As Baltimore Pride nears, Mount Vernon leaders squabble over party limits

A recent squabble between Mount Vernon business owners and community leaders over the limits of a raucous annual gay pride block party has resulted in new limitations on the celebration this weekend.

Organizers have agreed to reduce the physical boundaries of Baltimore Pride, the open-air party scheduled for Saturday, and say they will end the event an hour earlier than in the past.

Still, tensions remain, according to those involved.

Critics say the event has spiraled out of control, and accuse organizers at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore and local bar owners of allowing underage drinking and public urination to go unchecked in neighborhood alleyways and parking lots.

"It's not just underage drinking, it's heavily drunk people continuing to be served and getting drunker," said Gino Cardinale, owner of City Cafe on Cathedral Street, who complained about the event at a Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association meeting last month.

Cardinale, who is gay, said in an interview that there are "plenty of gay people who are not happy with this event, who do not feel prideful in it."

Organizers at the center deny accusations of underage drinking and drunk people continuing to be served. Others say the block party, one of the largest events hosted each year by the state's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, presents no more problems than other city festivals.

"The pride event has been going on way before City Cafe, and it has grown," said Don Davis, owner of Grand Central on North Charles Street, a bar that participates in and sells alcohol at the event. "But with the amount of people that it's been capturing for the last seven or eight years, very, very seldom do they ever have a problem down there."

Baltimore Pride, which draws thousands of people to the city each year, was founded in 1977, and the block party has been located in Mount Vernon for more than a decade.

This year's block party and parade are set for Saturday, with a festival in Druid Hill Park scheduled Sunday.

Sgt. Eric Kowalczyk, a Baltimore Police liaison to the LGBT community, said the block party has not been a major source of problems in the past.

"As with any large-scale event, minor issues do arise, but by and large it is a safe event that is a staple part of the LGBT community," Kowalczyk said in a statement.

Jason Curtis, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, said he helped negotiate the new terms for the block party. He said he regrets that people, including Cardinale and Davis, took to Facebook to air their grievances — drawing heated comments from others.

"People were just taking it way too personal," Curtis said. But he added that the compromises are appropriate.

This year's block party is set to start at 5 p.m. Saturday, after a high-heel race at 3 p.m. and the parade at 3:30 p.m.

Matthew Thorn, the interim director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, said the event will include increased security and stricter age-verification policies, a "centralization" of alcohol concession stands operated by the GLCCB and an earlier end time of 9 p.m.

The western border of the party, which is centered on the intersection of North Charles and East Eager streets, has been moved from Cathedral Street, where City Cafe is located, to Morton Street, and the center has committed to a more extensive cleanup of the area following the event, Thorn wrote in an e-mail.

Organizers have also asked attendees to "minimize" their use of bags and coolers this year following the Boston Marathon bombing, in which police said backpacks were used to carry explosives.

Thorn said the center acknowledges that the pride events can be a "burden" for neighborhood residents. He said the center works "diligently to balance the inconvenience with the benefit."

But he also said some of the noted problems are outside the organization's control. Last year, for example, people were parking in lots adjacent to the official block party — where the center has no authority — and tailgating with their own alcohol, he said.

He called on the lot owners and Baltimore Police to enforce the law in areas immediately outside the area covered by the center's permit, and asked party-goers and neighbors to report illegal activity.

Cardinale said he thinks this year's changes will improve the event greatly and help to keep it in Mount Vernon.

"I would never try to get rid of Pride," he said. "I love it, but I don't love the problems we've had with it."

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