Where goes the neighbourhood? | The Coast Halifax

Where goes the neighbourhood?

Sensations Cabaret opened in January, despite protests from Dartmouth residents who don’t want a strip club in their backyard.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006, 8pm

The sound of a staple gun punctuates air already thick with paint and cigarette smoke. In one corner of the cavernous room, Jenn and Jessica, both clad in orange rubber gloves that stretch up to their elbows, work together washing down chairs and stacking them. Over by the bar, Dave, one of the construction crew, is having trouble holding a counter top still while he drills. “C’mere and lean on here for a sec, will ya?” he calls out to Jessica. She wanders over, cigarette in hand, and bends over, putting all of her weight down on the counter top. Dave lets his eyes travel down to her exposed midriff, where they linger for a moment.

Walking past them, cellphone in hand, Gary DeMone, manager and part-owner of Sensations, the controversial new Dartmouth strip club being sawed, hammered and nailed together around them, laughs. “You’re making Dave happy, anyway,” he hollers at Jessica.

Sensations is scheduled to open in two days, and there’s still more to do than there are hours in the day. Gary DeMone is used to that. A 30-year business veteran, he oversees a number of other clubs and restaurants in the Dartmouth-Halifax region, checking on each at least a couple of times a day. DeMone is an insomniac who rarely sleeps more than an hour or two a night and keeps himself going with a steady flow of nicotine and cans of Rockstar energy drink.

At first blush, a strip club might not seem out of place on this belt of Wyse Road dotted with car dealerships, pawnshops and fast food outlets. But branching off from this main artery, there is a small north Dartmouth neighbourhood lined with tidy bungalows and two-storey houses in shades of blue, beige and grey. Many of the streets don’t have sidewalks, as if aspiring to a suburban dream that was never fully realized. It’s clear the people living there don’t want a strip club in their backyard.

As it prepares to open, Sensations—and the protests against its presence—have become front-page news. Because the new strip club acquired its liquor licence directly from the former business, the country-music cabaret Little Nashville, the neighbourhood can’t stop it—for the moment at least. The catch is that the club’s licence will come up for renewal at the end of April and, though the protesters promised to picket the club and even threatened to post photos of customers on a website, both sides know the real battle will be fought a few months from now in a liquor licensing board hearing.

DeMone, who lives five minutes from the club himself, doesn’t think Sensations will add to the neighbourhood’s problems. Those opposed, he suggests, should be directing their energy to the real problems: nearby crack houses and their inhabitants. “Those are the guys breaking into our homes and stealing our TVs.”

Angela: I’m from Leicester, England but I met my husband, Simon, in Mexico where we were working—me as a photographer, him as a trumpet player. Five years ago, we drove across Canada together. The deal was that if we didn’t argue during the trip we’d get married. So we did. We bought our house four years ago. I realize Dartmouth has a bit of a bad name...people call it Darkness or the Darkside. But you know, this area has got a really rich history. It just has so much promise. But of course, now they’re putting a sodding great strip club in the middle of it. So I’m doing my bit; I’ve been writing letters to the newspaper, to the premier and the mayor and all the other appropriate people...just to let them know we don’t want it here.

I think Canadians are pretty passive. The attitude seems to be “as long as you don’t piss in my backyard, I don’t care.” Last year, my mum in Leicester dealt with the same situation we’re dealing with now. She bought her dream house in an old part of the city, but then a brothel moved next door. So my mum started writing letters to the newspapers and city council, and she did manage to get the signs taken down, which meant they lost business. The brothel ended up closing down.

I really don’t have anything against strip clubs, but this isn’t the right place for it, and I am concerned that the club is going to bring more prostitutes to the area. I mean, say you’ve just spent two hours watching a film about ice cream, you’re going to want an ice cream cone when you come out, right?

Thursday, January 12, 2006, 6pm

Sensations is supposed to welcome its first customers less than 24 hours from now, but it’s still far from ready. That’s not Gary DeMone’s only problem. The club’s opening-week headliner, Kelly Kayne, Miss Nude Canada, will be arriving at the airport in a few hours. The person who was supposed to book her hotel room screwed up, so DeMone has had to find her a place to stay.

