out there,” says Condor dancer Kitty Chow. “It’s so ugh. At least back in the day, pimps wore suits.” The violence has subsided of late, but flare-ups still occur: In February, a 29-year-old man leaving a strip joint was shot in the shoulder.

But while Broadway remains the same decrepit cruising strip that it has been for decades, surrounding North Beach is bustling. After years of calcifying into a museum of sorts, the old Italian quarter–meets–Beat generation haunt is attracting the city’s ascendant class with the usual bait: food. The swank Park Tavern, the updated Original Joe’s, and the transformed Tosca Cafe are part of this culinary renaissance. In a true sign of the times, the shuttered Lusty Lady peep show (the only sex show in North Beach that wasn’t part of Carouba’s empire) will open as a Tosca-affiliated bar. The chic Comstock Saloon and Devil’s Acre bars and Revéille Coffee Co. have spiffed up the area around the City Lights book store, and later this year Broadway west of Columbus will glow with the four-story China Live project—a Chinese Eataly with a market, a restaurant, and a rooftop club lounge. And it all might soon be easier to get to: The district’s new supervisor, Julie Christensen, is pushing for a Central Subway stop on Washington Square.

Joe Carouba wants raunchy Broadway to share in this upgrade. But his efforts to bring back the street’s glory days have faced an uphill battle—in part because some locals regard his strip clubs as a big part of the problem. He may pitch himself as an entrepreneurial version of the hooker with a heart of gold, but not everyone is buying it.

 

Carouba isn’t a capital-C character in the old North Beach tradition. He’s no Sam Conti, the flamboyant strip club king of the 1980s—though at times he wishes he were. “We professionalized the industry,” Carouba says, “but I miss the cowboys. They’ll never make another Sam Conti.” In the city of today, the mavericks give TED talks and drive Priuses. And 58-year-old Carouba—a cautious, hip attender of Marin silent retreats—is in many ways the perfect flesh peddler for today’s city.

Carouba’s exposure to the industry began with the family business, which was born when his father, a Palestinian Christian named Habib, won a Tenderloin bookstore in a card game in the ’60s (or so he told his son) and found that the male customers were more interested in the nudie pics under the counter than in the potboilers on the shelves. After San Francisco became the first American city to allow hard-core porn screenings, in 1969, Habib built an empire of porn theaters. As a child, Joe was kept away from the family trade: While his dad went about amassing porn palaces, he attended Star of the Sea parochial school and served as an altar boy. “It was a little confusing,” he says. “There was a civil war going on in the ’70s in San Francisco, and my home was like a microcosm of what was happening in the city.” By age 11, he’d gone “feral,” dropping acid and hopping across the close-set roofs down Haight during the Summer of Love.

Carouba entered the family business as a teen, working the projection rooms at Habib’s Tom Kat and Pink Kat theaters in the Tenderloin and helping on porn sets on his father’s soundstage. During his senior year, he dropped out of Serramonte High School and moved to Honolulu to work in another of Habib’s theaters, loading the reels to The Devil in Miss Jones and Deep Throat (“I probably have both of those memorized,” he says). At age 20, after a brief stint managing a few of his dad’s clubs, he struck out on his own, opening a chain of Happy Donut shops around the city in the ’70s.

But by the mid-’90s, Carouba was back in the flesh business, partnering with national strip chain Déjà Vu to buy out most of the city’s strip clubs. By the late 1990s, he operated 10 clubs in the city and was a partner in Hustler clubs in Paris and London that he visited four times a year. He sold off his doughnut shops, and the strip business became his life: He visited his clubs nightly and took part in “many, many, many, many” lap dances.

“Ten years ago this would have been a better story,” Carouba tells me. He shares a memory from that time: One night, staggering out drunk from the New Century Theater in the Tenderloin, he offered eight dancers a ride to his condo in a limo. The general manager, who was not impressed with the idea, distracted him with conversation while the women filed into the car—and then scurried out the opposite door. Describing those years, Carouba says, “The nights and the partying—it was ridiculous. People ask me, ‘What were you addicted to?’ And I say, ‘More. Just more.’”

Carouba got sober eight years ago. “People grow, and they change,” he says, “and I think I’m not immune to that.” Two years earlier, he’d met his longtime partner and current fiancé, Alexandra Lutnick, a PhD researcher who studies sex workers. Last year the duo sailed to Hawaii in the Pacific Cup; this summer they plan to hike the John Muir Trail. On an average day, Carouba works out or goes to yoga in the morning, then walks to his office. On a recent evening he was sipping sparkling water with his 85-year-old mother at a new drag club in SoMa, Oasis. (He’s the landlord.)

