Baltimore City Council bill would strip notorious Block of its steamy character

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A handful of men perch on stools around the stage, hands wrapped around $5 cans of beer, eyes fixed on the dancer who gyrates around a pole in the smoky haze of an almost-empty room.

Nikki, blond waves pulled back behind her ears, wears a pair of deep red pasties and a pink thong.

She swings off the pole and alights in front of a dour, middle-aged customer whose unbuttoned polo shirt fights a losing battle with his waistline. Nikki bends over the customer's head.

"C'mon and smile," she purrs. "It's Friday night."

Friday nights, and most other nights, aren't what they used to be on The Block, Baltimore's once-glitzy, once-teeming adult entertainment district. And fate is not smiling on its future.

Stricter enforcement of city liquor laws that keep dancers from performing nude, increasing crime and a public bored with show bars and peep shows have left The Block a shadow of its once gaudy self.

The city, which once promoted and protected The Block's steamy character, now wants to shed itself of sleaze like a stripper discarding her feathered boa.

Instead of the splashy neon facades along East Baltimore Street, city leaders envision modern, buttoned-down offices and upscale retail buildings.

Legislation before the City Council would force The Block from its downtown location, now a prime redevelopment site. But liquor and zoning restrictions in the city and adjoining counties would make it almost impossible for The Block to re-emerge elsewhere as a concentrated, adult entertainment center.

Should the bill, backed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, become law, the only remains of The Block would be its bawdy history and the memories of thousands of servicemen and grooms-to-be who sampled its pleasures.

The Block bill, introduced last month by City Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, a 3rd District Democrat, would bar adult entertainment businesses in all areas of the city except those designated for heavy manufacturing. The show bars, peep shows and erotic book stores on The Block would have to relocate or close by 1995.

The bill also would require that sexually oriented businesses moving into industrial areas be kept 1,000 feet apart. That's roughly three city blocks.

While The Block has shrunk from five city blocks to less than two over the past 30 years, city liquor board records show there are still 24 bars in the adult entertainment area. They're more concentrated than they used to be, as bar owners have moved their businesses into second-story and basement locations.

There are at least six peep show and adult book stores on The Block and at least five other Block-type show bars in other parts of the city.

An attorney representing Block business owners said his clients want to stay where they are.

"They are quite happy there and are prepared to do what is necessary to remain there," said Konstantine J. Prevas. If Block owners can't prevent the legislation from passing, they'll consider legal action to keep their locations, he said.

The bill is due for a hearing before the city Planning Commission in the next few weeks. Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, a 2nd District Democrat and chairman of the Land Use Committee, said he wants the bill heard before his panel as soon as possible.

Although Mr. Cunningham's bill has only one co-sponsor, Mr. Ambridge said the measure has a good chance of getting the 10 votes it needs to pass -- if the mayor presses hard.

Mr. Prevas hopes to slow the bill's progress until the fall to give zTC his clients and the city a chance to work out a compromise.

One obvious choice would be relocating the whole Block in an industrial zone elsewhere in the city. But the mayor, who calls The Block "a relic of the past," doesn't want it reborn anywhere.

Another obstacle is a state law prohibiting the transfer of liquor licenses between certain legislative districts in the city, according to Aaron L. Stansbury, the liquor board's executive secretary.

The Block is in the 39th Legislative District. But most of the industrial-zoned areas in the city are in the 46th and 47th Legislative districts in South and Southeast Baltimore.

Nor is The Block likely to find a home outside the city.

The closest thing to The Block in Baltimore County is a strip along North Point Boulevard that contains several large, but relatively tame clubs with female dancers. County Councilman Donald C. Mason, who represents the area, said Block owners would have "a heck of a fight on their hands" if they tried to relocate in his district.

"We don't want their business in our district, we don't want them in our county," he declared.

After months of hassles trying to close a Randallstown nude dancing club called Body Talk two years ago, the county tightened its zoning to restrict adult entertainment to industrial areas -- and only after a hearing and approval by the zoning commissioner.

"Between our liquor and zoning regulations, we have places like Block-type establishments blocked coming and going," said Arnold E. Jablon, county zoning administrator.

Anne Arundel County has similar zoning restrictions.

The Block has undergone many changes over the past 50 years. During World War II it was a mecca for hundreds of thousands of service men out for some fun before going overseas. And many a bachelor party was thrown on The Block before a young man headed for the altar.

In 1977, the city created an adult entertainment district around The Block, in part to keep it from spreading and in part to recognize it as a tourist attraction.

Block business owners agreed to spruce up their storefronts, and show bar operators vowed to provide better entertainment. The city's tourism bureau trumpeted The Block in its promotion brochures. City leaders adopted a policy of benign tolerance to The Block's minor moral and legal transgressions.

That attitude began to change in the middle 1980s and accelerated when Mr. Schmoke became mayor in 1987, vowing to redevelop the area.

First, the city stopped promoting The Block. Then, in 1990, the city liquor board started to crack down harder on nude dancing. A police study showed a sharp increase in prostitution, drug and assault arrests.

The Block's reputation, if not providing booming business, at least sparks continued inquiries. Downtown hotel concierges report that guests often ask them for directions to The Block. City Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran, a 3rd District Democrat, said he recently squired a group of Japanese businessmen around Baltimore and the first question they asked after the tour was, "Where's The Block?"

On a recent Friday night, though, the sidewalks were virtually empty, and a handful of barkers who entice patrons into the clubs competed loudly for the occasional passerby.

In the 2 O'Clock Club, once packed wall-to-wall with fans of Blaze Starr and other famous strippers, only two customers watched the show.

At the 408 Club, a customer flashed a folded dollar bill tucked between his fingers in front of a dancer.

She danced over and stretched her thong away from her body long enough for the customer to drop in his tip.

Melody, another dancer, leaned against the bar and watched the transaction. "That's about as much as you're gonna see down here these days," she said sadly. Not being able to dance nude is bad for business.

"For a $5 can of beer, a guy wants to see it all," Melody said. "Hell, for five bucks, a guy can buy a six-pack and see more than this on cable TV."

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