Club owners and workers who make their living on The Block in Baltimore promised to fight back against a proposed 10 p.m. nightly closing time for their businesses, saying politicians and police are overstating the amount of violence in the downtown adult entertainment district.
The early last call would wipe out the most profitable hours for clubs and likely drive them out of business, several club owners and managers told reporters Friday. Several owners said they felt unfairly targeted and scapegoated by the proposed restrictions, which would hit only their small stretch of East Baltimore Street.
Several Baltimore politicians, backed by the city’s police commissioner, unveiled the proposal Thursday and framed it as a means to curb violence and crime that they say has grown out of control and become a major drain on police resources.
But club owners and workers, gathered in the cold Friday morning on the sidewalk along E. Baltimore Street, disputed claims of out-of-control violence on The Block or that their establishments are fueling crime in the city. And several said they’ve always been eager to work with police to address any issues but felt blindsided by the proposal.
John Sachs, representing the Baltimore Street Association, said club owners have long had good relationships with police and city officials, even as the cast of characters has changed through elections and resignations.
Sachs said a meeting a few months ago with police brass was productive, with club owners reminded to be mindful of coronavirus rules and to keep illegal activity out of their clubs and away from the sidewalk just outside their establishments.
“What I can say is that we police the insides of our bar, but it’s hard for us to police the streets of Baltimore when they won’t allow the police officers to police the streets of Baltimore,” he said.
William Wantland, who owns Club Pussycat, nodded in agreement and added that police officers often “sit in their cars and watch what goes on” but don’t step in to address issues or enforce minor crimes.
Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy state attorney general who previously ran for mayor and state’s attorney, questioned why politicians and police were targeting the short strip of adult venues but not going after businesses in other parts of the city. He’s offered to act as a spokesman for businesses on The Block.
“Addressing crime on The Block is not going to address the 40 shootings that have happened in the last 20 days. Not a single one of them happened here. Not one,” Vignarajah said. “If there’s crime in Fells Point or Canton, are we going to ask the bars in Fells Point and Canton to close down by 10 o’clock?”
The Block is home to 14 of Baltimore’s 27 licensed adult entertainment clubs, which are currently allowed to stay open until 2 a.m., according to city liquor officials. The earlier closing time also would affect a liquor store and a bar that doesn’t offer adult dancing.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, in a statement released Thursday, cited “drastically increased” crime on The Block in recent months. He said The Block had 831 calls for service in 2021, including eight shootings with 11 victims, 15 robberies, 17 aggravated assaults and one suspicious death.
The Baltimore Police Department has not made any of its leaders available to elaborate on their concerns and how the early closing time would help, nor have they answered questions from The Baltimore Sun about how many of the reported calls came after 10 p.m.
A Baltimore Sun analysis of publicly available data for the Central District patrol area that includes The Block found that 69% of reported crimes in 2021 happened between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. A little more than half of the crimes were reported between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m.
Politicians supporting the proposed closing-time legislation include Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello, Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson and state Delegates Luke Clippinger, Robbyn Lewis and Brooke Lierman, all Democrats who represent The Block and the surrounding area.
Ferguson, who’s sponsoring the legislation, told reporters on Thursday that he thought an earlier closing time on The Block would quell violence and crime while freeing police to patrol other areas of the city.
“When we think about the root cause, if an establishment is open late and people are flooding out into the street at 2 o’clock when it closes, it gives rise for conflict,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson said he’s not pushing a similar new last call for bars in other neighborhoods of the city — despite well-reported incidents in nightlife hot spots such as Fells Point — because he views businesses there as more responsive to requests from police and city officials.
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For comparison, the patrol area that includes The Block recorded about twice as many violent crimes in 2021 as the patrol area that includes Fells Point, according to The Sun’s analysis.
On Friday, Lierman contended that, at least so far, businesses on The Block haven’t been open to addressing issues raised by police and neighbors. Lierman called the proposed early closing “a last resort for us.”
“We hope that business owners on The Block will be open to talking about how they can work together with us and other partners to stop the violence and address the concerns that police and downtown residents have raised,” Lierman said.
The crowd of business owners and club workers on The Block, gathered outside the Two O’Clock Club late Friday morning, said they’re eager to talk but would make plenty of noise to stop the proposal. Turning two o’clock to 10 o’clock is an existential threat, and Sachs said two demonstrations already are in the works.
Walking back across East Baltimore Street toward Club Pussycat, Wantland said the earlier closing time — coming amid two brutal years for the business during the pandemic — could ruin his family.
“This is my whole life. Everything I’ve got is invested in this. You take that from me, I have nothing,” Wantland said. “I thought I was making an investment in Baltimore City. Every penny I’ve got is tied up in this building and this business.”
Baltimore Sun data journalist Steve Earley contributed to this article.