Plastic fruit stuffed in a mannequin's shorts may not qualify as anyone's idea of art -- or even good taste. But is that any reason to dress up Michelangelo's David?
Apparently, city of Orlando code inspectors think so.
After receiving a lone complaint about bulging underwear on a mannequin in a display window, two supervisors from the city's code enforcement office recently dropped in on Rainbow City and Absolute Leather, two stores serving a mostly gay and lesbian clientele on Mills Avenue in the Virginia-Mills retail district.
"Apparently someone stumbled into our neighborhood and didn't like what she saw," says Lori Barstow, manager of Rainbow City, where the window display had been in place for about a year without incident. She describes Rainbow City as "a Hallmark store for gays," a place where the merchandise is dominated by cards and T-shirts and which takes pains to create an atmosphere into which people can "bring their family or their co-workers and not be embarrassed."
Inspectors Charles Forth Jr., a district supervisor, and Deborah Jenkins, a special operations supervisor, didn't see it that way. They asked Barstow to remove the fruit -- and then told her to relocate several sculptures of female nudes from the front of the store to the back. Forth also asked Barstow to hide several small male statues behind the retail counter; Barstow agreed to a compromise. Now, she says, those statues are fitted with "little ribbon diapers."
It didn't end there.
Absolute Leather's Jim Helmich says code enforcement supervisors have called on his store several times within the past two weeks. And they've made similar demands about dressing up the display there.
In particular, he says, he was asked to remove a collar and leash from the window; put all sexual toys back into their boxes and out of public view; and cover and seal all of his magazines in plastic. Moreover, the inspectors said that a pair of mesh shorts, through which a mannequin's plastic buttocks could be seen, constituted an inappropriate display. And he was told that two stuffed teddy bears would have to surrender their tiny leather harnesses. (The bears' leather pants, apparently, were not a problem. After all, you can't have teddy bears running around without pants.)
Yet not until a knee-high replica of Michelangelo's David was deemed too explicit did Helmich feel truly overrun. "I said, ‘Excuse me, but David has been walking around for a few years. This is art,'" Helmich recalls.
The inspectors weren't pacified. As a result, David now wears a leather chamois tied around his waist.
Helmich said that while the inspectors where courteous, they never told him he was violating an ordinance or cited any city statute. That leads him to believe their actions were arbitrary. Nothing like this ever happened to him during the six years that he operated his business on Orange Blossom Trail, in unincorporated Orange County. "We may be targeted because we are in a business that is in a gay area," he said.
Calls to the code inspectors were passed along to their boss, bureau chief Mike Rhodes, who in turn said any comment had to come from the mayor's office.
Jim DeSimone, a spokesman for Mayor Glenda Hood, took the long view.
"There is clearly the recognition that there is a difference between art and pornography," he says. And it was not the statue of David that first attracted attention to the storefronts; rather, he said, the visits were prompted by the display of more explicit materials, and a question of whether the leather shop might be in violation as an adult bookstore, which is not allowed in that neighborhood. (Helmich says that magazines make up less than 10 percent of his sales.)
The code officers, as is common practice, were simply making suggestions before finding a business officially in violation, says DeSimone. Once inside the stores, however, "it is within the judgment" of the code officers to decide what does and does not conform to the city's ordinances, he said.
And the offending David?
"Maybe it was what he was wearing."
Or not wearing.