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Erotic massage parlors proliferate in L.A. communities

Eagle Rock, Glassell Park and other areas have seen an explosion of massage parlors after a new state law on therapist certification. Fifteen have popped up on one two-mile stretch of Eagle Rock Boulevard.

March 23, 2011|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

First it was pot shops. Now it's erotic massage parlors.

In the last two years, they've proliferated in the city — just as dispensaries did, and for a familiar reason.

In both cases, Los Angeles failed to quickly assess and act upon the ramifications of a new state law.

Police say they've seen numerous illicit massage parlors open in Hollywood, Koreatown and the San Fernando Valley. But the biggest explosion has been in Eagle Rock, which is a community that was also inundated with medical marijuana dispensaries.

An online directory of erotic massage establishments lists nearly 30 in Eagle Rock and Glassell Park, including 15 on a two-mile stretch of Eagle Rock Boulevard. One of them, Surprise Massage, advertises "Fairytale Oriental Massage" with "Sexy Pretty Asian Girls NOW."

"You can drive down the street and see one on every block," said Michael Larsen, the president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council. "Our community is being inundated with prostitution."

The problem is connected to a 2009 state law that created voluntary state certification for massage therapists. The intent was to make it easier for legitimate massage therapists to work anywhere in the state.

The law said therapists with state certification could no longer be subjected to stringent local vetting. In Los Angeles, for instance, where city code classifies all parlors as "adult entertainment," licensed therapists would no longer have to apply for police permits, which require fingerprinting and background checks.

Many cities — including Culver City, West Hollywood and Glendale — promptly began requiring those applying to open massage parlors to show their state certification.

But Los Angeles failed to do so, instead asking applicants only to state if they were certified, not to show proof, according to Officer William Jones, who is in charge of the Los Angeles Police Commission's permit processing section.

As a result, it became an easy place for erotic massage parlors to set up shop.

Ahmos Netanel, who heads the California Massage Therapy Council, a nonprofit set up by the state in the massage certification bill, said L.A. should rewrite its code.

"My understanding is that the city has basically stopped regulating," Netanel said. "We have shared with them that this is unusual."

In Eagle Rock, patience is wearing thin.

Businessman Rudy Martinez said the proliferation of massage parlors was one of the reasons he ran for City Council against Councilman Jose Huizar.

Martinez owns a restaurant, Mia Sushi, on Eagle Rock Boulevard. The street is lined with banks and grocery stores, karate studios and churches.

But in the last year and a half, he said, one massage parlor opened up next to his restaurant and another popped up across the street. Both establishments advertise with blinking neon lights and are listed on adult websites, where clients post reviews of sexual services.

"If you sit on our patio, you can see about 30 to 40 men coming in and out of there," Martinez said. "They stay for 15 to 20 minutes. I've never seen one woman walk in."

Once, he said, he saw a man run out of one of the parlors barefoot, wearing no pants.

"It's sickening. It's ridiculous," Martinez said. "It takes away from that community environment that you want where you live."

Martinez said he's frustrated by how massage businesses are developing "the same way as the dispensaries."

One reason may be the strictness of nearby cities.

Pasadena Police Cmdr. John Perez said it had been at least a year and a half since his city had to bust an illicit massage parlor.

Not only does Pasadena require massage therapists to show city officials their certification, it frequently does spot checks to make sure the parlors are in compliance. "We have a proactive approach to it," Perez said.

The Los Angeles Police Department says it also does spot checks. On Tuesday, a sting by vice officers on massage parlors in the Eagle Rock area netted six arrests. Those arrested were not state licensed and were operating without city permits.

In previous raids, police have discovered that some of the women working in the parlors are illegal immigrants working to pay off debts, according to Lt. Andre Dawson of the LAPD's detective support and vice division.

But some enforcement has dropped off.

In the past, attorneys for the city often used nuisance-abatement provisions to shut down parlors that had been cited for prostitution or operating without required permits, said Carlos De La Guerra, who heads the city attorney's public safety division. But the city attorney's office has seen its budget cut 30% in the last two years, and such work has become a luxury, he said.

"The regulation takes a lot of resources, a lot of bodies," De La Guerra said.

Staff members for Huizar, whose 14th district includes Eagle Rock, said they were in talks with city officials to decide what to do next.

In January, Huizar introduced a City Council resolution that would direct the city's lobbyists in Sacramento to seek an amendment to the state law "to provide municipalities with greater flexibility and authority in dealing with the establishment of massage therapy facilities."

A spokesman for Huizar, Rick Coca, said the amendment would also address a provision in the law that restricts cities' ability to place special zoning requirements on state-licensed massage therapists. He said city officials are also considering changing city code to require therapists to show their licenses.

Sgt. Lisa Phillips, who heads the LAPD's northeast vice division, likes both ideas.

"A lot of the citizens are fed up with having their neighborhood look like a red-light district," she said.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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