Let The Music Play

Our View: Baltimore Could Be A Regional Live Entertainment Capital As Well As A Major Cultural Destination

Changing The City's Zoning Rules Would Help Make It So

July 28, 2009

In a town as lively and full of talent as Baltimore, it's a shame the night life isn't all it could be. There are plenty of venues that would gladly trade their juke boxes for live musical acts, poetry readings and performance art, thus burnishing their image as local watering holes. It not need all be high-decibel, heavy-metal garage band fare.

We recall a time when a bookstore-cafe along Charles Street served up string quartets performed by Peabody Institute students, lute concerts by a local early music group and ragtime piano played on an old upright. Downtown was sprinkled with shoestring jazz clubs, and literary heads gathered at a coffee house on East Preston Street where poetry slams and readings were regular draws.

Those days may be gone, but there's no reason Baltimore's night life shouldn't be as varied and effervescent as those in cities such as Washington and Philadelphia. Today the biggest obstacle in the way of a more vibrant scene isn't the economic downturn but the city's antiquated zoning ordinances, which make it difficult if not impossible to overcome the objections of neighborhood residents worried about noise, crime and increased traffic congestion.

Those are surely legitimate concerns to some extent, but they're no excuse for keeping Baltimore stuck in the 20th century a decade into the new millennium.

The City Council, which dropped the ball on the issue the last time it considered revamping Baltimore's unwieldy entertainment regulations, in 1980, now has another chance to encourage more live music locally. Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake is pushing legislation that would give many more bars and restaurants permission to offer live musical entertainment aimed at spicing up the city's night life and attracting visitors to town. It's become apparent that overly restrictive rules governing live entertainment stifle the city's after-hours vibrancy and eliminate an important tool of economic development.

It's time Baltimore modernized its entertainment regulations to give free rein to the human creative capital this city possesses in such abundance. It's time to let a thousand flowers bloom in the form of more venues offering folk music and jazz, classical concerts and rock. Let comedy clubs abound and poetry slams flourish. We have the talented performers, the venues and, most of all, the ability and desire to make Baltimore even more of a cultural destination than it already is, a place where its funky style and quirky characters become assets rather than liabilities.

Neighbors may worry about noise and crowds, but the proper response to those concerns should be to regulate noise and crowds, and hold business owners to the letter of the law. Set a limit on decibels and allow no exceptions. Given several recent examples of owners who allowed their businesses to become public nuisances, there's little doubt the city could do a better job enforcing compliance on venues that abuse their live entertainment licenses. And the state liquor board - which has awarded 237 live entertainment licenses in Baltimore and has never revoked a single one - needs to be an active partner in eliminating nuisances. But in broad outline, Ms. Rawlings-Blake's bill to expand the zones in which live entertainment is offered is a good plan, as long as it's passed in conjunction with legislation that allows the city's zoning board to step in and promptly revoke the privileges of business owners who violate the rules.

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