Bar smoking ban makes city more like suburbs

February 27, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

We're not Montgomery County," Nicholas D'Adamo Jr., was saying. "We're not Howard County."

If you've lived in Baltimore any length of time, you know what the councilman means. We're a city where you can still get a beer for a buck, not a suburb where a sissy drink costs 10. We're a little rough around the edges, we're not trendy, and what of it?

But with last night's City Council vote to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, Baltimore did become a little more like Montgomery and Howard counties, which have already gone smoke-free.

I've been trying to figure out why the indoor smoking ban has proved so emotional an issue in the city, why it's taken two years, immense legislative craftiness on the part of its chief sponsor, Robert Curran, and who knows what kind of behind-the-scenes arm twisting to finally pass.

Oh, I've heard all the arguments. The last time I wrote about the ban - and I support it - I heard from all corners of the opposition. I got the e-mail equivalent of an earful: from the free-choicers who believe it is their right to pollute their own darn lungs, and the slippery-slopers who see it as one more government intrusion into private behavior, to the point, as one leaflet passed out at City Hall yesterday posited, that it'll probably start outlawing body odor before too long.

But the level of angst the proposal drew seemed to go beyond the usual grousing about the government. No, what we're fighting about here, at least in part, seems something more - something like a piece of old Baltimore that's suddenly under threat of falling by the wayside.

"I'm sticking up for the corner bar," D'Adamo said.

Never mind the Senator Theatre and the 1820s rowhouses, the corner bar has become the latest Baltimore icon under threat.

In abstaining from voting, Councilman Jim Kraft, whose Southeast district extends from Fells Point to Highlandtown and beyond, made a plea for these drinking holes so beloved by the nontrendy.

"I don't just represent the ... Gold Coast, as they call it," Kraft said. "I represent working-class communities."

I don't know if anyone's ever documented it, but there surely must be more corner bars in Baltimore than other cities. There used to be one around the corner from my old house, and it seemed like the guy's living room - if he was home, it was open. I'd walk by on Sunday mornings when I went to get the papers, and he'd be open for business. It only closed when he died.

A few bar owners showed up last night, although they were greatly outnumbered by the considerable show of force from the smoke-free advocates.

Maybe they knew it was a lost cause. By afternoon, it was apparent the vote later in the evening would go to the advocates of the ban.

The atmosphere was appropriately festive and anticipatory. I don't know if you've seen many council meetings, but imagine a schoolroom full of particularly chatty students with short attention spans headed by a teacher who is more colleague than authority figure. Even as the city's business is going on, they're leaning over and talking to their neighbors, they're waving over staff people to ask questions, they're doing everything but pass notes among one another. (Well, actually, they're sometimes passing PDAs and looking at, who knows, each other's e-mails or BrickBuster scores.)

Last night was no different, except that the council had more of an audience than usual. With the smoking ban at the bottom of the agenda, the crowd - and the council itself - was restless for action.

It came soon enough for bar owner Vernon Oliver, despondent after the vote.

"It will close us," he declared.

Oliver's bar, My Cousin's Place, has been in business so long, 47 years, that he's forgotten which cousin it's named after. At East Lombard and Grundy streets, the bar is maybe a couple of minutes from the county line, which Oliver fears his customers will cross once the ban is in place.

I'm hoping Oliver will find out he isn't giving his bar enough credit. Of all the reasons people go to bars, smoking is just one of them. You stick with a bar for other reasons - the beer is cheap ($2 at My Cousin's Place, $1 if you do Old Milwaukee), or the waitress remembers you, or your neighbors or friends go there, or, most of all, the owner is just a nice guy.

So I'll bet Oliver one of those beers - even one of the $2 ones - that his customers will stick with him.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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