DeMone calls the waitresses together. They’re dishevelled and grubby from cleaning, but they remain an attractive bunch, young and radiant. Elizabeth, a bubbly blonde, is a second-year political science student at Dalhousie, where she lives in residence. Her father is a known political figure in Ottawa. If her parents knew she was working at a strip club, they’d pull her out of Halifax (her name has been changed in this story). She’s here for the money—she anticipates making enough in a weekend to pay her rent—and the camaraderie, but if the men get creepy, she’ll quit. Helena is slightly older with a pretty, round face. She’s still wearing the maroon scrubs from the nursing home where she works as a dietitian. Jodie, a tall, beautiful brunette, has spent most of the day standing on a ladder painting the ceiling. A single mom at 20, she is currently training to be a plumber-electrician.

DeMone is equally paternal and flirtatious, and frequently uses the word “sweetheart.” Though he’s never been married, he’s clearly comfortable with women. The waitresses are shamelessly devoted—they cluster trustingly and attentively around him. He briefs them on wardrobe— “Be tasteful; I don’t want you hanging out all over the place”—and footwear. “If you want to wear, what are they called…?” One of the women calls out “Come-Fuck-Me boots!” and the others laugh. “Right. If you want to wear them that’s fine, but be very careful walking.”

As he walks away he calls out, jokingly: “And don’t go up on stage tomorrow night unless you ask me!”

Jenn responds with a mock striptease. “How much do we get paid?”

DeMone laughs. “Depends on how good you are!”

Todd: My wife and I bought our house on Pelzant Street three and a half years ago. Our boys are 14 and 11. Ours has become that house where all the kids hang out, especially on the weekends. Unfortunately, that’s starting to change now that Sensations is just up the street.

The boys—even the older ones—won’t walk up to Blockbuster to get videos anymore. They’re scared. And some of their friends, the girls especially, have talked to me about it, particularly in terms of how they think strip clubs objectify women. It definitely makes them uncomfortable.

It’s the prostitutes, especially, that bother them. I mean, there are definitely more prostitutes around. There’s a woman who hangs out not far from our house, and our youngest son will often say, “the prostitute’s back,” or, “I just saw her get picked up.” Actually, it’s probably the johns that scare them the most—we’re starting to recognize them. The kids are getting suspicious of any car that slows down now.

Summer will be a nightmare. I mean, we don’t have cable or air-conditioning, so we live outside. The kids are usually kind of fluid—they spill out into the yard and across the street to the park, and we had gotten to the point where they didn’t have to tell us every time they crossed the street. But now, with all the additional traffic and people around, they just aren’t going to be allowed to do that anymore. As a parent, I can just see this club is going to mean significant losses for the kids.

It’s not that I have some moral opposition to a strip club; this is just the wrong neighbourhood. I grew up in Montreal, and part of my development included going to strip clubs, but I’d never seen one seven metres from a house the way it is here.

If there had been a strip club on the corner four years ago, we wouldn’t have bought the house. It’s that simple. The people who work in the club have got jobs, so they’re going to see me as a threat to that, but I’ve got a family—and the strip club is a threat to our quality of life.

Thursday, January 12, 2006, 11pm

Back from his trip to the airport to pick up Miss Nude Canada, Gary DeMone is taking her on a tour of the still-unfinished club. Kelly Kayne, an athletic, 5-foot-10 blonde who is clad in tight jeans and high heels, towers over DeMone.

The waitresses, sprawled out in chairs smoking cigarettes, watching them, whisper like a pack of school girls. Finally, DeMone leads her over. She has a beautiful face, with large, wide-set hazel eyes and long hair that hangs in shimmering shades of chemically enhanced blonde halfway down her back. A small diamond nose stud catches the light. Kelly is wearing a tight brown t-shirt which reads: “Gimmie My Timmies (and no one gets hurt).” She smiles warmly at the women.

Finally, Jenn breaks the ice: “They were talking about you in Tim Hortons,” she says.

