Just past nightfall, as the neon lights flashed on and doormen emerged from under the awnings to hustle the gathering crowd, two men wandered into the smoky darkness of the Plaza Saloon.
In the narrow basement bar, Sparkle twirled about on stage and pulled off her sequined top. Bunny, in a red string bikini, offered to "explain the rules" for a $20 drink. If either of them wanted to pay her $40, she said, she would have sex with him.
The men -- two undercover vice officers -- needed little further explanation. Within minutes, Bunny was being led away in handcuffs from The Block, downtown Baltimore's tawdry row of strip parlors and triple-X video stores.
Her arrest the night of April 1 marked the fourth time in 10 months that a dancer at the Plaza Saloon had been charged with prostitution. It was the eighth time since last summer that the nightclub had been written up for topless dancing, obscene stage acts, pressuring customers to buy drinks and other infractions, according to police and liquor board records.
By city law, the Plaza Saloon should have lost its license to operate months ago.
Under once-ballyhooed rules that were enacted in 1994 and have been largely ignored, nearly half of the 19 strip bars on The Block should have had their licenses suspended by now.
Nine were the scenes of multiple arrests and at least one conviction in the past year. Four have had two or more convictions. There are warrants out on dancers from three other clubs who face prostitution charges.
The law calls for 30-day suspensions for two convictions and closing the establishment upon the third offense in two years. By those standards, the Plaza Saloon would be shuttered and there should be no dancers for a month at the Golden Nugget, the Jewel Box or the Pussycat.
But the city agency that is supposed to enforce the law, the Housing Department, has made little effort to do so.
"We write up reports and send them over, and nothing happens," said Sgt. Craig Gentile, head of the Central District's vice squad. "We don't exactly get any feedback."
A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard, chairman and chief executive of Alex. Brown Inc., said there has been no visible progress, despite the mayor's promise to clean up the red-light district that borders on his company's new headquarters.
"They ought to enforce the law," said Krongard, who extracted the pledge in return for his commitment to keep the venerable investment company in Baltimore.
"Then again, I'm not surprised," Krongard said. "A lot of laws in the city aren't being enforced, so why should this one? It's up to zoning, the liquor board, and they're basically dysfunctional."
Now, for the first time, the Housing Department's zoning division is preparing to take action against six bars whose dancers have been convicted of an obscene stage act or prostitution.
Donna A. Johnson, the zoning administrator, is sending out suspension notices this week for the bars in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. and adjacent Custom House Ave. The suspensions, scheduled to start July 15, will prohibit the bars from having any strip acts, although they could stay open just to sell drinks.
The Flamingo Lounge, Club Chez Joey, the Mouse Trap and the Golden Nugget face five-day penalties; the Plaza Saloon and the Jewel Box face 15-day suspensions because of more than one conviction. All have been given the right to appeal at hearings next month.
The action follows inquiries by The Sun about the city's licensing and monitoring of adult entertainment establishments.
In response, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III issued a statement late Thursday announcing the suspensions and defending enforcement of the regulations.
"I believe the adult entertainment ordinance is being effectively enforced," he wrote.
Henson, who refused to be interviewed, added: "The business owners and operators have made a notable effort in the last five years to improve the appearance, operation and image of their businesses, but they are still far from 'complying.' " There is, he concluded, "a continued need for us to monitor these businesses."
Until now, however, his agency's monitoring has been negligible, according to interviews and a review of more than 80 infractions on The Block written up by police since January.
Zoning officials have issued a couple of warnings and briefly cracked down on one aspect of the law. But otherwise:
A nine-member task force, appointed to "monitor the conduct of all adult entertainment businesses," has never met.
The volunteers, including several community leaders and two owners of Block bars, saw each other once -- when they were sworn in to three-year terms by the mayor in a formal ceremony at City Hall. Most say they can't even recall what the regulations are.
The barkers who beckon customers with promises of hot girls and cold beer are outlawed. Any attempt "to urge, invite or entice public patrons to enter" the clubs is forbidden.
Yet, every night, a dozen doormen on The Block still call out raspy invitations to passers-by; in a nod toward the law, they say they try to limit it to after 6 p.m. The City Council, which approved putting the barkers out of work, is considering a measure to license them, along with dancers and bartenders.
