It's 3 a.m. and time for an ego trip Downtown 'car show' can lead to violence, merchants complain

June 03, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

By day, the Eutaw Street corridor near Lexington Market is a bustling marketplace, drawing thousands of shoppers who converge on a neighborhood struggling to recapture its old-time luster.

But during the pre-dawn weekend hours, teen-agers and young adults turn the west side of downtown into early morning gridlock as they parade their pricey cars for a street corner audience.

"It's like Mardi Gras every night," complains Lt. Ken Finkenbinder, a 25-year Baltimore police veteran who says he is powerless to stop the "car show" that makes 3 a.m. on Eutaw Street look like evening rush hour.

"They run into each other. They shoot each other. They just don't care," Finkenbinder said. "The only thing that makes them go away is the sunlight."

The last weekend in May, an 18-year-old honors senior from Walbrook High School was shot and killed during an argument just west of Lexington Market, near several nightclubs that police say add more revelers to the already boisterous crowd.

Two months ago, a police officer shot a 15-year-old boy in the leg after the youth threatened him with a .357 Magnum handgun in front of Crazy John's in the 300 block of W. Baltimore St.

And two years ago, a series of violent incidents near the market sparked concern, including one in which a dozen people opened fire into a crowd of 200 because, police said, "they just wanted to see people run."

City officials have been trying to revitalize the shopping district for the past several years.

Lexington Market, which attracts 15,000 people a day, is the nation's oldest continuously operated public market and a major city tourist attraction.

Area shop owners complain that reports of violence cut into their profits. "Everyone who would normally come [to shop] won't because they perceive it as a cops-and-robbers street," said one, who didn't want his name used.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has to maintain a delicate balance of protecting the image of the city's business districts while making inner-city youths feel welcome in every part of Baltimore.

"We want the young people to come down and enjoy downtown," the mayor said. "But we don't want them to cause problems for others. We don't want to create a situation where fights get started and escalate to something more serious."

Eutaw Street between West Baltimore and West Saratoga streets has been a hangout for years, anchored by Crazy John's to the south and 7-Eleven to the north -- two all-night establishments that form the cruising boundaries.

Police estimate that between 2,000 and 4,000 people -- most between ages 14 and 25 -- gather in that four-block stretch, mainly Sunday and Monday from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.

The hot spot is the parking lot next to Crazy John's, a free-for-all of drinking, fistfights and revelry.

"It's something to do," said Damon Lan, 25, a West Baltimore resident who sat on the roof of his Suzuki Sidekick parked on Eutaw Street early yesterday. "The clubs all close early. People don't have anyplace else to go. We're not causing no violence. We're just chilling."

It is the place to be seen. Groups of young women saunter up and down the streets in tight dresses and short skirts, drawing hoots from men.

A cacophony of noise fills the air -- from hip-hop music blaring from car speakers to horns blasting helplessly at clogged intersections.

Drivers stop in the middle of roads and talk to friends. They park on sidewalks. They drive the wrong way down one-way streets. They cruise the blocks, offering up a steady diet of dark-colored Lexuses, Mercedeses, BMWs, Jeep Cherokees and Acura Legends.

"I like to watch the Lexuses," said Keisha Jones, 18, who took in the action from the steps of the Baltimore Equitable Insurance Building at Eutaw and Fayette streets. "Those are for the big boys."

Some shop owners complain that the "car show" has gotten out of hand and wonder whether the police are doing all they can to end the spectacle.

"Pretty soon it is going to be completely unmanageable," said Lou Boulmetis, who owns Hippodrome Hatters on Eutaw Street. "All the ingredients are present for a riot. We have throngs of unsupervised youths carousing all night long."

Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, which represents merchants, said "the police are making a significant effort. It's tough to begrudge these kids for wanting a place to go. But there is a potential for trouble when large groups gather."

Mixed in with the shops are several private clubs such as Club Indigo and Baltimore Grand, which can hold up to 2,000 people, police said. Club owners could not be reached for comment. An advertisement for one event showed pictures of partially nude women; another tried to lure customers with slogans bordering on the obscene.

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