Where they differ is that Cunniff - owner of the area's newest bar, Heat - sees himself as part of the solution, while Thompson - an architect who lives in Tobin Hill - considers Cunniff a major part of the problem.

Since Heat opened on December 28, 2001, Thompson has launched a full-scale assault on Cunniff's club, repeatedly complaining to city police about the Heat's noise levels, making his case to State Representative Mike Villarreal, and, most recently, announcing his candidacy for the District 1 City Council seat on a neighborhood-empowerment platform.

In a sense, Cunniff's biggest sin has been bad timing. Although he didn't create - and insists he's tried to eliminate - the parade of back-alley vice that has given Main and Evergreen streets a public-relations black eye, he's bearing the brunt of resident resentments that have developed over the last three decades. In addition, he's unwittingly stepped into a minefield of neighborhood politics.

Heat, on the corner of Main and Evergreen streets. Photo by Mark Greenberg

Years ago, Tobin Hill residents split into two antagonistic groups, the city-recognized Tobin Hill Association, and a group of idealistic mavericks known as the Tobin Hill Residents Association. The Tobin Hill Association tends to be more supportive of commercial ventures in the neighborhood, while the Residents Association maintains a dogged commitment to the historical integrity of the area. Its members insist that Main Street's strip of gay bars - Pegasus, Silver Dollar Saloon, and the Saint - have brought prostitution to the neighborhood, because prostitutes seek out these clubs' patrons.

"Broadway had that problem, and they got active and did something about it," says Angie Ruiz, president of the Residents Association. "So that kind of prostitution problem pushed into our area."

In 2001, Cunniff decided to transform the old Orville Carr Interior Design building into a gay dance club. He had run a series of bars in San Antonio since 1984, and had spent the previous two years in Austin, running Splash Video Bar and serving as president of the Austin Tavern Guild.

To open Heat, Cunniff needed the site rezoned for liquor use. Thompson and his Residents Association cohorts opposed Heat, while the Tobin Hill Association threw its support behind the club. The city's zoning commission recommended that Cunniff's request be denied, but when the case made it to City Council, District 1 Councilman Bobby Perez successfully urged the council to approve Heat's bid.

"The only people from our group that showed up were Angie `Ruiz` and my wife, and Bobby chastised them for not getting along with the other group," Thompson bitterly recalls (Perez did not respond to the Current's request for an interview).

Cunniff theorizes that Perez' public dressing-down of the Residents Association made Thompson obsessed with destroying Heat. "Right after we opened, he was just badgering us, to the point of 12 to 15 calls a night to the police," Cunniff says. "We were suggested by the city police to file a harassment suit against him, but we didn't."

Jon Thompson, a neighborhood activist and City Council candidate stands on East Park street in the Tobin Hill neighborhood. Photo by Mark Greenberg

Thompson, who lives nearly two blocks east of the club, insists that Heat's throbbing bass speakers make the furniture in his house rumble, and routinely keep him awake until 2 a.m. Curiously, no other Tobin Hill residents have complained about noise, and even Retama Manor North, a nursing home next door to Heat, hasn't complained about the club.

Thompson concedes that police officers grew tired of his complaints, and asked him to stop bothering them. "They don't care," Thompson says. "They see it as a city zoning problem."

In a way, Thompson agrees. That is why he stopped making complaint calls several months ago. But his apparent cease-fire is merely the calm before an all-out offensive. He's not only running for City Council, but he's appealing to Villarreal, hoping the state can close down the bar if enough violations have been proven.

Thompson's most severe grievance against Heat concerns a recent incident in which a teenage girl used fake identification to enter the club, and engaged in consensual sex with a high school coach in Heat's bathroom. Cunniff says his security man caught the couple in the bathroom and threw them out. He points out that they were later arrested, not at the club, but in the nearby San Antonio College parking lot. As Thompson sees it, however, Heat admitted an underage girl and allowed a statutory rape to occur on its premises.

Cunniff says he can't be blamed for problems that have plagued the neighborhood for ages. He insists that, if anything, he is bringing stability to the area. "If `Thompson` would just back up a little bit, I think he'd probably realize how much better things are right now than they were this time last year. This neighborhood has cleaned up a lot in the last year." •


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