A quiet transformation is taking place in Baltimore City's tavern industry -- and not for the better. Because of the continuing loss of the city's middle class and concerns about street crime, established neighborhood watering holes are being replaced by liquor stores which -- due to licensing requirements -- masquerade as taverns but make their money by selling liquor miniatures and cheap, fortified wines, often to vagrants.
This socio-economic change is having a profound impact on the downtown and adjoining residential neighborhoods. Instead of hosting sit-in patrons, taverns are relying on walk-in traffic that leaves a trail of bottles, beer cans and discarded paper bags in its wake.
Go to the corner of West Baltimore and Stricker streets, for example. Every morning, miniature bottles purchased at nearby taverns fill gutters and alleys -- or accumulate at the base of trees planted to beautify the area. While mechanical sweepers clean the gutters twice a week, no one takes care of the alleys or sidewalks.
The city liquor board is well aware of how taverns are being altered to convert them into de-facto liquor stores. But it has turned a blind eye -- and disregarded protests from neighborhoods which want the sale of miniatures and fortified wines curtailed. The call of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's downtown strategy task force to limit the hours of liquor store operation, strengthen loitering prohibitions and prevent the sale of miniatures and "chemical wine" already has stirred new controversy. It is about time.
In a recent overview, The Sun's Michael Dresser examined the impact of similar measures around the country. Results have been mixed. Yet virtually uncontrolled sales of fortified wines and miniatures have created such sanitation and image problems that a crackdown is long overdue.
The liquor board seems mystified by the changing economics of the tavern business. In an effort to keep taverns from being closed and boarded up, the board often decides against sales restrictions even in cases where neighborhoods have amply demonstrated the extent of the problem.
Many costly quick-fixes are outside Baltimore's means because of the city's fiscal woes. One step to improve downtown's image, though, is affordable and easily achieved: a clean-up of the city center and nearby communities, accompanied by tougher regulations for selling alcohol. This city is no skid row. It shouldn't be allowed to look like one.