Denizens agree Block has changed, but defend habitues


January 16, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

The world-famous Block woke up yesterday with a monumental hangover from the massive police invasion of Friday night, and was left wondering whether it had a future.

Said a man in a brown bomber jacket who parks cars at a lot just off Baltimore Street, and who declined to give his name: "The Block has changed. It used to be nice down here long time ago. No problems. Everybody go in the bars and have a nice time. Now we get a lot of muggings. It gets worse every year. Too much stuff going down."

He looked across to the corner of Custom House Avenue. "Last year a guy got shot using that pay phone over there," he said. "There's too much crime."

Opinion is divided on Baltimore Street about how bad things are, whether The Block is finished, or will go on, as it has up to now.

Joanne (who declined to give her last name), who sells the late Polock Johnny's hot dogs in Crazy John's (the original Polock Johnny's -- home of the famous "Unburger" -- was razed in 1986), defended the neighborhood.

"There's violence everywhere. Not just here," she said. "I feel safer walking around here than by the Civic Center, and even with all the shady characters here, I feel safer."

She does agree that what one might call the artistic standards have fallen off some over the 22 years she's been working there. She recalled the days of The Gayety burlesque house across the street. Sally Rand performed there, and Gypsy Rose Lee, not to mention Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and Eddie Cantor.

But that was many years ago, before The Gayety was gutted by fire Dec. 22, 1969. Today The Gayety houses a sex shop.

The Gayety was the centerpiece of The Block, the only establishment, with the possible exception of Blaze Starr's Two O'Clock Club, with a reputation that reached beyond Baltimore.

"When I was young," recalled Gilbert Sandler, a historian of Baltimore's popular culture, "society people would go down there to see burlesque before going on to parties at the various country clubs."

Joanne also recalled those better times: "Back then when the girls danced, they put on a show, a real show. It's not the same today. Blaze Starr, she put on a show.

These girls who just get up and dance naked, well, I don't know what it is they do, but it's just not the same."

Chez Joey, the Doll House, Club Miami, the Crystal Bar and similar establishments were shut down yesterday and are not expected to reopen, at least not this weekend. The erotic bookstores did business as usual. They were undisturbed by the raiding state troopers that swept in to gather up the drugs, guns, prostitutes and their handlers who have increasingly despoiled what had once been one of the city's principal entertainment neighborhoods -- a lure for sailors, traveling salesmen and tourists with honky-tonk tastes.

Foot traffic was light along Baltimore Street yesterday, owing either to the cold or the difficulty of buying a drink or renting some female companionship.

Despite the size and aggressiveness of the raid, most of the habitues of Baltimore's tenderloin, and those who make their livings in the trades peculiar to it -- the bartenders, doormen, bouncers, bookstore and pawnshop clerks -- were of the opinion that predictions of The Block's demise may be premature, though some agreed a cleanup was overdue.

Most of those interviewed said that though The Block has changed, the type of people who seek their entertainment there hasn't changed all that much. The clientele includes young men in bachelor parties, convention-goers, the inevitable sailors.

And though there are more aggressive panhandlers these days, and the average Baltimore hoodlum goes about with more firepower than his predecessors, audacious crime was always part of life there. Sally Rand, the lady who danced with fans and nothing else, was robbed in her dressing room back in 1957.

The Block community is not talkative around strangers. None are eager to give their names, especially to a reporter. Many bookstore and bar employees were told to keep their mouths shut while the clubs' lawyers did their work getting the locks off the doors. A few, however, had to have their say, if anonymously.

Two men sitting at the empty basement bar of the Golden Nugget Lounge yesterday morning considered the events of the night before, and their likely effect.

"That's where the liquor license was," said the thin man on the stool. He indicated the faded square on the wallpaper by the back bar. "They took it away."

His gaze wandered to the back of the room. "Hey, I just saw that mouse again. You better get one of those glue traps."

The thick man he spoke to, with the turquoise ring and tattooed forearms like Popeye's, promised to attend to the elusive rodent, but remained preoccupied with the larger issue of whether he would have his job tomorrow. He was annoyed with the police, and the authorities in general.

"The only thing I want to know," he said, "is why they are so hard on The Block. They're not that way out in the county.

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