In love with The Block

July 01, 2002

WHY IS IT so difficult for politicians to deal with The Block?

When Alex. Brown was thinking of relocating its headquarters from downtown in the mid-1990s, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke pledged to phase out the red-light district. But that goal has been lost, and the authorities have pretty much adopted a hands-off attitude.

This noninterference started three years ago. In an action hailed for toughness at the time, the zoning board ordered three clubs permanently out of business and six others closed temporarily. The grounds: repeated drug and prostitution offenses.

Alas, the Circuit Court invalidated the order and the city did not appeal. Now, as the area near City Hall is on the cusp of changes that offer a wealth of opportunities, this administration should formulate a clear policy toward the sleazy striptease zone and then systematically execute it. The objective should be revitalization and redevelopment.

A number of dance clubs that cater to young adults have opened in the vicinity; more are coming. Another new dimension will be added in about 90 days, when the landmark Munsey building will reopen as a 150-unit apartment complex.

In the middle of this, The Block lingers as an anachronism. The two dozen or so clubs boast plenty of dancers in varying stages of nudity -- but usually few patrons.

A national chain of 57 striptease clubs -- with ownership links to Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt -- now hopes to pump some new life into The Block. It wants to open an "upscale" -- meaning racier and more expensive -- club there.

Baltimore hardly needs more brazen lewdness on The Block. The liquor board's hearing agendas are already crammed with complaints about clubs allowing a variety of sex acts that are prohibited by law. Internet comments from male customers suggest such practices are part of routine business at many clubs.

But still, most civic leaders don't seem to be concerned. The heavy-hitters of the business community can work themselves into a tizzy over a proposed downtown high school, but they are not troubled about prostitution and drug-peddling near the financial district. And political leaders choose to see nothing, even though this goes on just steps away from the police headquarters and City Hall.

The time has come for a different attitude toward The Block as part of a wider and overdue Baltimore Street redevelopment drive. Perhaps some adult-entertainment bars could be part of that mix. But the main aim of Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration should be to encourage a variety of services that would cater to new downtown residents as well as the daytime work force.

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