Senate President Bill Ferguson probably wouldn’t be caught dead — or alive, Heaven forbid — in a nightclub on Baltimore’s randy “Block” even though his South Baltimore district brackets its smudged properties.
But as the gods of irony would have it, Ferguson is leading the charge to clamp an early closing-time curfew of 10 p.m. — about the time the action livens up — on the clubs, bars, bookstores and peep shows with the aggressive support of Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Introduced as emergency legislation, the bill would take effect immediately upon passage.
That in itself offers another toothsome twist. Harrison arrived in Baltimore from New Orleans where he was superintendent of police. New Orleans, known as “the big easy”, is celebrated for the Mardi Gras and Bourbon St., where night life never ends, as well as restaurants and violent crime, notably murders and carjackings. Homicides were up 80 percent in the swampy city last year.
Baltimore’s top cop claims police power would be better deployed to fight raging crime elsewhere in the city’s 80 square-mile land mass instead of being confined to overseeing louche behavior within the two-block stretch of X-rated real estate.
On television interviews, Ferguson clearly appears uncomfortable with the assignment. The House bill is sponsored by Judiciary Chair Luke Clippinger, also of the 46th District, and co-sponsored by district mates, Dels. Robbyn Lewis and Brooke Lierman, who’s running for state comptroller.
The Block and Maryland’s twisted politics have a long and delicious history of being beneficially intertwined. A state senator, Joseph Bertorelli, of Baltimore’s Little Italy, once played saxophone in a Block nightclub band, the rim-shot being the most melodic note, as did the city’s first Black mayor, Clarence “Du” Burns. And a former governor, Marvin Mandel, as a member of the House of Delegates and later its speaker, was among the Block bar-owners’ premier lawyers, representing several of them, including a relative.
As House speaker, for example, Mandel went to court and had the city’s obscenity law overturned when a late-night raid revealed that a Block dancer, or peeler, as they were called, allowed the law of gravity to overtake her G-string as it slid down her thighs and fell to the floor. Mandel, having liberated his client and back in Annapolis after the night-court victory, had the obscenity law rewritten and restored to meet legal sufficiency.
And the Block’s most famous ecdysiast, Blaze Starr, was once hauled into court for revealing too much of her ample self. When she entered the courtroom with her lawyer and observed the judge who would be hearing the case, Starr turned to her lawyer and said: “It’s okay, honey. You can leave. I won’t be needing you.”
And now they’re at it again, cops and lawmakers, symbiotic partners not for morality or public outcry, but for a safer city beginning at the sexpot playground called the Block, which a couple of generations ago would have been banned in Boston, as the old saying went, and condemned by the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency.
But the ladies of the Block and their employers are striking, and sniping, back, joined by other businesses as part of the American ideal of free enterprise: Part of their rallying cry — everybody — and they do mean every body, literally — is entitled to make a living. Under the Block’s business model, innocent hookups can lead to costly, devilish things.
The Block is as American as money. In a singular celebrated case, in the summer of 1987, a male cardholder refused to pay American Express more than $6,700 in billings that he claimed were payments for prostitute services that were illegal in Maryland. The two Block nightclubs where the charges occurred, Club Pussycat and Jewel Box, said the bills showed the charges were for champagne. Both clubs denied allowing prostitutes.
The Block and the law have always had an uneasy co-existence on the surface. And the Block has always survived, though shrunken from its original sprawl as some of its seedy elements spread to other parts of the city, or simply vanished. The Block of today offers no resemblance to its glory days when Lily St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee cavorted across the stages in their sequined gowns and flowing boas, and Bob Hope and Phil Silvers strutted their vaudevillian antics.
The question now is whether the Block will beat back the latest challenge, and whether its business hours will be reduced to an earlier bedtime. For betting folks, the way to wager is with the Block. Following is a brief history of some earlier efforts to curtail or eliminate the Block — all failed, or greatly eased, with the usual winks and nods.
Nearly 30 years ago, on the sub-zero Friday of January 14,1994, 500 Maryland state policemen and National Guardsmen stormed the Block — the erogenous zone that stretches across the underbelly of downtown Baltimore like a cheap carnival runway — and raided 24 nightclubs and businesses in what was largely viewed as an urban land grab.
The raiding party arrested employees and patrons alike, carting them off in handcuffs to five waiting school buses. The troopers and guardsmen arrived in Ryder rental trucks, armed with 60 arrest warrants charging 600 violations, and were led, Patton-like, by the governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer said: “We saw drugs, we saw prostitution, we saw liquor. It’s just not right.”
Before becoming governor, Schaefer had been mayor of Baltimore for 16 years, and before that a City Council member and its president. His City Hall office was one block north of the Block, and across the street from the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, which is the heart of the city’s central red light district.
The raid was conducted in the shadow of the Baltimore Police Department headquarters building, located one block east of the Block. City police were not involved in the show of force. The State Police blitzkrieg closed down the Block for one night. A judge ruled the next day, however, that the liquor licenses had been illegally confiscated and ordered them returned to the licensees for a fee of one dollar each.
State Police spent $360,000 of taxpayers’ money on the investigation and raid. Yet within three months after the storming of the Block, prosecutors dropped dozens of the drug and felony distribution charges because the cases were tainted by improperly obtained evidence and sexual misconduct charges against undercover state troopers.
One trooper spent the night in a hotel with a female bartender who is married to the owner of a Block bar. Another trooper slipped a dancer $100 to have sex with his friend — a trooper assigned to the investigation. A third trooper paid a dancer $150 to have sex in the basement of one of the bars under investigation.
