Money, not morality, may topple The Block


In murky daylight, The Block feels like the morning after a party that went on too long. Somebody's got to clean up the cigarette butts and the booze, but everybody's gone home to sleep off their yesterdays.

In the doorway of The Jewel Box early yesterday morning, a woman suddenly emerges in purple stretch pants and gazes out at the world through puffy marshmallow eye sockets. The night before, with the lights dim, she was somebody's vision of sensuous. Now she looks like she's dodging the eviction cops.

Outside the Crystal Show Bar, there's a rickety old truck that's piled high with broken furniture. It's as if the Joad family survived "The Grapes of Wrath" but made a wrong turn onto Baltimore Street.

In front of the Two O'Clock Club, a shirtless guy with no teeth is washing a maroon Cadillac in the midst of yesterday morning's rush hour. Nobody seems very startled. In the symbolism of the moment, he's just another guy getting ready to make tracks.

The city's legendary erogenous zone, with its peep shows and its nude bars, seems once more to be flirting with death. For at least a decade, it's been existing on life-support systems, but now City Hall wants to pull the plug.

Last Friday, City Councilman Jody Landers introduced a bill that would effectively phase out The Block over a three-year period. It's all tied up in the language of zoning and legalisms, but what it boils down to is this: What the moralists and the Bible-thumpers failed, over the generations, to accomplish, the money people are now attempting on simple economic grounds.

Landers, who's running for city comptroller, did a little looking through tax assessment figures recently. All the peep shows and all the night clubs put together generate about $160,000 a year in property tax revenues.

He thinks the potential is there for about $20 million.

"This is not morality, it's economics," Landers said yesterday. "Yeah, The Block has a certain appeal. So you don't ban those uses but you put them in areas where they aren't going to have a negative impact.

"Maybe you move them to the Holabird Avenue corridor, for example. Certain areas in Curtis Bay, or West Baltimore. Maybe Pulaski Highway. Somewhere where it's removed from residential areas or office uses, somewhere where it's more manufacturing and industrial."

Time wounds all heels. For a long time, The Block cultivated a romantic sort of outlaw persona, based partly on history and partly on myth. There were characters here once, but they've mostly died or drifted away. There was public sexuality here once, but it seems to have lost its place in the age of AIDS, the age of VCRs, the age of sexual wariness.

Of necessity, those who ran The Block always looked over their shoulders. Instead of a bright, Bourbon Street atmosphere, a mood of secrecy and uptightness ruled. Nobody thought about tomorrow's customers, because they were so busy hustling tonight's.

Time seems to have caught up with the place. As Landers points out, even the ancient argument about The Block as tourist attraction seems to have faded.

"The character of tourism in Baltimore has changed," Landers said. "We didn't used to have families coming to town for Harborplace. It used to be merchant marines getting off of ships. So you have to reassess all of that."

The Block yesterday, a city official who's also a long-time Block patron stood in front of Crazy John's Video Games and Pizza Parlor and swept a hand in a circular motion.

"Just look up," he said. "There is no 'up.' Three stories, tops. The rest is air."

He means the existing buildings, the peep shows and the night clubs. They go up a flight or two, and then stop. All other things being equal, the city cannot charge rent on air.

Half a block west, an office building called Commerce Place is being constructed, with bricks and mortar stretching to the sky. Commerce Place will have about 480,000 square feet of rental space. The entire Block, as it now exists, has about 15,000 square feet of usable space.

These are figures which make people at City hall salivate far more than the form of any exotic dancer.

"The Block's a colorful part of this town, no question," Landers said yesterday. "I don't really want to kill it, but in its present form, it's costing us money. In effect, we're subsidizing the owners of these properties.

"And the other thing -- well, it's got a very negative impact on everything around it downtown. The prostitution, the drugs, they reach out. I talk to people who work in offices around there. You know, you've got a corporate image, and you bring clients in to see you, and this is what they see."

On The Block yesterday morning, that city official with old ties to The Block was saying much the same thing.

"I walk around here," he said, "and I've got guys saying, 'Hey man, I got the best coke in town.' It's like they're selling candy bars. And they don't even know me. It used to be, a man could take his wife down here. You think you could do that now?"

That's the other part of The Block's problem: Remove the sexual morality angle, remove the money angle, and it's still a street that's fallen on tough times. Its sexuality is outdated. It hasn't controlled its own sleaze factor.

And, in cold daylight, it feels like a party that's gone on too long, and somebody's got to clean up yesterday's mess.

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