The Block: Not What It Used to Be


"Philadelphia, with Sodom," was how Murray Kempton described Baltimore a while back, referring to The Block, The municipal family's black sheep then (officially deplored but tolerated for its aberrant attractions and vitality), The Block is now regarded as an ancient and useless relative, fit only to be kicked out.

There were many ironies in the recent Maryland State Police blitzkrieg raid that swept up proprietors, employees, customers and liquor licenses. One is that it is not illegal to own, work in or patronize a bar on the Block.

Another is that a similar raid on any given Friday night over the past several decades would have netted a fair number of the corps editorial as well as a few genuine criminals. Julius ("The Lord") Salsbury conducted his illegal gambling empire from a basement office in the Oasis for years, only to pull a vanishing act when the authorities finally closed in. (Whatever commodities are presently in trade on The Block, good intelligence does not seem to be among them.)

Some of the more notable prose stylists that passed through the Sunpapers in recent times -- R. H. Gardner and Ernest B. Furgurson, to mention a couple -- cut their reportorial teeth on The Block and profited thereby, and so did we. One can imagine what Mencken would have to say about the current silliness.

Eighty years ago Baltimore was in the grip of a vice crusade to shut down the city's numerous red-light districts. (Despite constant references to it as such, The Block is not a red-light district, defined as a place where there are numerous houses of prostitution; there is not one of these on The Block.)

Mencken, who was in favor of segregating and policing such establishments to keep them from spreading out (which they did), found that while the houses of prostitution were reduced from 200 to 85, real crime rose in the affected districts. And of course, he had a field day berating "militant moralists," "virtuosos of virtue," and (my favorite), "saloon snouters."

The reason for this raid was not vice. It was pure political harassment: The Block stands in the way of future development. The Gayety Theater burned in 1969, Blaze Starr packed up her deshabille at the Two O'Clock Club a dozen years ago, and the critics say "The Block isn't what it used to be."

What did it used to be? After the 1904 Baltimore Fire, theater buildings replaced the booksellers, newspaper offices and clothing stores that had occupied the area and it became an entertainment district. The Gayety, which opened in 1906 with a burlesque show, set the pattern; nickelodeons, penny arcades and vaudeville and movie theaters followed.

Nowadays it is difficult to believe that Charlie Chaplin appeared in "A Night in an English Music Hall" at the Victoria Theater, later the Embassy, a movie theater, and now a show bar (the facade is still there at 415 East Baltimore Street), or that Victor Herbert frequented the Rivoli Theater, which stood on the site of the Benton Building.

As late as the 1960s, the Gayety, a dinosaur, lurched on as a burlesque theater with comics, candy butchers (salesmen) roaming the aisles at intermission, and the ghosts of Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers and the Marx Brothers hanging about the greenroom. One night a sparse crowed of veterans watched an aging stripper grind through her routine. "Take if off," shouted a regular in the front row. "The stage," immediately replied a gleeful voice from the rear.

In those days, The Block pretty much policed itself. I used to walk home that way and once watched a bouncer eject a couple of obstreperous customers onto the sidewalk. One remonstrated and was decked with a single punch. The other took up the cause with the same result. I will never forget the frightened expression of the first who, regaining his feet, stumbled halfway in his flight across Baltimore Street and looked back, not at the onrushing traffic, but to see if the bouncer was pursuing him. He wasn't. Without a word, he turned and went back into the club.

In the present age of guns, AIDS and crack, The Block's past seems almost wholesome. No, the city can't turn back the clock to the great days of the Gayety and Blaze Starr, but making The Block the culprit for Baltimore's development ills doesn't address the issue either. Commerce Place, the 30-story, $90 million office building (referred to by its few tenants as "Lenin's Tomb)," is mostly empty due to overbuilding, not the proximity of The Black. As in Mencken's time, crime will only worsen if the city administration and urban do-gooders succeed in eliminating what life is there now. Demolition does not solve the problem of crime, better policing does (and not with 500 men).

Why does Baltimore, a city of great traditions, try so hard to eradicate the things that make it unique? Perhaps, while the Gayety and the rest of the facades on The Block still stand, we should summon the forces of Disney before we bring in the hook.

James D. Dilts is a Baltimore writer.

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