The cops don't seem to notice the smoky haze or, for that matter, the bulletin board behind the bar displaying photos of near-naked tavern employees. When one of the officers asks to speak to the bartender privately about the unpaid bar tab, she calls out to everyone: "The lieutenant wants to make out with me! I'll be right back."

A block down the street, it's much quieter in a lonely Broadway saloon that reeks of disinfectant and stale beer. The 50-year-old bartender, dressed like a Catholic high school girl in a tartan skirt and a tight T-shirt, tells us that the bar usually has a band, but tonight's act canceled last minute. When we cheekily ask how she plans to entertain us without live music, the woman lifts her shirt and responds: "Oh, I can think of a couple ways."


Historical Busts
To hear Dennis Grubaugh tell it, Alton has always been an eccentric town.

Erika Jakich, a bartender on Alton's Broadway street, will show her tattoos but not her naked breasts. "I'm the exception," she says. "I used to work in a strip club, but I've probably seen more nudity on Broadway."
Jennifer Silverberg
Erika Jakich, a bartender on Alton's Broadway street, will show her tattoos but not her naked breasts. "I'm the exception," she says. "I used to work in a strip club, but I've probably seen more nudity on Broadway."
Remains of Illinois' first prison.
Jennifer Silverberg
Remains of Illinois' first prison.

Details

RFT Photos

Slide Show

"It's pretty much a reporter's paradise here," opines the long-time city editor of the Alton Telegraph. "Rarely do we have a lack of subjects to write about — especially when it comes to the outlandish."

On one weekday last month, the lead story in the Telegraph detailed the sentencing of an Alton man who'd recently been found guilty of strangling to death a mentally disabled man and then chopping up his remains.

"We get a good amount of murders for a town our size," confirms Grubaugh. "We had another guy recently take a pickax to his father's head. Then there's the case of Paula Sims. She was the woman who claimed masked intruders broke into her home and kidnapped her baby. She would have gotten away with it if she didn't pull the same ruse three years later when she had another baby. Turns out she killed both children."

Lately, though, Grubaugh says the usual horror stories emanating from Alton have taken a back seat to the exploits of nude bartenders.

"When they busted one of the barmaids it made CNN," says Grubaugh, who doesn't quite understand the media appeal surrounding the naked bartenders. "It's nothing new around here," he says. "When I moved here in 1979 there were nude barmaids. One was even famous for supposedly mixing drinks with her breasts."

Regardless, Grubaugh used the recent arrest of a naked tavern employee to pen an editorial in the Telegraph calling for the city to crack down on the indecency. "We're all for freedom and liberty in this town, but sometimes you've got to side with what's best for the community," states Grubaugh. "I don't think anyone really wants naked barmaids marching up and down Broadway."

If only there were an easy solution to removing these dens of iniquity.

Seated at his tidy desk inside Alton's century-old city hall, Mayor Donald Sandidge points out several inherent challenges in tackling the town's nudity pandemic. "The problem is, when a bar owner finds out about this and fires the bartender, she'll just move down the street and get a job at another tavern doing the same thing," says Sandidge.

The mayor, who also serves as liquor commissioner and was once the city's police chief, says local laws also make it difficult to target topless barmaids. "The way the ordinance reads now is that it's only illegal for a woman to show her chest in a tavern," adds Sandidge. "If we start arresting women for this, it could be seen as discriminatory by the Supreme Court."

In Jersey County, sheriff deputies discovered the naked barmaid working a New Delhi tavern while making a routine check on the state smoking ban. Illinois state attorney Benjamin Goetten, who serves as Jersey County's top prosecutor, says the nude bartender was obeying the law when it came to smoking. "She was outside having a cigarette in the nude," says Goetten. "So she was following the law in that respect."

Similar barroom sweeps are less common in Alton. "Our police just don't have the manpower to send officers into bars to see if people are smoking or not," notes Sandidge.

As for the slot machines in Alton taverns, the mayor says he tried to get rid of them during his tenure as police chief. "A judge ruled that they were legal so long as they were only for entertainment," he says. "Later on, I sent undercover officers into bars to see if the games were paying out. My guys couldn't win anything. The way they got those machines rigged, if people are winning money on them, it isn't much."

Nowadays, anyway, Sandidge has bigger gambling concerns than the nickels and dimes won and lost in Alton taverns. Revenue at the Argosy Casino, located along the riverbank downtown, plummeted 31 percent this year, a gaping loss in gaming tax revenue that threatens to put a serious crimp on city spending. Alton depends on the casino for approximately one-fifth of its $28 million operating budget.

"That casino has done great things for this town," says Sandidge. "Unfortunately, its business is getting hurt by the economy. People just don't have as much money to spend anymore."

In 1991, when Alton became the first city in Illinois to get a casino, riverboat gambling was seen as a necessary evil to jump-start the town's beleaguered economy. Nearly two decades later, much of Alton's historic downtown remains littered as ever with collapsing and vacant buildings. Much of the town's riverfront, once home to bustling factories and mills, also sits barren and abandoned.

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