Will changing times end The Block's reign?

January 16, 1994|By Michael James and Sandy Banisky | Michael James and Sandy Banisky,Staff Writers

If The Block's more than 60-year reign ends, it won't be as a result of Friday's raid. But the seedy adult entertainment district may collapse from the erosion of decades of moral disapproval, political opposition and changing times.

Police and city leaders say they weren't trying to kill The Block with the massive show of force by state troopers, the National Guard and city police. They just wanted to knock out crime, they say.

"I personally think The Block is a relic of Baltimore's past," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday. "And I've told The Block owners that we should try and enter the 21st century. But I'm not going to try and shut them down through an operation like this.

"What the owners have to realize is that if The Block is going to exist as an adult entertainment center, it has to operate in legal limits."

But pressures stronger than a police raid may prove fatal.

"The Block is dying of its own weight," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "It's not what it used to be. It barely could be called an entertainment district, as in the days of Blaze Starr. It's shrinking and it's outdated."

"It's definitely dying," said Michael Seipp, vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-public economic development agency. What's killing it? "VCRs" -- which let people watch anything they like without having to pay a cover charge.

Downtown developers "have consistently been asking the city to be more aggressive in dealing with the street life around the block," Mr. Seipp said.

Once, The Block was Baltimore's home of naughty entertainment, an attraction for conventioneers, a place for stag parties. But times have changed.

These days, first-run movies feature nudity. People worry about acquired immune deficiency syndrome. And some downtown businesses have complained that The Block caters to a seedier, tougher clientele. The atmosphere, neighboring property owners say, taints their property and feeds the perception that downtown Baltimore is a dangerous, crime-ridden place.

"You go down there at 8 o'clock and there are these really unsavory guys that hang out at Gay and Baltimore" streets, Mr. Seipp said. Owners of nearby properties say The Block discourages tenants.

Two studies on downtown development and security have recommended to Mayor Schmoke that The Block be eliminated. The City Council has passed bills restricting The Block's hours and moving adult businesses from nearby blocks. Two major office buildings -- Commerce Place and the Charles L. Benton Jr. city office building -- have encroached on the district.

Thomas P. Perkins III, a lawyer for the Downtown Ad Hoc Committee, a group of corporate property owners that backed legislation for greater regulation of The Block's businesses, said his group was "not trying to put The Block out of business. We were just trying to regulate the businesses, so it was not so offensive to office workers and other people walking the streets. It was just a question of cleaning up the act, not stopping the act."

Acting Baltimore City Police Commissioner Melvin C. McQuay said The Block investigation stemmed from a meeting in September in which Mr. Schmoke and Gov. William Donald Schaefer met to declare the end of their famous feud and the start of a new era of cooperation.

'Look at criminal element'

State and city police officials sat in that day, as well as representatives from Baltimore Development Corp. and the Downtown Partnership, a quasi-public agency set up to battle the city's "crime and grime."

"It was to look at the downtown area, to deal with the perception that there is violent crime in the downtown area," Mr. McQuay said. "From my perspective it was not our intent to go and close down The Block. It was our intent to go after illegal drugs, gambling and other vice activity."

He said the primary goal of the operation was to "look at the criminal element that was operating on The Block" and to see if it had made downtown streets unsafe.

Democratic Baltimore Sen. John A. Pica Jr., chairman of the city's delegation in the state Senate and a Block opponent, said Friday's raid "could well be" the knock-out punch for the area.The Block is no longer just an eyesore," he said. "It's gotten pathetic. I don't expect the owners to sit back and take this lightly. But they've been warned, and there's been a flagrant disrespect for the city and law enforcement."

He said he will ask the city liquor board for a full investigation of The Block's businesses.

"Each of these bars had a significant number of violations,

related to prostitution, drugs, violation of nudity laws and serving minors," Mr. Pica said. "Based on the violations I'm aware of, many of them should have been shut down. . . . Some of these fellows seem to be coated with more Teflon than Ronald Reagan."

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