With licensed undressers, a 'classier' Block foreseen

April 10, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here's your irony for the day: If a new Baltimore City Council proposal makes its way into law, strippers on The Block would have to get a license -- thus making professional undressers the first citizens in the city needing official government permission to take off their very own clothes.

Here's another irony: It's not just City Hall seeking the law, it's many of the club owners on The Block itself. They're the ones who originated the idea, and it was their association's attorney, Edward Hitchcock, who proposed it to city officials.

The notion is simple: Block merchants want to legitimize an industry that's always moved in the shadows, acted slightly ashamed of itself, waited for the vice squad to come busting in. Licensing gives them a stamp of official OK they've never had. It says: We're a business, not a black-market operation.

In fact, two days ago, which was the afternoon following the City Council's striptease proposal, about 20 Block bar owners and managers and peep show proprietors met at a long table upstairs at Babusci's Restaurant, in Little Italy, to talk about the licensing proposal and other matters. They were dressed like business people, but the businesses had names like Big Top, Pussy Cat, Eldorado and Pleasure Palace.

Not all of them are crazy about the licensing idea, but many like it, and an interesting debate broke out during the linguine and clam sauce, and the sausage and whatnot.

"We license the girls," said the manager of one bar, "and we start getting a classier dancer and not no girls driving up here from Virginia who sit in the club" and tell a customer that they can have sex right on the bar "and leave us holding the bag when the cops come in."

"Right, classier," said a peep show proprietor sporting a pinky ring.

"Classier?" a bar owner said now, sounding incredulous. "What are you expecting, Goucher girls? 'cause I'll tell you, Goucher girls ain't coming down to work on The Block, and neither is no Harvard girls."

"Maybe Radcliffe," another merchant said softly, and then winked.

Maybe not, but the licensing idea is part of a modern pattern on The Block. The owners are hungry for legitimacy. They know their activities aren't for everyone, but they don't claim they are. Whatever traces of prostitution or drugs remain on their turf, they say they want them gone. They want to be seen as business people, and they wish to cash in on the tourist trade without feeling political pressures every time some dancer removes a pastie.

And they're feeling increasing competition from some new suburban strip malls that have a big advantage -- they don't serve liquor, so they aren't hassled by any liquor board rules regarding full nudity. But the suburban malls also have a big disadvantage: Tourists spending the weekend at an Inner Harbor hotel can walk to The Block, but not to Pulaski Highway.

Undercutting efforts to spruce up The Block are some old resentments. Why, owners ask, are police seemingly eager to walk into clubs and chill the atmosphere, but allegedly do little to move panhandlers off the street, where they're hassling potential customers?

"People are fine once they're in the clubs," one owner said, "but they're harassed on their way. We've told the police, and told 'em, and they promise to help and they don't," the owner said.

"Which promise is that," a peep show operator asked cynically. "The 15th or the 16th?"

Police officials say they are patrolling The Block and attempting to remove panhandlers. Block merchants say they should receive the same protection as any other legal businesses. That's their modern posture: Their new association, the East Baltimore Street Merchants Association, chats up politicians and contributes to charities and talks of taking part in the Baltimore 200 celebration.

"We gotta take part," one merchant said. "We don't want to be the only ones left out."

In such a mind-set, licensing young ladies who take off their clothes is merely part of a pattern, part of a gesture saying: We're ready to play by the rules -- and hope to be treated fairly in return.

"It's not 20 years ago," one bar manager said. "We gotta get in line. Maybe the licensing doesn't get us Harvard girls, but maybe it keeps out the troublemakers."

"Hey," said a woman bar owner, "I've got plenty of girls who go to college part time. I've got mothers dancing for me, because the fathers have run off. I've got girls who can't find work, and don't want welfare, and this is how they keep things together. I've got girls who work straight jobs during the week, and they make some quick bucks on the weekends dancing for me."

The point? On The Block, they're just like everybody else, minus a few pieces of clothing. Final irony: In an age of hard-core home videos, of sex on cable and the Internet, The Block's looking slightly tame. But some people still get upset every time some dancer drops a pastie.

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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