"The Massage Room on 54th and Penn is a sex business," read an anonymous letter sent to the Armatage Neighborhood Association last year. "Everyone on the corner knows this — can you do something?"
In September, the parlor closed after police arrested a 23-year-old woman for prostitution and cited a 53-year-old man with loitering with intent to commit
Houses of prostitution, often disguised as massage parlors, are becoming more of a problem in Southwest recently, said 5th Precinct Insp. Kris Arneson. Officers began investigating four other establishments in the precinct — the names of the businesses were withheld to protect the integrity of the investigations — after receiving tips from concerned residents.
Arneson, who wrote her thesis on prostitution, said she’s unsure why the places are popping up, but the precinct is making a point of shutting them down.
Some see prostitution as a victimless crime, but Arneson isn’t among them. Houses of prostitution can create an influx of traffic, drug users, and drug and sex paraphernalia to a neighborhood, Arneson said. Prostitutes are often drug users with troubled histories, sometimes involving abuse, she said. In some cases, they are held against their will.
"And who wants to live next to a brothel?" she said. "I know I don’t."
The Police Department investigates alleged houses of prostitution with undercover officers, she said. A vice unit used to do the work, but the department hasn’t had one for several years. Arneson said there’s talk of resurrecting a centralized unit, but there is nothing concrete yet.
Lt. Chris Hildreth, who works in the 5th Precinct’s southernmost neighborhoods, said most houses of prostitution are cautious about new customers because of the threat of police, so they ask a lot of questions and try to learn as much about a potential client as possible before providing any service. Once someone is "authorized," they are given a code to use for future visits, Hildreth said.
He said most of the places don’t offer any real massages or other therapy. Residents who try to get those services are sometimes the people who call police. Hildreth said the department also locates prostitution operations through erotic local newspaper ads.
According to Massage Room owner Jeremy, who refused to give his last name, neighbors have been trying to close his shop ever since it opened almost a year and a half ago.
"They’ve even gone as far as saying they’ve seen [girls] in the window standing next to the door wearing a nightie, which is completely ridiculous," he said, adding that he plans to get uniforms for the Massage Room’s Downtown location at 424 Washington Ave. N.
Members of the Armatage Neighborhood Association (ANA) are pleased with the recent closure.
"This activity is completely unacceptable," wrote ANA president Noah Schuchman in a letter to William O’Neill, the registered owner of the property. "Residents of the Armatage neighborhood do not tolerate prostitution, and we have great concerns about properties and property owners who do."
Jeremy maintains that, though some of his massage therapists are young and inexperienced, all of them are trained and certified.
"It’s supposed to be just a clean environment and, you know, can I say for a hundred percent certain what that therapist did? I can’t," he said. "Once the door closes in that room it really is impossible to know, you know, legally, what’s going on."