The Block: all dressed up and not going anywhere

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Edward Hitchcock is the brand new symbol of The Block with its clothes on. Never mind the famous dancers with their falling bloomers. The city's strip joints and video shops are going for a new image these days, and it's all about good corporate profiles and charitable giving and learning to live peacefully with their neighbors.

Go figure. Not so long ago, a kind of deathwatch had begun for The Block. You could book action on the date the last wrecking ball would wipe out all traces of the hallowed ground where Blaze Starr once swung her majestic tassels, where Julius (Lord) Salisbury ran his fabulous gambling empire, where Irma the Body and Pam Gail left a legacy of well, let's just say, it was some legacy.

The Block had to go, City Hall said. The real estate was too valuable for the likes of those clothed in pasties and G-strings, and the sexy image wasn't proper for the new Baltimore, the city wishing to be host to both tourists and those legions of downtown business people who wished to interface fully dressed.

Even now, you can see the evidence of such thinking: various pieces of construction equipment pounding away at the north side of the 500 block of E. Baltimore St. for a parking garage to serve the Commerce Center directly across the street.

But just east, where The Block begins, sits the Pleasure Palace on one corner and the Sweden Video Store on the other, and behind them are another 30 or so nightclubs, bars, strip joints and various other sexually related emporia. And, judging by recent developments, nobody's going anywhere.

Which developments? How about Christmas, when a city police motorcade escorted a flatbed truck from Howard and Baltimore streets to City Hall? Atop the flatbed truck were dancers from The Block, dressed in Santa Claus outfits and joined by Marines. When they reached City Hall, Block proprietors handed over roughly $10,000 in gifts to the Marines' annual Toys for Tots drive.

Or how about the other day, when Block figures contacted city police so that they could donate $500 to the family of a slain child -- the kind of gesture they now expect to make regularly.

Or how about the dinner meeting a few months ago between Block proprietors and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke? This is where Edward Hitchcock picks up the story. He's an attorney with Tydings and Rosenberg, and he represents the East Baltimore Street Merchants Association, the new, image-conscious group of Block property owners.

"It's a new day," Hitchcock says. "The mayor's happy, the liquor board's happy, and The Block's happy. The old Block is gone, with the prostitution and gambling and drugs. The attitude's different now, and the politicians are different now. The Block people see that their future is in tourism, and the politicians understand that adult entertainment is a must for the tourism business.

"It's not the most important thing, but if you go to places like Philadelphia or Atlanta or Washington, you know that tourists want that option. The mayor understands this. There was talk about closing down The Block or putting it into the Fish Market. But it's staying where it is. There's no talk of building high-rise office buildings there now."

For one thing, it turns out nobody's clamoring for downtown office space. It makes no sense to construct buildings if nobody wants to fill them, even if it's a great location. The mayor knows this, and Hitchcock says it influenced his decision to let The Block live.

The mayor wants changes, though, and they're coming: brighter lighting, new building facades, doormen minding their manners. In fact, the Block association is considering a proposal of its own: to license doormen, bartenders and dancers as a way of regulating its own hiring practices and offering a sign of good faith to City Hall.

But the businesses want some cooperation in return. As one Block proprietor said the other day, "We're getting killed by panhandlers. Guys get out of their cars, and the panhandlers say, 'I'll watch your car for a few bucks. Otherwise, I can't guarantee your tires will be here when you get back.' Who wants to put up with that?

"My business is down almost 30 percent since last year, and I guarantee you that's the reason. You know, some of the surrounding businesses say The Block brings in these panhandlers. Well, we don't like them either. We make the same complaints to the police. We want the same protection any other business gets. Instead of coming in here and harassing the girls, why aren't the police outside harassing the panhandlers?"

There are plans to bring hotel managers on a tour of The Block, showing them that it's safe to recommend to tourists. Hitchcock talks of creating a New Orleans Bourbon Street atmosphere. One day, he says, maybe there will even be highway billboards advertising The Block.

Go figure: One day it looks like a death scene for The Block, and the next, the story's got a Hitchcock ending.

Pub Date: 1/23/97

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