But while Carouba was getting his personal life together, Broadway, the street where most of his empire is concentrated, was going to hell. The problems worsened in the mid-aughts, when neophyte owners of the big nightclubs on the street’s south side hired mercenary promoters who catered to a rough crowd. Fights and shootings began breaking out. On weekends, police and sheriff’s vans stood near the party buses, ready to haul troublemakers off to jail. And the profits of Carouba’s clubs suffered.

In an effort to halt the “death spiral,” as he calls it, Carouba met with police and city hall staffers and decided that what Broadway needed was a community benefit district (CBD, in wonk speak)—an organization, funded by special taxes on area property owners, that would support street beautification, security, and branding. But when he and his attorney started calling property owners in 2007 and asking them to join, they were met with some suspicion. Neighboring landlords, who knew little about Carouba beyond his status as the street’s most prurient son, tended to hear his pitch as “Give me more money, and maybe things will get better.” In the end, the CBD failed by a tiny margin. (Ironically, Carouba’s partner, Roger Forbes, apparently forgot to mail in his ballot.)

So Carouba switched strategies, forming a nonprofit to fund security guards to patrol the street. Still, crime continued: In 2008, a man leaving the Hustler Club was killed by an alleged gangster who attempted to steal his victim’s diamond-encrusted Flintstone medallion. A year later, an unpermitted Broadway strip club named Heaven Mini-Theatre was shut down by court order for multiple violations, including allegedly operating as a brothel, and two doormen at a nearby strip club were shot. In response, Nader Marvi, the frustrated co-owner of a big nightclub called Monroe Lounge, organized business owners and landlords into a group dubbed the Voice of Broadway. The District Attorney’s Office and the police helped develop security measures for the clubs. Carouba started attending Marvi’s meetings, and talk of forming a CBD resurfaced.

Opponents, however, remained—many of them bottom-line-oriented Chinese landlords. “They vote with their pocketbooks more than anything,” says Calvin Louie, owner of the Broadway building that houses the Cosmo Bar and Lounge. Moreover, the opposition didn’t trust Carouba. “We felt that Joe Carouba was going to have too much power,” says Gardner Kent, who founded the Green Tortoise travel service four decades ago. “We feared that once we put money into the CBD, it wouldn’t be spent appropriately on what needed attention.”

And, of course, Carouba’s strip clubs themselves were an issue. Kent takes a rather second-wave-feminist view of the clubs as exploitative, describing Carouba as a “pimp.” For Kent, Carouba’s push to clean up Broadway is tainted by what he sees as Carouba’s role in creating the mess in the first place. “He may be his own worst enemy,” says Kent. “He wants a better Broadway, but the very seediest part of Broadway is right at the entrance to Broadway.” (He’s referring to Carouba’s strip clubs on and near Columbus.) And Kent is not alone in that opinion: Carl T (his legal name), a retired police sergeant who used to patrol Broadway on foot, says, “The strip clubs and nightclubs feed off each other and attract the same ilk.”

But Carouba and his allies kept pushing the CBD, and in 2013 it finally passed. In fact, more landlords voted against than for it, but because each vote was weighted according to the CBD tax that the voter would owe, Carouba’s establishments had more impact. Nevertheless, until 2021, all the landlords on Broadway will be paying for Carouba’s vision—whether they like it or not.

 

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in March, and the board of the Top of Broadway Community Benefit District—business owners, landlords, and residents—is meeting at Monroe Lounge. Carouba, the board vice president, strides in, joining the head of the Beat Museum, Jerry Cimino—who is dressed, of course, in all black—and Calvin Louie, who has decided that since he has to buy in, he may as well “watch the money.” Carouba has put his money where his mouth is: He has donated $100,000 to the CBD in each of its first two years, close to half of the organization’s budget.

The CBD’s board members envision a Broadway restored to its 1960 status as a nightlife destination: an amalgam of restaurants and clubs, shops that lure foot traffic during the day, and strip clubs to provide a little sinful sizzle. “Diversity” is a word that comes up frequently in conversations with the 10 board members. “That means big spenders and little spenders,” says Carouba, “some guys who want a steak dinner, and others who want quick, easy food.”

