Block raid raises some questions about priorities

January 18, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Saturday, the day after 500 state troopers and National Guardsmen stormed The Block in the name of fighting crime, the place looked like a ghost town. Yesterday at City Hall, they must have been doing cartwheels over such a fact. But this raid wasn't about crime. It was about instant urban renewal.

For years, the city's been drooling over the real estate in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St., to convert grubby, ancient, two-story joints into towering, high-rent office buildings.

So Friday night, the bump-and-grind of unclothed ladies was jolted by the barking of police dogs, the arrests of 52 people and the shutting down of 24 establishments. The cops, taking bows afterward, said they seized a pound of cocaine and 112 pounds of marijuana.

Excuse me? For this, you call out 500 people in uniform? For this, you call out the biggest show of uniformed force around here -- excluding major civil disturbances -- in modern times? For this, you implicitly declare The Block the foulest crime area in a city that's tearing itself apart with crime in scores of neighborhoods where people actually live their lives?

Well, no, of course not. It wasn't just the drugs. For example, we had the governor of Maryland touring the war zone and enlightening us with the most amazing findings when he emerged from some bars.

He said he'd seen alcohol inside.

In bars?

Good lord, and the police are just now getting around to raids?

Well, no, there was more. The governor said there was prostitution, too, though it's not clear if he saw such activities or only assumed it because there were ladies walking around in their skivvies. And he mentioned gambling -- a curious charge, coming from Captain Keno himself.

All of this is not precisely news to city police, but they must be feeling like idiots today. Here they are, sitting directly across the street from The Block. They're completely excluded from the raid. And they wake up to hear state police officials declare this a major crime zone.

It leaves the city cops sitting there with everyone asking: What have they been doing all these years? And the answer is simple: The city cops have been keeping a sense of perspective. In this one little area, they can keep a thumb on a grimy subculture. Let it live here, and they keep it from moving to someone else's neighborhood. And, in a city of dangerous criminals, the stuff on The Block looks pretty small-time.

Several years back, when he was still in the full flower of his articulation, the city councilman Mimi DiPietro grabbed a few people and walked into a peep show on The Block. He dropped a quarter into a slot. Then, as he watched some things on a video screen which can't be described in a family newspaper, Mimi said:

"Now I'd like to have that done to me, and who don't is not a damned human being. But I understand that young men are going in here and degenerating."

And that's it, isn't it? As individuals and as a community, we're caught between our sexual desires and, well, degenerating. Authorities know this. And they know that, because of our ambivalence about these feelings, and a reluctance to cry foul in public about sexual matters, they can take liberties on The Block that they might never take against "straight" business people.

In a time of fear over sexually transmitted diseases, it's a wonder prostitution can survive anywhere. It's a testament to stupidity, but also to human loneliness. In a time of VCRs, it's a wonder The Block can stay alive. But it does.

The city's played games there for more than a decade now, first telling club owners to spruce up their places, and then shutting them down anyway. It shows the city's own confusion. They like the income generated by The Block, but fear it hurts nearby property values. They think they can put up new office buildings, but can't rent space already available. And then they send out 500 officers, implying this is the worst spot in town. They should know better. They'd have found far more drugs and guns in dozens of other neighborhoods. So big deal: The city's been saved from naked dancing.

The day after the raid, The Block looked empty. A few proprietors peered out of glass doors, looking as much for cops as for customers. Here's an idea: The next time 500 officers are used for a raid, they should do it where there's some serious crime occurring. Until then, stop wasting everybody's time.

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