The Block being reduced to just another block City's sex district slowly becoming a thing of the past.

April 26, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this story.

On stage at the Dynasty bar on The Block, a young dancer wearing a skimpy pair of shorts and an unbuttoned vest finishes her listless routine. The mid-afternoon crowd -- a middle-aged man hunched over a draft beer -- claps slowly.

"At least you have one fan," notes another dancer waiting at the bar.

The Block could use a few more fans these days.

Already reduced to a shadow of its former gaudy self by downtown gentrification, the notorious clump of bars, sex showcases and erotic bookstores along East Baltimore Street is under assault from its neighbors, the police and city planners.

"I generally think that The Block is a relic of the past," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It ought to be further reduced in scope and eventually eliminated in some orderly way."

A general plan for downtown growth, to be released in June, is to recommend redeveloping the area, an idea Schmoke said he likes.

"I think it's fair to say that The Block is not a positive factor in the way the plan views the future of downtown," said Walter Sondheim, head of the group developing the downtown plan.

At the same time, owners of offices and other properties in the area have banded together to get rid of the sex businesses, arguing that they drag down property values and hinder development.

More immediately, however, Block operators must contend with the police, who recently targeted 16 businesses in the area as "public nuisances," a designation that could force them to close for up to a year.

Police patrolling The Block have also begun reporting large numbers of violations to the city Liquor Board. Mostly, these involve club dancers who ask patrons to buy them drinks, which is illegal, according to Jane Schroeder, the board's deputy executive secretary.

Under city law, police can declare a property to be a nuisance after recording two or more convictions for crimes that occurred on the property in a 24-month period.

Police have already warned Block owners about criminal arrests on their properties -- mainly for drugs or prostitution. If those arrests turn into convictions, or if other criminal problems persist, police say, they could move to padlock Block businesses for as long as a year.

"This is a tool to try and get some of these places not to do this," said police spokesman Dennis S. Hill.

"If nothing else, it shifts the crime problem somewhere else," said Michael A. Fry, a police department lawyer. "Hopefully, it will eliminate it in some cases."

Redevelopment has chipped away at The Block over the last 20 years. Ironically, a substantial chunk of it was razed in the 1960s to make way for the city's police headquarters.

Now barely two blocks long, The Block is less than half the size it was in its flashy heyday during Word War II, when it provided entertainment for thousands of servicemen passing through town.

In 1977 The Block was legalized by a city ordinance that declared it an adult entertainment zone. As part of the deal, the remaining businessmen agreed to rehabilitate their buildings and clean up their signs.

As small as it is today, The Block is one of the last concentrated sex zones on the East Coast, and it still attracts customers from the city's new Inner Harbor convention trade.

"I get five or six people a month asking about The Block," said a concierge at a downtown hotel. "It's a relatively safe place to go because it's so close to the police station. Your average guest would have more problem at Antique Row or Lexington Market."

"The Block definitely provides an outlet," said a club owner. "The tourists coming in would be disappointed."

On The Block, property owners can't figure out why the police are going after them.

"The cops ought to worry about the bums on the street, instead of hassling the clubs," said one owner, who asked not to be identified.

Another club owner, who also asked to speak anonymously, said club owners share the police department's concerns about crime.

"At this time we are trying to keep The Block as clean as we can keep it right now," the owner said. "It is our livelihood."

The charges against The Block are part of a citywide crackdown on properties that spawn crime, according to police. In all, city police have identified more than 320 properties -- including those on The Block -- that may be charged as public nuisances, Fry said.

Several companies that own property near The Block launched a unified assault on the sex emporiums last year.

"Every one of us who works around here or owns property around here is being affected by the spinoff from The Block -- the crime, the bums, the drugs," said one developer who owns property in the area. "People have a nostalgic view of The Block the way it was 20 years ago. It's different now. It's a crime haven."

The group, which calls itself the Municipal Center Property Owners Ad Hoc Committee, last year commissioned two studies that decry The Block's negative impact on the surrounding area. The Block drags down real estate values and spawns crime, the reports conclude.

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