Vice officers say they stopped forwarding reports to the Housing Department after getting no response. They have had better luck with the liquor board, which had long been criticized for not taking a hard enough line on persistent reports of prostitution and drugs at the clubs.
Owners and managers of the bars say The Block is an "unfair target" of police and politicians. The area, they say, is too small to be patrolled by seven vice officers.
"Believe me, it's not as bad as all them violations look," said Peter G. Ireland, who runs the Crystal and heads the East Baltimore Merchants Association, The Block's business group.
"I'm not going to deny there's some that have to straighten up," he said. "But these violations -- a lot of these girls talk at the bar, and a lot of it is fantasies. You got an undercover officer; he's looking to make a case, and he can make you say things."
Jules A. Gordon, owner of the Plaza Saloon, acknowledged that he has had difficulties there and was trying to sell the establishment. But at his other dance club, the Circus, Gordon said, he has tried to run "a model" establishment, moving at one point to fire a woman accused of prostitution.
"In some respects, this housing stuff is double jeopardy" because Block owners can be sanctioned by the liquor board, Gordon said. "They can take my livelihood away just because some girl says something to a customer."
The tough regulations concerning adult entertainment came after the city's political establishment tried but failed to close down The Block.
Once part of the social fabric of Baltimore, the famous district had withered from 70 burlesque clubs and theaters featuring big-name acts to fewer than two dozen shabby bars by 1990. Surrounded by sleek office towers blocks from the Inner Harbor, the string of strip clubs appeared ripe for redevelopment. A growing number of city boosters agreed it was time for The Block to go.
The Schmoke administration made an unsuccessful attempt to relocate the remaining clubs and peep shows to industrial areas in 1992. Community leaders stopped the plan because they feared that the new places would be too close to schools and homes.
Over the next two years, the administration and the City Council worked out new rules designed to limit the street-level intrusion. They included doing away with blinking lights, the crude posters and the street hustling. The Block was supposed to be toned down, like a fast-food restaurant in a historic district.
After surviving a large raid by state police in January 1994, the bar owners waged a successful legal fight to ease some of the restrictions. They managed to get rid of the proposal most painful to them, a ban on daytime operations.
Still, the mayor, looking ahead to developing a children's museum just east of The Block, made his feelings clear when he signed the bill into law in December 1994.
Just contain it
"Our biggest problem is, we just don't have the bucks to come in and buy up all the businesses," Schmoke said at the time. "What we're trying to do in the short run, the next three to five years, is just contain it, clean it up and regulate the activities so that we don't have abuses of law down there."
Ireland says owners on The Block feel they are under constant scrutiny and "a lot of pressure." They have hired as their lawyer Claude Edward Hitchcock, who previously represented the property owners in the continuing tensions over The Block, and are trying to better control their destiny. They are the ones who proposed licensing dancers and barkers, which is now before the City Council.
But Gentile, who has been on the force for 12 years, is openly skeptical. "Who's going to check on that?" he asked.
After getting no response from housing officials to reports of particularly crude and loud barking from doormen at Jewel Box and Stage Door, Gentile said, he "kind of gave up."
In February, Officer Loretta Young sent a memo to Johnson, the zoning administrator, detailing eight convictions for prostitution and lewdness at six establishments. Young got no response and assumed the report had been ignored until a reporter informed her of the pending suspensions.
Henson said in two letters to The Sun that he has taken action on at least one aspect of the law by warning two bars for barking violations and giving suspensions ranging from a half-day to two days to four others. The licensing suspensions occurred in the spring and fall of 1996; before then, Johnson and another zoning officer went around The Block and warned the establishments.
Most members of the advisory task force say they haven't kept track of the enforcement. In fact, some barely recalled the law they are supposed to be giving advice on.
"I'm not even sure what the law is anymore," said Brook Frank, who represents the Greater Baltimore Committee on the panel. "I'd have to go back and see what it actually says."
Ireland, one of two bar operators on the task force, said it was time for the first meeting -- to talk about the proposed suspensions. The appointed chairman, attorney Mark Pollak, did not return calls.
Doris McGuigan, a Brooklyn community leader who is on the panel, said she was disappointed that the city had failed to restore a greater semblance of respectability to The Block.
"We really worked long and hard, not only with the city but also with the Block people to come up with a bill that was acceptable," she said. "I think if they had followed through, they could have cleaned up the act."
Pub Date: 5/27/97