Pool halls go upscale

Billiards: The recent opening of a pool hall in Waverly has won rave reviews from community leaders who say it offers sorely needed recreation in a distressed neighborhood.

February 09, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

They've begun shooting every night just east of Charles Village -- shooting pool.

Bank shots, combination shots, scratch shots are heard routinely at 25th Street and Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore, where a 20-table poolroom opened late last month in a former print shop.

"It seems pretty cool," said Ethan Howard, 18, who went to Roland Billiards on opening night Jan. 30 with his cousin and a friend. "It's somewhere where you can come and relax Until now, you basically had to go outside the neighborhood to find something to do."

There was a time when community activists might have held a different view about the opening of a pool hall, fearing it would attract rowdiness and undesirables. But the changing image of the game -- and the continuing need to revitalize struggling areas of the city -- has made neighborhood leaders as enthusiastic as the players.

"We felt this would be a good thing," said Betty Wilson, president of the Harwood/26ers Community Association. "It's something we don't have. We need the type of activity that will be positive for young people."

The fact that the poolroom serves only snacks and sodas, not alcohol, is an added plus, she said.

"We've been in agreement to get rid of liquor establishments, or at least not let any more in the area," she said.

Sheila Rees, head of the Charles Village Civic Association, is also supportive. "Do you want people to open up small businesses or have an empty, derelict corner?" she asked.

"It isn't like some old pool hall from the 1940s," she added.

The seedy, smoke-filled, out-of-the-way pool halls populated by boozers and bettors are largely a thing of the past, replaced by swank establishments catering to young professionals.

"Pool has become a much more upscale game than it was in the days of `The Hustler,' " said Bruce Cottew, executive director the Billiard Congress of America, referring to the classic 1961 movie starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason.

A nationwide survey by a New York marketing company last year found that the average household income of pool players was $46,000. Nearly half of the estimated 42 million people who picked up a cue stick at least once in the past 12 months were between the ages of 18 and 34.

In downtown Baltimore, Edgar's, which has 16 tables and a full menu of food, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary on the skywalk near the Inner Harbor, drawing a steady crowd of business professionals for happy hours and office parties. "It gives people a chance to network," said general manager Larry Evener.

In Baltimore County, Champion Billiards Sports Cafe and

Brewery has been open for 3 1/2 years in Perring Plaza shopping center, featuring 30 televisions, an arcade and microbrewery as well as 24 pool tables.

"We're very popular with the college crowd," said general manager Heather Swiecicki. "We're popular with white-collar crowds, too."

But in downtown Towson, the 3-year-old Rec Room Billiards is pulling out its nine tables next month. It is changing its name to the Recher Theatre and concentrating on presenting concerts, which it has been doing increasingly since it opened.

"We were doing well with the pool," said owner Stephen Recher. "But there's a real void for music in Baltimore."

With its green-felt tables and modest snack bar, Roland Billiards is far less elaborate than some of the other pool parlors in the metropolitan area -- and in a far more distressed neighborhood.

The area got a strong anchor two years ago with the opening of a Safeway supermarket on Charles between 24th and 25th streets. The first couple of blocks of East 25th Street have long been a vibrant stretch of small businesses and varied nonprofit groups.

But the further from Charles, the more bleak -- and more industrial -- the street becomes. Greenmount is studded with boarded-up buildings.

"South of 25th Street, on both sides of Greenmount, it's a neighborhood that's seen better days," said Morgan Allyn, deputy administrator of the Charles Village Benefits District. "Even above 25th Street to 29th Street, it's a mixed bag."

Toho Lee, who owns Roland Billiards, says the area "worries me a little bit." But he said his business has a good security system and off-street parking.

Inspired by the success a brother has had with a poolroom in his native Korea, Lee, 58, recently sold two dry cleaning businesses to open Roland Billiards.

He said he wanted to be closer to the Johns Hopkins University to have a better chance of attracting students but couldn't find a suitable building.

The name of his building reflects not the immediate neighborhood but tony Roland Park, "an area I like a lot."

Lee is cautiously optimistic about achieving modest success. "I think I can make ends meet," he said.

In his first week, he said, half of his tables were in use most of the time.

No one is rooting for him to succeed more than the first wave of players.

Robert Johnson, 51, an accomplished player with a two-piece cue, came from his home in nearby Waverly after spotting the colorful neon sign in the window.

"This is fantastic," said Johnson, who teaches special education in Howard County. "It's got a lot of tables, it's got a lot of room between tables, it's clean.

"I really hope it works out."

William Jones, a 47-year-old barber who lives in Waverly, said: "In the middle of the city, it's dynamite to have a place like this. There's never any recreation for guys my age who don't hang out in bars."

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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