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Politics

Baltimore’s leaders have tried to clean up The Block for decades. The nightlife district has found ways to survive.

As hundreds of state troopers and a dozen or so National Guardsmen swarmed The Block on a blustery January evening in 1994, Gov. William Donald Schaefer emerged from one of the East Baltimore Street strip clubs to address the reporters summoned to witness the massive raid.

The Democrat, just entering the final year of his second term as governor, called himself “disappointed in The Block” and pronounced the scene in the handful of bars and nightclubs he’d just toured “not a very pretty sight.”

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“The Block, as I knew it years ago, was an attraction,” the 72-year-old former mayor declared, nodding to the burlesque shows and vaudeville performances that made The Block a nationally renowned, if still risqué, destination during his younger years. “But tonight, it is not an attraction. It is a detriment.”

The gaudy lights of The Block’s clubs dimmed in the following days. The troopers seized liquor licenses and carted off truckloads of booze, gambling machines and dozens of people in handcuffs. Headlines in the city’s newspapers — including The Baltimore Sun — pondered whether the show of force spelled the end for Baltimore’s bawdiest bars.

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Nearly three decades later, The Block hangs on, with more than a dozen clubs still beckoning a stone’s throw from Baltimore’s police headquarters and City Hall.

But once again, city and state leaders — saying crime on one-block strip is a drain on the city’s beleaguered police force — have fixed their eyes on The Block. A cadre of local politicians, backed by Baltimore’s police commissioner, are rounding up support for state legislation to shut the bars down earlier in the evening. Club owners say the proposed 10 p.m. closing time could mean “last call” for their businesses, which rely heavily on the late-night crowd.

“I’ve been there for 37 years. They’ve been trying to close it down since I’ve been there,” said William Wantland Jr., the second-generation owner of Club Pussycat. He started working on The Block as a barker while still in his teens.

The latest battle between Baltimore officials and The Block hinges — according to the police and politicians — over unruliness among crowds on the street outside the clubs that spills over into violence and ends up draining away officers badly needed to patrol other parts of the city. Politicians backing the effort contend that Block businesses haven’t proved helpful enough in tamping down the problems.

Some say the bill is an effort to get the attention of club owners. They counter that they’re more than willing to work with authorities, but are limited in what they can do with troublemakers loitering on the sidewalks — especially when police themselves are increasingly reluctant to make arrests for low-level offenses like minor drug deals, rolling dice or drinking. Crime is escalating all across the city, club owners argue, and they question whether things are any worse on their block than outside rowdy bars in other parts of town.

“What the data shows is that I have to dedicate a lot of resources to The Block, especially during the peak hours when it’s time to close, which pulls those resources from other areas,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison told The Sun in an interview Monday. “I don’t know that there’s another block in the city where you are sending double-digit officers for prolonged periods of time.”

“It’s not about the comparison of the data of the violence, it’s about the utilization of the resources to deal with it,” Harrison said.

Thiru Vignarajah, an attorney serving as a spokesman for a group of clubs on The Block, accused Harrison of moving the goal posts by shifting the rationale for the early closure proposal from violence to police deployment.

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”We desperately need real crime solutions, not scapegoating of vulnerable businesses that are easy to pick on,” said Vignarajah.

The early closing time legislation, sponsored by Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Judiciary Chairman Luke Clippinger, both Democrats who count The Block as part of their districts, is expected to receive a vote later this month by senators representing the city.

Legislation to bust it has been around The Block a few times before.

“There had been all kinds of attempts over time to eliminate it. I just thought, coming in 1987, that its time had come and gone,” said former Democratic Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of his effort at the start of his tenure. “Clearly, there were some people who really were attracted to that one-block area — and I guess some of that attraction still remains.”

The late Thomas J. D’Alesandro III, Baltimore’s Democratic mayor in the late 1960s, spoke of some of that nostalgia for The Block in a 1997 interview, but predicted eventual doom for the clubs amid redevelopment radiating outward from the city’s then-bustling Inner Harbor.

“There was a peculiar sense of glamour attached to the area,” D’Alesandro said. “We still had Red Skelton coming to the Gayety and burlesque stars like Sally Rand and Blaze Starr. It had a big clientele; it wasn’t unusual to see people in tuxedos coming through in that day. The beat to refine The Block wasn’t as heavy as later.”