Kelly laughs. “I was talking to my boyfriend earlier and he was like, ‘Where are you?’ And I said, ‘At Tim’s,’ and he said, ‘Who’s Tim?’ And I said ‘Tim Hortons!’”

With that, Kelly wins them over.

Sarah: I bought my house last year with money my grandmother left me. I first saw the house in March at the end of my first year of studying here. You could feel winter breaking and there were kids playing in the park, and it…just felt like home to me.

For me, this is an issue of personal safety. When I was 14, I was raped by two guys in their early 20s. I was at a party, I was scared…and I never reported the crime. To this day, even after years of therapy, I still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks.

The other night at 4am there was a guy passed out on the street in front of my house. And there are definitely more guys looking for prostitutes. I was sitting on my front steps the other day—it was 5 pm—and a guy walked by and started soliciting me for sex.

I shouldn’t have to live with this. None of us should.

I don’t have a problem with strip clubs really, though I do have issues with how our society deals with sex. I believe in sexual freedom 100 percent and I believe in the rights of women to strip if they so choose… and I can appreciate that some of them even find it empowering.

But I also know this: Women make choices based on how they see themselves. There was a time in my life, after I was raped, when I thought I had no value except for my body. I didn’t give a fuck about anything and I let people take advantage of me. So I do wonder about how many of those strippers are there ’cause they really want to be.

For me though, it comes down to this: All I’m looking for is psychological peace.

If Sensations stays, I can’t. It’s going to be too emotionally damaging for me. (Sarah’s name has been changed.)

Friday, January 13, 2006, 2:30pm

Gary DeMone is anxious. Less than three hours until the big opening and the dancers’ pole at centre stage is still shaky. Though it’s anchored to the floor, the pole is otherwise freestanding. Some of the construction crew are trying to decide if it should be tethered at the top to stabilize it. DeMone is pacing in front of the bar speaking into his cellphone. His voice is strained, the only indication of his deep-seated exhaustion. “The dancers are going to be here at 3pm,” he says to no one in particular. “I’ll get the first girl who comes in here to swing on it.”

Nikki is the first of tonight’s local dancers to arrive. Nikki is her stage name. Now in her early 40s, she’s been stripping for nearly 17 years. She wears her artificially blonde hair long and straight. Her face is heavily made-up and when she smiles, the fine lines at the corners of her eyes announce themselves through the foundation make-up.

Nikki was abused as a child. She says a lot of strippers are. Born in Cape Breton, Nikki started stripping at an amateur night at a bar in Nebraska. She was out with friends, one of whom was an exotic dancer who encouraged Nikki to give it a shot. With the support of her friends, Nikki got up on stage and performed, taking her top off for before an audience for the first time: an empowering thrill.

Nikki worked at another local strip club for a number of years. She does stag parties when times get tough. She can make $600 in an hour by letting men lick whipped cream off her breasts and ass—more than she could make in two weeks at a “regular” job.

Which is one reason Nikki is excited about the possibilities of this new club. She has faithful clients. She knows of one man in particular—a regular from the last club—who will be coming to see her perform tonight. She’ll give him special attention, and anticipates a lucrative night.

When DeMone asks Nikki to check out the pole, she climbs onstage and confidently grasps it without hesitation. It wiggles significantly. She looks at DeMone: not good.

5pm The fire marshall arrives. Tension wafts along behind him as he inspects the space. He takes his time wandering through, peering into back stairwells and casting a critical eye on entranceways. When he’s finished, he meets with DeMone and one of the building’s co-owners, Patricia Roberts. The news is disappointing—the club will have to function with a much lower capacity than originally anticipated—no more than 400 downstairs and 60 upstairs, a far cry from the expected capacity of 900.

That means the bouncers will have to pay special attention tonight. DeMone can’t afford to risk being caught with too many people inside.

DeMone is still resolutely calm. He calls a final meeting for the bartenders and waitresses. Clustering around him, the same women who, only hours ago, were painting walls and scrubbing countertops, now look uniformly pretty and polished. Sequins and cleavage are recurring themes. Elizabeth, now dressed in black pants and a black tank top trimmed in sparkly lace, is back from a last-minute run to the drug store for French tipped press-on fingernails. She is carefully attaching them with the help of a small tube of glue.