But achieving that desired diversity will be a balancing act: The CBD wants to change the street’s DNA without closing down its time-honored fleshpots. “This is San Francisco,” says the group’s PR consultant, Katy Lim. “This isn’t Candyland.” By now, the strip clubs predate most North Beachers—many of whom accept them as part of the hood. Janet Clyde, owner of the iconic Vesuvio Cafe, recalls that when she moved to San Francisco in 1978, “the clubs were bustling and hustling and actually a lot of fun. They’re historically part of the neighborhood, and I think they should remain part of the neighborhood.”

But are those clubs the source of the very bad apples that Carouba wants to eliminate? District police captain David Lazar says no: “If the strip clubs were an issue,” he says, “I’d tell you.” But the question of clientele aside, there’s the simple matter of image: The clubs’ street presence—Vegas-style racing lights flashing above the clusters of rowdies and the high-heeled strippers teetering outside for a smoke—is undoubtedly off-putting to image-conscious businesses. Case in point: To avoid the street’s nighttime mayhem, Broadway Studios, an event space, has taken to courting daytime tech conferences. One of its IT conferences was canceled in January after an attendee checked Google Maps—where Broadway Studios was erroneously labeled a strip club—and discovered its proximity to all the flesh joints.

The owners of Broadway Studios (along with local businessman Jordan Angle, who called the CBD and other North Beach players a “cartel” after there was opposition to his application for a liquor license) were among the tax district’s most vociferous opponents. “I think they’re really offended by the fact that they have to pay extra money,” Carouba says, “and that I’m somehow involved in that.” (On the record, co-owner Francesca Valdez says that she’s done with spats: “I want you to simply say we give our blessing to the CBD. We need faith, hope, love, and peace.”)

For his part, Carouba is savvy about staying out of the neighbors’ crosshairs. He gives money to nonprofits and politicians. He hosts an annual strip club holiday toy drive for the fire department. He installed ID card–checking software at his clubs. And when his new “All Nude Cabaret” Centerfolds sign across the street from a school drew complaints from parents, he took the offending sign down (despite finding the complaints rather prudish—“What is this, Kansas?” he told the news).

By and large, the board itself is friendly with Carouba: “Thank yous” pepper the meeting when he announces that he’ll match any donations made to the CBD; people laugh when he suggests that he could donate a stripper pole to an upcoming street fair. As the CBD’s contract street cleaner told me at the group’s Christmas party, “Without him, the CBD wouldn’t exist,” and now “he’s got believers.” Former district police captain Garret Tom is also (somewhat) complimentary: “I don’t want to say that he’s a great asset, or I’ll get a lot of flak. But when it comes to the community benefit district, he’s been a big supporter. I think he’s been a plus.”

Faced with the realities on the street, the CBD has focused on achievable goals: five-times-a-week street cleaning and daily graffiti removal; hanging flowerpots; private security guards to patrol the street Thursday through Saturday nights; and proposed security cameras. Thanks to a city grant, the CBD is also installing plaques highlighting the beatnik and Barbary Coast history of the area—one may go in front of the Condor. And the inaugural Off Broadway Festival is slated for this summer, featuring street food and vendors to attract locals and advertise the CBD to the rest of North Beach.

The CBD’s efforts seem to be meeting with some success: Despite the February shooting incident, conditions on Broadway are improving. While hooligans still show up, police say that overall crime reports have been down in recent months. On many weekends, the street is calmer—last New Year’s Eve, when the police processing truck pulled up as always, it found nothing to do. At the March meeting, CBD executive director Benjamin Horne reports that a high-end boutique hotel has met with him about moving to Broadway. Horne volunteers that he’s met with the developer of China Live to see if he might want to join the CBD, noting that the building will attract a “young, well-to-do clientele.” Adds board president Stephanie Greenburg: “It will fit in with our concept as well.”

Horne says that the developer of China Live has floated plans to buy another property down the block, tying everything together to create a Broadway entertainment district. “God bless America!” calls out Ryan Maxey, the owner of Naked Lunch. “Things are headed for change around here,” Horne says.

The exuberance in the room is understandable: If the supersonic change that has swept through other parts of San Francisco finally comes to Broadway, these are the people who will profit most. And Joe Carouba, with his fiefdom of flesh, stands to gain more than anyone else. After all, if the street cleans up and becomes the next Valencia or mid-Market, Carouba could clean up at the bank, too: He could sell.

In today’s city, M&A is worth a lot more than T&A.