The Block goes on the block: sex vs. City Hall


April 30, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The two of them, mostly clothed at the moment, are standing in the doorway of the 408 Show Bar on The Block and defending the charms of life in the city's erogenous zone.

''Close The Block?'' the first one asks.

She has read the morning newspaper, where it says that this city councilman, Wilbur ''Bill'' Cunningham, whom she has never even met, has introduced a bill that would phase out all erotic endeavors on this street by July 1995.

''What for?'' the second one asks in a voice like faulty plumbing.

The first one is standing there in a gold one-piece bathing suit. She has platinum hair and tanned skin that has flirted outrageously with the various ozone dangers. She says her name is Helen Bedd, and waits for you to get it.

''Anyway, that's not my real name,'' she says. ''Just my show business name.''

The second one, also with platinum hair, has a show business name which cannot be printed in family newspapers. Also, she has an interesting defense of life on this street.

''What I do, it's an art form,'' she says with great sincerity.

''What is it you do?'' she is asked.

''Pick up bar stools,'' she declares, ''with my chest.''

For a moment, standing here at midday on East Baltimore Street with cars sputtering past and the foot traffic of the lunch hour crowd on its way to Crazy John's Arcade for a quick bite, The Block suddenly seems devoid of all sound.

''With your chest?''

''Yes,'' she says. ''Who else on the East Coast can do that?''

Point well taken. But, if The Block's working class now wishes to discuss art, the city's ruling class wishes merely to discuss death. Councilman Cunningham's bill would outlaw adult entertainment from the central business district and permit it only in scattered conditional uses in manufacturing districts.

There was a time when such talk provoked indulgent chuckles in the storied nightclubs of this street. Somebody would put in a call to Jack Pollack, and somebody would call Mimi DiPietro, and somebody else would make sure the right money was sent to the right mayoral candidates, and life went on.

Today, nobody chuckles.

''A war this time,'' says a man who owns three video stores on The Block. He's sitting in a plush, carpeted office beneath one of the stores now, surrounded by exotic tropical fish, various plant life, a refrigerator and bar, and the sound of classical music coming over a private sound system.

He opens an accounting sheet and runs one finger over columns of numbers.

''Look at this,'' he says. ''I paid $122,000 in taxes last year, and they want to throw me out.''

The figure is important to him. When the latest round of suggestions to close The Block started about a year ago, there was talk that the city only took in a combined $100,000 in taxes from all of the street's merchants.

It was the city's way of saying: We can't afford to let these people stay, not when the real estate is worth multiple amounts more than is currently being collected, not when times are tough and the city's trying to hold on to shreds of its renaissance.

In this line of thinking, The Block stands between the city and its imagined lofty future. The politicians -- and Cunningham is far from alone -- point, for example, to crime figures in the area.

Point of fact: The police say The Block averages about 450 arrests a year. The Inner Harbor area, much larger, about a hundred. The Fells Point area, also far larger, also about a hundred.

A recent report to the mayor from surrounding property owners had this comment from police: ''Every 10 feet, someone will show you drugs to buy, burn bags and counterfeit drugs.'' Burn bags contain false drugs, used to bait customers into street robberies.

To this, the owner of a Block bar threw his hands into the air yesterday morning.

''It's our fault?'' he said. ''Do we tell those tough guys to hang on the corner? We tell the police, and it still goes on. Do we reach so far as eight or 10 blocks away? Do we reach into other cities that have downtown crime? Did the existing buildings in the area not know we were there when they moved in?''

Everyone on The Block points across Holliday Street to Commerce Place, a 30-story office high-rise that cost $90 million to build. Scheduled to open soon, the building still has many vacancies.

''So what does that tell you?'' says another nightclub owner. ''If they can't rent space in the existing building, how are they gonna rent space in the new buildings they want to put up after they move us out of here?''

Now the talk grows more conspiratorial. Some will tell you the police are allowing crime to happen in their very own back yard -- The Block, after all, is located next to Central District -- in order to inflate statistics, in order to build a case for a mass shutdown.

Some will tell you they fear false arrests inside their clubs. Enough arrests, and the clubs are shut down.

''They want to get rid of crime?'' said one Block manager. ''Let 'em close the schools.''

In the old days, the argument against The Block was mostly along the lines of sin. Councilman Cunningham shrugs his shoulders at such arguments today. His concern is real estate value, he says.

But maybe there's an element of sex here, too. The nation's nervous about AIDS. To put The Block out of sight is to put it out of mind, and to throw up a psychological barrier against the fear of dangerous sexual transmissions.

In that sense, it's an idea whose political time has arrived. And it's one more reason why, on The Block, they're bracing for the fight of their lives.

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