As chairman of the Silver Lake Merchants Assn. for two years, Steve Downard has won praise from politicians, police and fellow businessmen for his efforts to improve the shopping districts along and near Hyperion Avenue and Sunset Boulevard.
Downard, they say, has helped focus attention on police protection, street lighting, parking and zoning, matters that don't usually grab headlines but keep a business area alive.
But now Downard finds himself in the spotlight for a much more controversial reason. It involves the survival of his own business--Healthworks, which bills itself as "L.A.'s Only Co-Sexual Bath Club"--and the wider question of civil liberties during a health crisis.
Like all bathhouses, the club at 2114 Hyperion Ave. has seen business decline sharply as fear of acquired immune deficiency syndrome increased this year. Healthworks, which mainly attracts heterosexual men and women, along with some homosexual men, is attempting to conform to tough new county regulations that could put patrols inside bathhouses to ensure that patrons don't participate in sex acts considered to be unsafe.
Downard had previously given Healthworks a low profile in the neighborhood, even as he and the merchants' association were in the forefront of some Silver Lake issues. But he recently began to speak out forcefully against the county rules and against calls, even by some prominent gays, for bathhouse closures.
He says he hopes that people in Silver Lake, a traditionally tolerant mixture of Anglos, Asians, Latinos, heterosexuals and homosexuals, will be able to separate his role as merchants' association chairman from that of bath owner. He says he tries not to mix the two.
"Silver Lake has always been a place for unconventional people, unconventional thinking, maybe for people who think, period. I think the kinds of merchants and people we have here are not easily shocked. This is definitely not Orange County. If there is any informal pressure, it is to be nonjudgmental," said Downard, 37, who is known as a skillful public speaker and has been widely quoted the last few weeks in the gay-oriented press.
'A Lot of Things'
"I think the politicians who represent this area understand that it is probably not politic to think that because I own a bathhouse that I lack any credibility in Silver Lake. I was a lot of things before I was a bath owner and I still am. For instance, I am a college graduate, a native Californian, a registered Republican." Downard, who is homosexual, is also the president of an industrial credit company.
The issue of AIDS and bathhouses is clearly agonizing and divisive, particularly for homosexuals. Some Silver Lake merchants, heterosexual and homosexual, say they fear that Downard's outspokenness and resulting publicity may hurt the local businesses.
"What those merchants have in common is not sexuality but making a buck," said one local activist who asked not to be identified.
However, many other merchants and public officials from the Silver Lake area appear to support Downard's right to speak out, even if some privately disagree with his claim that restrictions or closure of baths will not necessarily decrease the spread of the deadly AIDS virus.
"If someone showed me data substantiating a correlation of the spread of this disease and my club, I would deliver the keys to City Hall tomorrow. But so far it's only been speculation, hysteria and panic, " Downard said.
"The sexual activity at the club is the same as at the Biltmore Hotel, but there are no health posters, no monthly health screening and no free condoms at the Biltmore."
He later added: "You can't go in or out of our place without having seen some information about health protection."
Capt. Robert Taylor, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division, says he basically agrees with Downard. Taylor said some people had "mixed feelings" about having Healthworks in the neighborhood but that the only complaints concern illegal parking by customers. There has never been a prostitution arrest there, he said. Taylor said he fears dangerous sexual trysting in Griffith Park will increase if Healthworks and Mac's, a homosexual bath club a few blocks away on Hyperion Avenue, close.
The police captain stressed that Downard's own business has not affected his effectiveness on other issues. "Steve Downard has been a real stalwart in providing the merchants' association leadership. He has a great deal of charismatic abilities," said Taylor, who has attended association meetings. "Like many other people there, he doesn't hide the fact of what his business is or who he is. He shows that people can have different life styles or philosophies of life and still work together to improve the community as a whole."