The waitresses are anxious to be assigned blocks of tables. Table assignments can mean the difference between a large haul and a quiet night. One of the women draws up a floor plan and gives every table a number, then they’re assigned sections of four or five tables by drawn lots. Each small round table is draped with a red tablecloth and lit with a candle. The sections have already got names. Connie, who looks more suited to an indie bar than to a strip club, laughs when she realizes she’s been assigned the “creeper” section to the right of the stage. Lindsay, quiet, with a china doll face and plump, shiny lips, has got “perv row,” the bar pressed up against the front of the stage, the bar closest to the action.

7pm Then, without any kind of ceremony, Sensations is finally open.

With the overhead lights off, the unfinished details are less noticeable. Within a few minutes, a handful of men, alone or in small groups, are seated at the first few rows of tables. Another group clusters in the smoking room. Elizabeth, smiling, flits among them taking their drink orders. A pounding dance beat energizes the cavernous space.

Joni-Lee appears. A leggy stripper with a wide smile who has flown in from Toronto for the club’s opening, she’s wearing a tiny pair of dark red bikini-bottoms, a short sweater and a pair of silver platform sandals. She walks around the room with a drink in hand. Preening and smiling, she leans over to flirt with the men who sit waiting for the show to begin. Every man in the room is trailing her with his eyes.

Within minutes, Nikki joins her. Dressed in a short skirt, a striped halter-top and red, knee-high patent leather boots, she crosses the room and sits down in the front row where her special client is already waiting expectantly.

By now more than half of the tables at the front are occupied. Clean-cut men, dressed in golf shirts and jeans, sit in quiet anticipation. Some of them are students, curious to see the club after all the news coverage. Three young men who live down the street and work for the navy sit excitedly waiting for the show to begin.

Deborah: Me and Saviour, my dog, go up to the strip club every day, praying for the souls of those girls dancing inside. I’m not judging anyone when I pray. It’s just what I do.

My daughter was a stripper. She started at 18. She was working at the Dairy Queen and she met a girl there who was in the business. I was really poor, and I couldn’t support her… what was I going to say? She could make a lot of money. She wanted to go to college, and that was how she paid for it. But oh, the things she’s seen. Perverts jerking off in the front row…she’s done stag parties…

But then, she got pregnant and that saved her. She quit stripping. My grandson is 10 months old now, and what a blessing he is. And now she is pregnant again. Oh, the Lord is so good.

I think worship means telling people what He’s done in your life. I pray 24 hours a day. I wake up singing the Lord’s praises. My kids think I’m crazy, but when you’ve survived the kinds of things I have, well… Surviving cancer helped me find Jesus.

I’m 50 now—it’s my jubilee year—on my own, living in an apartment down on Windmill Road, close to the water. I’ve been through a lot, but the water still brings me peace.

I believe everything happens for a reason and I don’t throw stones at anyone. I have a very coloured past, but my sins have been forgiven. That’s why I say I don’t protest, I pray.

9pm The DJ makes the announcement over the speakers: “And now, gentlemen, the lady you’ve been waiting to see…Miss Nude Canada, Kelly Kayne!” Then she’s onstage, strutting to the beat of the Batman theme, wearing small white shorts with the bat logo on her backside and a matching cropped white halter top. A jacket and black leggings attached by suspenders complete the outfit. The usual routine for strippers is to dance to three songs, peeling down to nothing before the end of the final selection but by the second song, Kelly still hasn’t taken anything off. When she does, she peels the layers away slowly. She keeps the audience waiting. She’s an authoritative performer, remarkably physical, with muscles rippling beneath her skin.

