"The whole tone of the discussion has changed," said Rob Teir, general counsel for the Center for Community Interest, which is helping cities defend such zoning restrictions. "It's not moralistic anymore. People are saying we're not opposed to sex, we just want these places to be community-conducive - just as you wouldn't open a tannery in the middle of a neighborhood."
But a few cities, including Las Vegas, have gone against the trend. Instead of scattering X-rated businesses, they want to concentrate them in new red-light districts. Their argument is that it's easier to control the striptease industry when it's in one place.
Community leaders in Baltimore said the same thing in the early 1990s when they surprised the business and political establishment by rallying to The Block's defense.
The Schmoke administration, eager to expand the downtown business district, wanted to relocate the remaining bars and peep shows in the 300 and 400 blocks of E. Baltimore St. to industrial areas.
Nearby business owners were delighted; they had complained increasingly about the panhandling, drug dealing and prostitution that upset employees and kept property values artificially low. But community groups were widely opposed because they feared even raunchier bars would open in industrial lots close to schools and homes.
The compromise was a series of strict rules, enacted in December 1994, to force the bars to change the way they operated. The law was designed to tone down The Block by banning crude posters, blinking lights and street hustling. But as with previous reforms, it went virtually ignored once the ceremonies at City Hall were over.
David Cordish, who is refurbishing the nearby Power Plant as a $25 million entertainment complex, is one of the business leaders who complain there's been no consistent strategy.
"In every other city where they've gotten rid of their red-light district, the areas around it have prospered for blocks," said Cordish, who has offices around the corner from The Block. "What it attracts is crime and drugs. If it was what it was 40 years ago, you could make an argument, but the character of it has changed so completely that it's all negative."
The vice cops who write up reports on the escapades inside the narrow, smoky bars agree. While bar owners say the dancers have a flirtatious routine to keep customers entertained, police say the come-on often is for more than drinks.
In what has become a ritual in some places on The Block, the undercover cops pretend they're there for a night of dancing and soon get solicited for sex. Their experiences are strikingly similar: They order a beer and within a few minutes get approached by a bikini-clad woman who first asks for a $20 drink, then offers sex in exchange for a tip or a "bottle," usually watered-down champagne or ginger ale for $100.
"The dancers are pressured by the owners to sell drinks," said Arthur James, a free-lance journalist who spent a year studying The Block. "They will do whatever it takes to make the customer stay down there."
The bars have always made money on the drinks, although hotel doormen used to warn the conventioneers. But the striptease industry has changed in an age of easily available pornographic videos and X-rated cable television. The Block has lost the glamour that once went with the sleaze, yet it's dated compared with the all-nude reviews at other clubs in the city.
Its surprising relience is partly because of a sentimental attachment to its bygone days. Baltimoreans recall the pre-Inner Harbor era when the city had few attractions beyond its famed red-light district. Tourists sometimes still wander past the bars. Few people rise to The Block's defense, but even fewer clamor to see it go.
"There was a peculiar sense of glamour attached to the area," recalled Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, who was mayor in the late 1960s.
"We still had Red Skelton coming to the Gayety and burlesque stars like Sally Rand and Blaze Starr," he said. "It had a big clientele; it wasn't unusual to see people in tuxedos coming through in that day. The beat to refine The Block wasn't as heavy as later."
But he believes its days are numbered. The Block might never be closed through a police raid or reform effort, but it's surrounded by what three decades have shown to be a more serious challenge to its survival.
On every side tower the sleek office buildings. To the east is a planned children's museum. To the south are more tourist attractions by the harbor. Around the corner is the refurbished Holocaust Memorial. Each new development that prospers makes The Block a more valuable piece of real-estate.
"I think it's a natural evolution that this kind of activity will die with the tremendous advancement of the Inner Harbor," D'Alesandro said.
Then again, Steve Tidenoir, who ran the shooting gallery at Polock Johnny's Penny Arcade, said the same thing in 1986.
"You can picture them putting a beautiful building up here and they're going to let the rest of The Block stay?" he said. "No way!
"I don't know what's going to happen on the other side of the street. I give it 10 years. It's not compatible."
JoAnna Daemmrich is a city hall reporter for The Sun.
Pub Date: 7/20/97