|Nights out: Neon signage lures patrons to buisnesses on South Orange Blossom Trail (photo: Gregg Matthews)|
It used to be that New Orleans, that gaudy, tacky hole in the earth where sin and smut are marketable attractions, was the one community that Central Florida civic and business leaders feared the most. New Orleans -- and its famously seedy streets -- was cited as one of the justifications for spending millions of dollars in downtown Orlando to renovate Orange and Magnolia avenues.
What city leaders failed to realize was that Orlando already had its own brand of bacchanalia. An eight-mile stretch of Orange Blossom Trail, a nondescript boulevard of empty lives and shattered dreams, was "straight-whore city," according to a longtime local. This red-light district attracted the usual cast of undesirables -- hookers, pimps, gamblers, drug dealers, perverts -- mixed with out-of-towners and the average Joe looking for sexual adventure.
Known as the Strip, OBT or the Trail, Orlando's section of U.S. Highway 441, which extends from Miami to Tennessee, was celebrated throughout Central Florida as the place where wild oats were sewn. Politicians were arrested here. Rock stars and athletes relaxed here. Hookers serviced johns on side streets. Millions of dollars changed hands.
"Sex was wide open, there's no question about it," says Bill Lutz, a former police officer and now director of the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, which investigates drug and sex rings.
The focus hasn't changed much. About 75 percent of the arrests for prostitution within Orange County last year were made on the Trail. Indeed, "The Trail" is still shorthand in these parts for anything sleazy and dangerous, especially as it applies to the illegal sex trade. "We see johns from all walks of life," says Orange County vice squad Sgt. Rich Walker. "Attorneys, firemen, laborers, politicians. You never know what you're going to get. Last year we arrested a 12-year-old."
But the Trail's profile isn't what it used to be.
It wasn't until the late 1960s that the common streetwalker was introduced to Orlando. Up to that point, prostitution was limited to call girls who traveled a circuit between Southern cities. When they came to Orlando, they hooked up with hotel employees who connected them with clients.
Those streetwalkers chose one of two locations. One was West Church Street between Orange Avenue and Orange Blossom Trail. This area gradually was cleaned up when Bob Snow built the now-defunct Church Street Station.
The other area was the Trail. In its heyday, from 1975 to 1985, most of the county's 46 adult-entertainment businesses set up shop on the Strip. County laws were lax and enforcement virtually nonexistent. Nude bars, peep shows, massage parlors, adult bookstores, jerk-off theaters -- the range was massive. In a room above the present-day Temptations, a live show featured a stripper and a mattress. The idea was the more you tip, the more services rendered. At a club called Connections, men paid $40 for a room, then made arrangements with one or more girls to entertain them privately. Fairvilla offered theater porn years before video and DVD.
Drugs -- never far from the adult-entertainment scene -- were widely available. Strippers at the Foxhunter were known to take Quaaludes until they flopped off the stage. Dancers also preferred $200 eight balls of cocaine or Dilaudid, a synthetic form of morphine, which sold for $30 a hit.
Several adult-entertainment concepts were created that are still with us today. The idea for the lap dance was said to have originated on OBT in 1977 at a dive called Foxie's. A businessman named Michael J. Peter bought a topless bar named the Red Lion and transformed it into Thee Dollhouse, the country's first gentlemen's club. Peter then spread the idea to South Florida and elsewhere before being charged with mail fraud and serving two years in a federal prison.
Blowjobs, handjobs, regular sex or anal -- for the right price you got what you wanted, if not in a club, then from a hooker waiting outside.
"In the late '60s you'd see 15 or 20 [prostitutes] on a given corner," Lutz says. "That went on for a long time."
According to Lutz, adult-entertainment clubs arrived after the Trail already was overrun with hookers.
"These were very liberal times," he says. "People did not dream that conservative Orange County would have a problem. The county was not prepared. The sex industry was very organized and aggressive. They saw Orange County as vulnerable and unprepared. They took advantage. They came in in large numbers."
The Trail was the perfect spot in many ways because the neighborhoods along it are low-income, with many renters. They don't have a lot of political clout and are less likely to want police involvement. There's even a term for such slowly deteriorating communities: the broken-window syndrome. If government allows one homeowner to live with a broken windowpane, other homes are certain to follow. Soon a whole community is defined by broken windowpanes.
By the late 1970s, the pendulum had begun to swing the other way, and law and code enforcement became more vigilant. The county passed its first adult- entertainment ordinance, which meant the end of full nudity. Dancers, even today, have to wear pasties and panties.
Through attrition and enforcement, adult establishments began to close. Today, there are only 14 licensed adult businesses in the county, seven on the Trail.
The county also spent $14 million to clean up and landscape the stretch of OBT from I-4 down to the Bee Line Expressway. The county anticipates adding new sidewalks and streetlights northward, from I-4 to Colonial, in the coming years.
Police, meanwhile, cracked down on prostitution, forming a 20-member task force in the mid-1980s that made thousands of arrests. In 2000, the county adopted a prostitution-free zone. As a condition of probation, prostitutes agree not to hustle on the Trail once they're released. If they get caught again, they'll likely have to serve the remainder of their probation in jail.
Police don't pretend that the zone has decreased prostitution. But it has driven streetwalkers to other areas. "We find that some are going out of town," says Sgt. Walker. "I get calls from officers in Kissimmee asking me, 'What's the deal?' I've gotten calls from as far away as Miami."
Of course, other areas have a reputation as a haven for hookers. Among them are Lee Road at I-4, several streets in Zellwood and the Colonial-Semoran-Aloma corridor. Still, when it comes to sex-for-hire, those places still can't beat the Trail. Of the 1,100 arrests made last year on prostitution-related charges, 751 were made on, or within blocks of, the Trail. Walker has even arrested a former high-school classmate for prostitution. He estimates that 75 percent of his arrestees are strung out on drugs -- crack cocaine, mostly. Almost all of them have a hard luck story: a divorce, a suicide, debts, domestic abuse. "You hear about women putting themselves through college being a whore," he says.
But even as the Trail's reputation remains, the adult-entertainment community has moved on. Tampa is now the place where sex is wide open. Full nudity, live shows, peep shows -- you name it and you can get it. Tampa civic leaders have tried to clamp down by prohibiting dancing within six feet of customers. But the city's organized strippers -- 3,000 strong -- have challenged the ban in circuit court. With $100 million changing hands because of that city's adult-entertainment industry, and the editorial support of the St. Petersburg Times, dancers in Tampa Bay look forward to a bright future.
Even so, don't look for nightlife on the Trail to diminish any time soon. On a recent weekend, a busy Temptations was generating plenty of tips for dancers who would never be mistaken for Playboy models. Sex may be on the run -- but on the Trail, it's still running in place.