Tropicana Twilight

A once-ritzy motel goes from swank to skank

The Tropicana Hotel and Adult Bookstore's closure on March 11 delighted neighborhood residents.
The Tropicana Hotel has seen sunnier days.

Since city officials condemned the run-down lodge at 617 W. Miracle Mile, plywood has covered all the doors and windows, and a chain-link fence has been stretched around the structure.

The Tropicana Hotel and Adult Bookstore's closure on March 11 delighted Jane Baker, who has lived in the Balboa Heights neighborhood for 37 years.

"The Tropicana has just been a sleazebag," says Baker, who can remember the days when the motels along Miracle Mile were a ritzy bunch.

Like some other motels along the once-famous Miracle Mile strip, the Tropicana has gone from swank to skank. Until it was shut down, the hotel--owned since 1995 by AVE Inc. of Lewisville, Texas--was serving as an porn theater, bookstore and sex-prop shop.

"The Tropicana has always been kind of a sore spot for the police department and the community," says Tucson Police Captain Clay Kidd, who heads up TPD's Operations Division West.

Kidd says previous inspections by the cops had found "unsanitary conditions"--such as used condoms and wadded tissues inside the theatre and the individual booths.

"It was really kind of a gross environment," says Kidd.

Worse, the adult bookstore was a magnet for people who would try to score drugs, like crack cocaine and crystal meth, or seek out prostitutes that frequent the nearby neighborhoods, according to Kidd.

The Tropicana's shutdown came after undercover officers purchased narcotics from someone leaving the building, says Kidd. Based on that, the police served a search warrant to look for drugs. Once inside, officers saw unsafe conditions, including evidence that people were occupying a previously condemned portion of the building.

The police called building safety officials, who swiftly moved to close the building. Doors and windows were boarded up, and the chain-link fence was erected.

"It's temporarily closed until the owners can get the proper permits to get it into compliance," says Kidd. "Personally, I'd like to see it stay that way."

The closure was part of the Oracle Project, which involves having cops meet monthly with local residents and business owners, as well as other city departments, at the Ward 3 Council office "to work together to try to resolve issues," says Kidd.

Bennett Bernal, an aide to Ward 3 Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar, says the Tropicana's shutdown is the first real victory for the Oracle Project.

"We are ecstatic," says Bernal. "It may look like just a building, but it's a vision of hope for the neighborhood that things are finally going to get cleaned up."

For Baker, it's a small win in a battle she's been fighting for almost two decades. She first started campaigning against drug dealers and prostitutes when her son--who's now 27--came home from grade school and asked her what a blow job was. He had heard the term during a negotiation between a hooker and a john.

In those days, Baker remembers, street prostitutes and pimps were a regular source of problems. The prostitutes would fight with their pimps; the pimps would fight with each other; johns would fight with pimps and prostitutes. When the neighborhood association was first forming, cops had to watch homes during meetings, because residents feared they'd be robbed if they were out at night.

In the years since, Baker has amassed two thick scrapbooks of newspaper articles about efforts to deal with crime in the area. She's seen some improvement, but too many problems remain. Still, she plans to stick it out in her neighborhood.

"I just refused to leave," she says. "This is my home and where I want to stay."

But she wants to see more action against establishments like the Tropicana.

"There should be more targeted and held accountable," says Baker. "There's more that needs to go. This used to be a beautiful strip of motels. That's what we need to get back to."