As a result, the supervisor of the Maryland State Police drug bureau, a 23-year veteran of the force, was demoted two ranks to a low-visibility administrative post, from lieutenant colonel to captain. Two other officers were also transferred in the shake-up, while administrative charges were prepared against the three troopers involved in the exchange of money-for-sex scandal.
The arrests were made for gambling, prostitution, narcotics and weapons violations. Col. Larry Tolliver, the State Police superintendent at the time, said 26 handguns and a pound of cocaine were seized from one man who was described as a drug kingpin, who used the Block as a drug dealership.
Police also hauled off a number of video poker games, which they said were being used for illegal gambling.
At the time of the raid, most Baltimoreans sneered and viewed the show of force as overkill and, at best, a Keystone Kops comic opera. More manpower descended on the Block than is usually dispatched these days to foreign nations in military operations.
It has long been a durable fable that the Block is controlled by the mob. The mob wishes it were true. The Block was a terrific generator of cash, not only from patrons and the curious out-of-town, one-night adventurers, but also from the rental fees for rooms in the basements and the crash pads and gambling rooms upstairs. The ladies contributed their share, too, in the form of percentages.
The mob may have been Sicilian at heart, but their minds were as American as money. The mob needed a laundry, more precisely one with a rinse cycle. So the Block and the mob seemed like a heavenly-made match, like cement shoes and the East River, like as kiss on the cheek and a Stiletto in the back, like chalk stripe suits and Borsellino hats.
With the Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas still knocking ‘em dead on cable TV re-runs, it seemed like just the kind of business arrangement Michael Corleone might have dreamed up to decontaminate the family’s ill-gotten millions from gambling and prostitution when he’d gone legit.
But the Block, then, now, and always, will remain essentially a mom-and-pop, or husband-and-wife, or owner-and-lover, kind of business. The mob’s attempted takeovers were repulsed by the local police, who had their own reasons for making certain that the Block remained in local hands.
Nonetheless, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a federal strike force was established in Baltimore to investigate connections between the Block and the mob. It came up dry and eventually disbanded.
The Schaefer-ordered investigation and subsequent raid were said to signal the beginning of a new era of law enforcement cooperation that was agreed to by Schaefer, then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Tolliver. When Schmoke took office in 1987, he vowed to redevelop the Block. But a 40 percent vacancy rate in class-A commercial office space (at the time of the raid) — 2.3 million square feet — had slowed the mayor’s bricks-and-mortar campaign and allowed the Block to continue as a municipal Sodom to some and local lore to others. Or, at best, a fading anachronism.
There’s an original route that legend says gave the Block its name. In the old days, a pair of limousines was kept at the ready along Baltimore St., and for a few bucks a man could rent one for five minutes or more. The driver took his time so the customer could get his money’s worth from the woman he’d booked for the ride. And the route was always the same: South on Front to Lombard St., east on Lombard to the Fallsway, north on the Fallsway to Baltimore St. and back to the night club. It was called “taking a ride around the block.”
The Block and Maryland’s comic-opera politics are inextricably joined at the hip. Besides musicians, a mayor and a governor, the major domo of Baltimore politics, James H. “Jack” Pollack, owned several Block properties in addition to the building that housed Bickford’s, a major gathering place for politicians where Pollack held court every weekday morning, around the corner on Calvert Street. Judges, ranking police officers and key political officeholders were among the Block’s patrons and protectors.
Block club owners were major campaign contributors. The Block came under fire from city legislators in 1992. They had threatened to shut down the Block entirely, but club owners beat back the challenge. In 1997, the city created an adult entertainment district around the Block. The move was designed to contain the clubs as well as to recognize the Block as a tourist attraction so the likes of pot-bellied Rotarians from Iowa and flush-faced conventioneers from Kansas could live out small-town fantasies at big-city prices.
Block business owners agreed to clean up their storefronts, and show bar operators consented to upgrade the quality of the entertainment they offered. The city’s Office of Tourism touted the Block in its promotional brochures. The attitude of the succeeding mayor, Martin O’Malley, later governor, was to discourage any further expansion of business on the Block.
Yet in November 2003, Larry Flynt, the celebrated pornographer, opened Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club on the second and third floors of the restored Gayety Theater as an elaborate and posh gentlemen’s skin club. Among its architectural features is a glass dance floor that allows patrons on lower levels a view.
Owners of established clubs initially opposed the arrival of the upscale intruder, but later accepted Flynt’s club as a magnet for cultivating a new generation and class of clients. All the while, city leaders adopted a posture of winking at the Block’s minor legal and moral transgressions.
In February 2000, for example, the Baltimore Liquor Board issued $105,450 in fines for adult entertainment and liquor law violations, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
On the night of the raid, Schaefer said: “I’m disappointed in the Block. Years and years ago, when Charles Center was first developed, the Block was left in, simply because it was a safe place. There wasn’t crime, there wasn’t drugs, there wasn’t problems with alcohol. But what I saw tonight, it’s gone down. It’s really gone down.
And so, some say, will the buildings eventually come crashing down. But through wars, legal challenges creeping development and the moral taunting of religionists and social activists, the Block has remained a durable prop of downtown Baltimore’s midsection and a kitschy artifact of cultural life here on the lip of the Patapsco drainage basin.
— Some material in this column originally appeared on “Splice Today” and in DeFilippo’s 2005 novel, “Hooked,” a lusty roman a clef about the Block.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct the sponsors of legislation related to the The Block.