Changing Block Scene Brings New Problems

Crime beat

July 08, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Peter.hermann@baltsun.com

It's a quick nine-block walk from a $270-a-night hotel room overlooking the Inner Harbor to a $5 beer, a bar stool and a naked woman dancing on The Block.

And if you're from out of town and don't quite know where to go or which club to choose, you can turn to the friendly concierge or bellhop. But about the only club on East Baltimore Street they'll mention is the upscale Hustler Club, which is at the end closest to downtown, which means you don't have to venture into the heart of the seedy strip.

Hotel workers also recommend other clubs off the famed burlesque strip - Scores north of downtown, the Ritz in Fells Point and Nightshift in the Canton Industrial Area. Getting to most doesn't even require you to walk or take a cab. Most of the clubs, including Hustler, have vans that will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel.

What about farther east on Baltimore Street? Seen as too dangerous, too scary, too violent, an image club owners say is contributing to their slow demise.

The traditional Block bars are losing the suit-and-tie customers, the ones with expense accounts visiting Baltimore on business and for conventions, the ones away from wives and children and eager to empty their wallets for some adult entertainment. Instead, club owners say they are changing formats, pumping in hip-hop music to attract local clientele, the spillover from music clubs and concerts and other parties.

The bars are attracting some of the same groups that police and visitors complain about, who come downtown, aimlessly roam the streets and cause trouble for tourists. Their presence prompted police to send up to 50 extra officers each night to protect the harbor area. Up to a dozen officers line The Block after midnight, a show of force that one club owner called excessive and blamed for scaring away customers.

That got a response from Brian Hawkins, who is part owner of the Red Room strip club. He welcomes the extra police and supports gating the street to create an adult entertainment district to keep out underage pedestrians. He also would charge a cover to get by the gate to ensure people who come in are committed to visiting the clubs and not just there to window shop.

"If we're not careful, we're going to be extinct," Hawkins said. "We're going to be overrun. You're a guy from Boston, away from your family, on an expense account. You're not going to walk through this area only to be mugged on the way home.

"Every derelict, every bad guy, every knucklehead descends on Baltimore Street every evening," he said. "It's a madhouse. They load themselves up, and they have issues. Even in front of all those police officers, they fight, they use obscene language."

The extra police are part of the department's response to complaints about crime downtown. But police also have other concerns about the strip that is in view of the Central District station. Spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said club owners have complained to authorities about gangs and pimps infiltrating their establishments.

Hawkins said that everyone who comes downtown "wants to get a look at Baltimore Street. I've seen toddlers in baby carriages being rolled down here at 1 in the morning. I've seen kids going the wrong way on bicycles, 10 to 12 of them, at 1 in the morning."

While some club owners complain that the police intimidate patrons who would rather be inconspicuous, given the type of entertainment they are seeking, Hawkins said their businesses are no less legitimate than other clubs whose owners want officers there to avoid trouble. He said The Block was packed after a recent Monday night Red Sox game and that police kept several fights from erupting.

"We had roving teenage groups attacking out-of-town guests, people who wanted to be free to enjoy themselves without being victims of random crime," he said. "The legitimate businesses don't mind the police, and the guys out to enjoy our experience and drink at a gentleman's club don't mind the police."

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