Liquor board, vice squad scrutiny plants seeds of hope on The Block Fines against bar owners rise 71 percent in 1 year

March 03, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The Block.

The mere mention of the two words conjures up images of shadows melding in dimly lighted corners of strip bars long accused of cloaking prostitution and drugs.

But last month, three Block bars agreed to pay $5,400 in fines for a series of infractions -- the least of which included: "dancer removing top to expose breasts." In addition, the number of cases against Block bars heard by the city's Board of Liquor Licenses has almost doubled in the past year, with fines rising by 71 percent to $26,000, the most in recent memory.

Baltimore police see the increased liquor board action as possible turning point in efforts to eradicate the cloud of sleaze hanging over the infamous city row, whose center is Baltimore Street.

"It's intentional," new liquor board Chairman Leonard Skolnik said of the crackdown. "I want the cases heard and out of the way."

Times could get tougher for Block bars in coming weeks. The Maryland Senate is expected to debate a bill Friday that would give the city liquor board more power by removing adult bar oversight from the city Housing Department. "If it gets to us," Skolnik said, "they're going to suffer."

In 1994, the city made adult entertainment laws tougher. But a review by The Sun last year showed the laws weren't being enforced.

Last week, the New York State Supreme Court ruled 6-0 in favor of New York City's rezoning of Times Square, a move that chased the city's world-famous adult entertainment shops into industrial areas. The ruling, likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, opens the door for other cities -- such as Baltimore -- to follow.

"About time," said Doris McGuigan. For years, the Brooklyn resident has been begging Baltimore leaders to control strip bars after an adult entertainment club opened in her industrial neighborhood. McGuigan will be in Annapolis on Friday to testify in support of the adult bar bill.

Baltimore Vice Sgt. Craig Gentile also welcomes increased Block scrutiny. Gentile made cleaning The Block his top priority after taking over the Central District vice squad two years ago. After 26 years of Block bars doing as they wished, Gentile said he's seen a marked change due to the vice and liquor board crackdown.

"Some of the bar owners are taking responsibility," Gentile said. "I see some bar owners really trying in earnest."

Peter Ireland is an example. Ireland received an $800 liquor board fine earlier this month for being the manager of The Crystal Bar and Restaurant a year ago when a club dancer solicited an undercover police officer for sex.

But six weeks ago, Ireland and his wife opened The Block's newest club, Norma Jean's on Custom House Avenue. Ireland vows not to allow drugs and prostitution in his new place, hoping to turn it into a more respectable "gentleman's" club familiar in convention cities such as Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta.

"I tell my girls, 'I'm not going to protect you and the doorman isn't going to protect you,' " Ireland said. "If the cops walk through the front door, it's Hail Mary time."

Ireland has managed several Block bars and serves as president of the merchants' association. He acknowledges widespread drug use and prostitution along the strip, activities that boost profits for absentee landlords.

Whether a bar allows illicit activities often determines whether a place survives, Ireland said.

"I call the owners and I say, 'What do you want to eat, hamburger or steak?' " Ireland said.

The profits come at the expense of gaunt-faced dancers, many of whom sell their bodies to feed their drug habits, Ireland said. "Just look at them," he said. "They're dying."

Ireland isn't making as much money with Norma Jean's as some of the other clubs these days. But he hopes to expand, providing a restaurant for patrons to eat lunch. And, he said, he's more comfortable not having to worry about police raids.

Ireland, Gentile and Skolnik say wiping out drugs and prostitution on The Block is far from being a reality. On Gentile's desk sits a 1-inch-thick binder containing an investigation started two weeks ago into one Block bar.

But the three men see the liquor board action and Norma Jean's opening as the seeds of hope that could turn the once legendary burlesque district back into a tourist attraction.

"It's the broken window theory," Gentile said. "If you have broken window and you don't fix it, you'll have more broken windows."

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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