By the third song, Kelly is still wearing the halter top with a small pair of thong underwear. She’s going to make them wait. When it’s time, Kelly pulls out her much-touted signature move. She gets down on her hands and knees and looks out at the audience. She shifts her weight forward onto her arms, lifting her legs and pelvis off the floor. Her entire body horizontal, Kelly holds herself aloft on her right arm. Her left arm reaches around to unlace the back of her halter top. She stays this way, appearing to float weightlessly, for another few seconds before she brings her knees back down to the surface of the stage. Once seated, she playfully lifts her top, revealing her breasts for a moment, then covers them again when she doesn’t get the reaction she wants. She makes a pouty face and the men hoot. Satisfied that she has gained their attention, she peels the little top away.

11pm Approximately 75 protestors have staked out the four corners at the intersection of Pelzant Street and Wyse Road and are quietly walking, slowly but meaningfully, back and forth in front of the club. Todd has laid out the initial game plan—establish a strong, quiet, visual presence. “We’ve been successful at getting the moral high ground—now let’s see if we can maintain it.” It won’t be easy.

As if on cue, two men and a dog walk past the group and one begins shouting. “They can take their clothes off if they want to!” Now, drivers slow down to gawk, some honking in support of the protest, others shouting insults. One passes by at a crawl. Windows down, the occupants scream, “Whoo-o-o-o-o strippers!”

Sarah is standing on a corner with a friend when they are accosted by a man heading into the club. “What are you guys doing out here?” he shouts. “You should be in here working!”

His friends laugh aggressively. “Yeah, the only reason you guys are out here is ’cause you’re too ugly to be inside!” they say menacingly.

Inside, a dancer with long legs and perfect half-spheres for breasts works the room. She spots a man sitting alone and perches on a chair beside him. A few questions—“What do you do? Where are you from?”—until he warms up, buys the illusion this beautiful woman is interested in him. She takes him by the hand and leads him up the winding staircase for a private dance. Table dances are $15, private dances behind a curtain upstairs, $20. Lap dancing is illegal in bars in Nova Scotia, so DeMone has warned his staff there shouldn’t be any contact. DeMone knows there will be cops around looking to catch them breaking the rules.

Nikki, her first performance of the night already under her belt, works her way through the crowd until she spots her special client and takes him by the hand and they slip behind a curtain.

Downstairs, Elizabeth, her blonde hair shining in the darkness, takes drink orders, sliding her tips deep into her front pockets. She’s making even more money than she’d expected.

From behind the bar, cellphone still pressed to his ear, Gary DeMone smiles. The bar is packed and there’s been no trouble yet. It looks like he’s done it.

March 18, 2006 It’s two weeks until the public liquor licence hearing. A group of about 50 north Dartmouth residents are meeting in a church basement to devise a strategy.

The group, which rounded up 668 signatures on an earlier petition against the club, is now working on a second petition opposing the licence renewal. The Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, which is holding the renewal hearing over two days starting March 30, has already received 55 letters objecting to the club (along with two of support).

The neighbours called off their protests soon after the club opened. The protestors were taking too much abuse from club patrons, and the media attention was inadvertently giving Sensations more press than intended. But life with their new neighbour, they say, has been as bad they expected. Increased noise, garbage and traffic. Public urination. And far more prostitutes. Local women report being followed and harassed by men in cars, and they say they no longer feel safe.

Probably because of those neighbourhood concerns, city and liquor board inspectors visit the club frequently. DeMone has hired sound consultants to check noise levels. Bouncers patrol outside the club every 15 minutes. To counter allegations that some of the dancers are underage, he now keeps a copy of each woman’s ID on-hand. There are security cameras throughout the building, and his staff must adhere to strict rules. Partly as a result of all that attention, DeMone, who has started his own petition, claims Sensations is one of the best-run clubs in the city.

And, despite everything, Gary DeMone says business is even better than expected, and with the kitchen opening within the next few weeks, he’s sure it will stay that way. “We know we’ve met every requirement,” says DeMone, puffing on a cigarette in a small office at the back of the club, “and we’ve done nothing wrong.”

The neighbours, however, aren’t giving up the fight. After the residents’ meeting, a journalist stops Todd: “What makes you think you can shut it down now?”

Todd thinks for a minute, answering carefully: “Well we don’t know if we can, but the alternative is to do nothing. The struggle isn’t over until the club is closed.”