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Baltimore jail
What 'getting picked up' is all about today-- the dreaded Central Booking Center

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January 2007 Email this to a friend
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Baltimore Revisited
You Can't Go Home Again
By Frank Laterreur

Thirty-five years ago I visited Baltimore for the first time. I fell in love with the city, and I found my sexual self there. Two years ago, after retiring from a career in Boston, I returned to Baltimore-- where I still have many friends. I hoped to find some of the excitement and warmth I experienced years ago. It didn't happen.

Part of that, of course, is me-- I'm now a senior citizen. Part of it, though, is a major change in the city's character-- especially its sexual customs and styles, but also its basic personality. These changes are symptomatic of what's happening around America, and around the world wherever America is dominant.

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When I first experienced "Bawlmore" charm, I was working in Washington, DC, and living on a farm near Hagerstown . I was just beginning to come out, a scary experience in those pre-Stonewall days. Washington's chi-chi Georgetown bars were not my cup of tea, and as an awkward twentysomething with glasses, I didn't bowl them over with my beauty.

I had come to Baltimore for the funeral of a colleague's mother. The funeral was in Highlandtown. That's enough said for any queer who ever visited Baltimore ! Not one, but two local teenagers waved from a bench. That night they went back to the farm with me. That was the beginning of a 20-year love affair with the city of Baltimore as a gritty, working-class homosexual utopia.

It wasn't just the young men (though they certainly added the spice to the sauce). It was the variety and down-to-earthiness of bars, clubs, and restaurants scattered about in real neighborhoods, not clustered in some upscale gay ghetto. That's what made Baltimore special. There were bars in neighborhoods all around the city: Highlandtown, Fells Point, Southwest Baltimore , South Baltimore, on Bellaire Road, in Waverly-- and yes, downtown, but not all together and not at all like those in Georgetown. Some of the bars are still there-- a watering place downtown called Leon's is perhaps most notable-- and the Sportsman (the first black bar I dared enter in my life).

Paved with gold

In Baltimore of 35 years ago, the streets were where it was happening. They were the active site of sexual liaison, for money or just for a good time. The kinds of connections varied: older and younger, men of the same vintage looking for each other, games of dominance and submission, the hide-and-seek of risking sex in public places. And so much of it literally on the street.

There was Eastern Avenue-- but also Fleet, Bond, Baltimore , Patterson Park Avenue (and the Park itself), Fayette , Lombard, and a dozen more-- all on the city's east side. There was also much to ogle and chat up in Greek Town or further out along Dundalk Avenue. Plenty of meat in South Baltimore, too, especially along Light, Charles, and Ostend all the way across to the southwest. Also in Brooklyn, in Pig Town and Morrell Park, Remington, Hampden, West Baltimore (and not just Wilkins Avenue). Wyman Park near Johns Hopkins University was incredible-- sex au naturel there. Take almost any major thoroughfare or walk in any park and you'd find what you wanted-- east, west, north, south. Downtown there was much activity to be found on Howard Street, what used to be the main drag. The old Greyhound bus station was just one important hangout. Another was a Bickford's restaurant just off Howard-- crowded with a wide range of queers from hustlers to outrageous drag queens, all classes and races mixed. The streets around Bickford's were often packed at Halloween and on New Year's with celebrating queens in high drag. (Several Bickford's around town were similarly famous.)

There were overlapping meatracks along Cathedral, Monument, Park, and Madison Streets in the somewhat tony Mount Vernon area. These were busy every night of the week. Men could be found most times of day and evening in Mount Vernon Square. Black and white men, working-class as well as students, plied these streets and benches.

Curtis, for instance, in his late teens in the early 1970s, was a self-described "radical street hustler" on the Mount Vernon strolls. He charged for sex on a sliding scale-- working-class black men got the lowest price, rich white queens the highest. With older, low-income black men who attracted him, he went for free. He left home and got a room downtown. His mother came to see how he was doing-- the door was open, so she went in. Curtis was in bed with two black men. "I'll come back another time," she said, softly closing the door. Curtis often had sex in an open basement, below a house that had been torn down, just below the Washington Monument .