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The Block has endured by shifting technology and clientele — from striptease to porno theaters, video rentals to internet porn — and survived at least a half-century of periodic mayoral denouncements, police raids, occasional grand jury probes and beautification efforts. Politicians and liquor board leaders have repeatedly put The Block in their crosshairs, promising tougher regulations.

“That’s what the politicians do every once in a while: get together and say they’re going to get rid of The Block,” Starr, the renowned burlesque star and once The Block’s most famous denizen as headliner and eventual proprietor of the Two O’Clock Club, told a Sun reporter who visited her in West Virginia in 1991.

“It’s like a yo-yo — clean today, bad next month,” added Starr, who died in 2015.

Downtown redevelopment and eminent domain have whittled away at it — shaving the three-block stretch down to barely one by the mid-1990s — and city regulations have quieted the barkers and dimmed the glitzy neon lights. The coronavirus pandemic shut the clubs for months at a time, but most have so far limped through.

Schaefer oversaw an effort to regulate it in the mid-1970s — bringing “adult entertainment” zoning to the city — and an effort by nervous bar and club owners to refurbish the area and spruce up The Block’s fading image. Several clubs were bulldozed to make way for police headquarters, which opened in 1972, and the neighboring central police district station that opened in 1977. A decade later, the Schaefer administration demolished a handful of Block mainstays to make way for a new 14-story city office building.

“The Block was part of Baltimore, but it was getting very, very raunchy. Schaefer decided he wanted to see what he could do about it,” recalled Lainy LeBow-Sachs, a longtime Schaefer aide and confidant. “Nothing really came of it and The Block stayed The Block.”

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Schmoke arrived in the mayor’s office in 1987 convinced that the city should take steps to “eliminate” The Block, viewing the strip as a troublesome anachronism and a potential obstacle for development.

Schmoke and a handful of allies on the City Council proposed ordinances that would spell doom for The Block by banishing all “adult entertainment” from downtown and sending the clubs packing to heavy industrial areas elsewhere in the city.

Downtown developers, who’d pumped millions into the Inner Harbor and around downtown over the prior decade, helped add to the pressure to clean up what some viewed as an increasingly seedy eyesore. The 31-floor Commerce Place skyscraper was nearing completion right around the corner from the porno shops and peep shows. Crews were busy building a subway station.

But the proposal hit unexpected political turbulence as club owners found allies in neighborhood groups and council members from elsewhere in the city who were alarmed at the prospect that new Blocks might pop up in their necks of the woods.

Schmoke, now the president of the University of Baltimore, said his own mind started to shift about The Block. A piece by Sun cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher, which showed a caricature of Schmoke dynamiting The Block only for little Blocks to spring up all over the city, made a big impression. It suggested to Schmoke that trouble associated with The Block might be better kept concentrated where officials could keep a closer eye on it.

So, too, did a closer look at crime statistics amid a bloody rise in killings in early 1990s Baltimore. At the time, Schmoke recalled, the figures didn’t support assumptions that the area was driving the kind of major crime he was focused on.

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Democrat Martin O’Malley held a similar course when he took over as mayor in 1999, telling The Sun in 2002 that he wished The Block would simply “fade away,” but downplaying it as a priority.

Anthony “Tony” Ambridge, a Democrat who served on the City Council from 1983 to 1995 and worked in city government before then, is betting The Block survives this latest challenge from city and state leaders.

“I just think that the politicians are under the gun to, ‘Do something,’ quote unquote, and for some, this is something,” Ambridge said. “I, for one, with my lifetime of experience, know that this something won’t accomplish much.”

Rather than ringing the death knell, the massive operation — which involved more than a third of the state police force and came after a four-month undercover operation that saw incognito cops splash more than $200,000 in taxpayer cash around the clubs — instead turned into a debacle for the police.

Criminal cases collapsed amid allegations that some of the troopers had succumbed to the very vices they were meant to snuff out. Liquor licenses remained under lock and key as evidence, but the state’s attorney general let the bars and nightclubs reopen in short order with $1 replacement copies.

“Pretty much every mayor has tried to run us out of town,” said Wantland, the veteran club owner. “It’s always a fight.”

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Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell and reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.


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