Baltimore firefighters continue to investigate the cause… (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore…)
Although employees at The Block's clubs returned Friday night, the bustling business that was typical for Baltimore's hub of strip clubs had not.
Most of the more than a dozen strip clubs and adult entertainment shops had been closed since Monday's five-alarm fire, which gutted the Gayety Show World bookstore and damaged two other nightspots. Friday night, however, the city fire marshal permitted businesses on the south side of the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. to reopen.
On Friday night, normally busy intersections instead had two police cars parked and lines of yellow tape closing the street to traffic, plus a chain link fence blocking off the south sidewalk between Commerce and Gay streets.
"This is not anything like a Friday night should look like," said Courtnie Weakly, a bartender who was taking long drags from her cigarette in front of the Chez Joey club. "I don't think they realized how much it hurt everyone," she said of the four days that businesses were forced to remain closed, even though they had not been damaged.
Weakly said missing her last three shifts cost her about $1,000 in pay.
"That's just me, just what I lost," she said.
"We are mindful of the fact that many businesses have been losing lots of revenue as a result of being closed," said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a spokesman with the Baltimore Fire Department. "The most important thing is that we maintain a high level of safety for investigators operating in the immediate vicinity."
Officials said they need to make sure the buildings don't collapse before they go inside to try to determine a cause of the fire. Members of the Fire Department's urban rescue team were there Friday to shore up large three-story brick buildings at 400 and 404 East Baltimore St.
A large crane was in place to lift debris off the roof, and two climate-control systems — blackened by fire — were on Holliday Street. A white tent with a ventilation system was in the middle of Baltimore Street.
At least one club, Norma Jean's, remained open during the fire and its aftermath. That club is tucked away on a side street, Custom House Avenue, and patrons stayed to watch dancers Monday — with the doors open to let out drifting smoke. A bookstore at the far eastern end of the strip — The Big Top at East Baltimore and Gay streets — opened a few days ago.
Thursday night, two more strip clubs got permission to open — Club Pussycat and the Hustler Club, at Baltimore and Commerce streets in the old Gayety Theater, the oldest burlesque-era building that looms over the area with its façade.
The Hustler and Pussycat each have their main entrances on Baltimore Street but also have side doors on Custom House Avenue, near Norma Jean's, which made it possible for the clubs to open before the others. At the Hustler Club on Friday afternoon, a sign on the door normally reserved for VIP visitors and disabled patrons proclaimed in capital letters, "We are open!"
By noon Friday, men were already shuffling into Norma Jean's, but a doorman at the Hustler Club said business was slow and that few customers and even fewer dancers were coming to work. Still, the owner of Norman Jean's, Peter Ireland, said of The Block's closure since Monday: "It's going to cost them a fortune."
At 8 p.m. employees were beginning to adopt a bleak outlook on nighttime business.
"It's probably going to be bad," said Kelli, a dancer at the Diamond Club who did not want to give her last name because she did not want her family to know where she worked. "It did hurt me because I didn't work all week," she said, as she walked under the neon marquee.
She complained that many of the other dancers were trying to find other places to work, saying many of the regulars, unaware that the club had reopened, went elsewhere.
City Councilman Robert W. Curran said he was outside City Hall smoking a cigarette Monday when he heard the fire engines and saw the smoke. This week, he said Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents asked him some questions.
"They asked me if I saw anything suspicious, if I saw anyone running away," Curran said Friday. Investigators have been circumspect about their probe, but Curran said, "They have suspicions, believe me. They aren't hanging out to see what's going on."
Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.