The Block edges toward extinction City's red-light district is pressed by new laws, development

July 20, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich

THE GUY IN the jaunty blue bandanna is as familiar a presence on East Baltimore Street as the flashing nude silhouette above the Two O'Clock Club.

He's worked around the strip clubs for two decades, since he was 17. He used to be a doorman, calling "check it out, check it out" to the nightly crowds of fraternity boys, sailors, out-of-town businessmen. These days, he runs errands for the dancers, gets them cigarettes and sandwiches. He's grown philosophical, even nostalgic, about The Block.

"People used to look after each other down here," says Bob, who like many of the men and women here doesn't use his full name. "It ain't like that anymore. Drugs changed a lot. There's all these office buildings. I don't know how long this place is going to be around anymore."

In the years that he's been on The Block, Baltimore's red-light district slowly but inexorably has edged toward extinction.

Once, it stretched more than three blocks along East Baltimore Street and was nationally known for burlesque shows and vaudeville. Now, it is barely more than one block of two dozen strip joints, peep shows and triple-X video stores that operate in the shadow of office high-rises. In its heyday, it featured acts by famed comedian Jackie Gleason and stripper Blaze Starr. Today, it's women in pasties and bikini bottoms gyrating around poles on dark stages.

This summer, The Block has faced the added pressures of heightened scrutiny and regulation by the city. After years of lax enforcement, the city is cracking down on bars where vice cops have documented prostitution, obscene stage acts, drug offenses and illegal barking by doormen.

Two bars - the Golden Nugget and Plaza Saloon - lost their licenses to present strip shows on July 11. They may appeal. Another, the Doll House, had its license suspended Tuesday for a day. Meanwhile, Club Chez Joey, the Jewel Box and the Mouse Trap are contesting similar penalties that would force them to stop the dancing from five to 15 days.

More suspensions are likely to follow as city zoning officials review additional reports involving seven bars. The majority had employees convicted of soliciting undercover cops and similar crimes; a few broke the law by allowing their doormen to hustle customers.

Worried merchants tried to weaken the law last month but failed. They've begun to promote plans to recapture an air of respectability with gas lamps, brick sidewalks and 1920s-era facades. But some business leaders and civic boosters say it's too late. They make no secret of their hope that the sex-oriented businesses will be forced out like those around New York's Times Square and Washington's 14th Street.

21st century?

Will Baltimore's century-old striptease zone be around in the next century?

Ever since its eastern end was cleared for a police headquarters in 1968, The Block has shrunk in stature and prospects. But predictions of its demise have always proven premature.

For the past three decades, The Block has survived mayoral denunciations, grand-jury indictments and cleanup campaigns. It has bounced back after police raids, including one by 100 federal agents in 1971 and another by 500 state troopers in 1994.

In 1966, then-Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin agreed with a police association's report calling the bastion of bawdiness a "breeding ground for vice and crime." "Why, it's notorious," he said.

In 1975, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer supported "the most intensive effort I've seen yet" by merchants to "beautify" The Block. The bar owners, nervous about urban renewal, extracted a promise to spare their establishments from demolition in return for refurbishing the storefronts.

In 1986, the Schaefer administration razed a row of strip joints to construct a 14-story municipal office building in the middle of The Block. National obituaries were written, including a New York Times article headlined "Red lights are fading on Baltimore's Block."

In 1994, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke signed new restrictions into law, including a ban on neon lights and doormen's hustling of customers. "Our biggest problem is we just don't have the bucks to just come in and buy up all the businesses," he said, adding he hoped "development pressures around it [would] eventually lead to a change in use."

Other cities' efforts

Downtown redevelopment has always been the biggest threat to The Block. Yet it has outlasted red-light districts in other cities from Philadelphia to Houston that fell victim to zoning restrictions, urban renewal and the construction of gleaming convention centers.

In 1972, Detroit became the first in the nation to break up a sleazy nightclub strip by forbidding any sex-oriented establishment from locating within 1,000 feet of another two. Other cities followed in the years after the Supreme Court upheld the landmark law in 1976. New York and Houston tightened zoning, while Philadelphia and Fort Worth bulldozed adult movie houses, nudie bars and peep shows for convention centers.

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