Mustn't forget the movie theaters-- from the ones downtown to the outlying neighborhood movies on Broadway or Eastern or just about anywhere. Lots going on in those dark balconies. I don't mean sex theaters. Those had begun to spring up about that time, but weren't necessary for cruising, since the ordinary double-features featured more than flicks, especially on Saturdays. Westerns or mysteries or comedies, it didn't matter what the bill-- they all were accompanied by orgies in the seats and aisles. Such theaters charged a quarter or 50 cents in those days, allowing everybody in from the riff-raff to the rich, the adolescent to the elderly.

I never was much into t-rooms, but those abounded, too-- at the colleges and libraries (the downtown Pratt was marvelous), but also in parks and at public buildings of every sort. And the "Block," along Baltimore Street downtown, just bristled with sex-- in peep-shows, bars, arcades, sex theaters, and along the street-- as well as cruising circuits in adjacent areas, including the park in front of City Hall.

It was quite possible in the years between the early 1950s and the mid-1970s to have two or three tricks an afternoon, and come back for a couple more in the evening-- either within one of these venues, or by crossing town from one to the other. Baltimore was saturated with homosex.

Though Baltimore was racially segregated (a Southern city actually-- still is, by the way), interracial sex abounded. In fact, Baltimore homosexuality delighted in opposites (not clone-to-clone as is the modern tendency)-- black with white, drag queens with leather, poor with rich, younger with older, Poles or Russians with Wasps or Negroes. And many of the bars were likewise diverse. The mixing crossed the gender gap, with diesel dykes and others of the myriad lesbian subgroups hobnobbing with the whole range of gay-male types-- from swish to macho. (There were also quite a few predominantly women's bars in the neighborhoods, but I can't talk much about those.)

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A major ingredient in sexual action for men in the 1970s in Baltimore was that sexual boundaries were crisscrossed constantly. There was little talk of "sexual identity," and no young man had to consider himself queer if he let himself get picked up by another man. The prominent pattern was what I call the "Baltimore solution." Boys and young men were easily available to older men, but also fooled around with each other. Virtually any young man on the street could be approached with the question, "Do you go out?" The most negative response was likely, "No, but my brother does." These same young men kept girlfriends on "the side," and many latter married-- keeping up sexual liaisons with their older and younger male friends-- often themselves seeking out younger partners as they aged. The women were the ones "on the side," not the men. I remember often waiting for my sex tricks to let off their girlfriends in order to spend the night with me.

Toward the end of the '70s, "gay liberation" got going, with gay youth groups and other new institutions. For a time there was a mixing of the old and the new models. About 1980, I met a teenager who took the name "Grapes" along one of the old East Baltimore cruising streets. Gorgeous and rather feminine, he immediately told me, "I want to be gay-- can you teach me how?" I took him to a gay friend's barbecue in the Johns Hopkins neighborhood. My friend was a lawyer and one of the earliest leaders of the growing "gay community." Grapes told his mother where he was going, and she insisted he wear a suit and tie to such a gathering. Grapes became a leader of the Baltimore gay youth group, went on to San Francisco and New York to experience the heady post-Stonewall world of homosexual freedom-- only later to die of AIDS.

Local color

The neighborhoods in those days were segregated by class for sure, with just a little racial mixing, but each had a predominant culture. And there was certainly no gay ghetto-- homo-, bi-, and multi-sexual people lived everywhere. Every neighborhood was a community-- real localities with personalities and unmixed ethnic flavor. Polish, Italian, Greek, German, Finnish, Filipino, Lumbee (a unique blend of American Indian, black, and white), black-- and (as in Butcher's Hill or on the Baltimore Street side of Patterson Park) West Virginia Appalachian. Nothing fancy or snobbish about Baltimore then (there were the snobby neighborhoods, like Guilford, but who went there?)-- just ordinary people, often living and working in the same area, full of life and energy and sexual curiosity.

Every neighborhood had its wonderful hangouts and restaurants that were unique to it-- such as Tanya's Russian sailor bar in East Baltimore and a host of similar places in Fells Point and along the inner harbor. Architecture and style of shops and dress likewise varied by neighborhood-- there was no mistaking where you were. No cloned condo developments or luxury townhouses with fancy roof-decks in those days.

As for crime and police, there were problems. From time to time there'd be an old-style raid on a bar-- and, yes, that often brought serious disgrace (and even suicide) to some gay men, especially from "prominent" or "proper" families. But mostly, police looked the other way when they saw cruising in streets or cinemas-- at most they chased people out, seldom causing serious trouble. As one cop told me in East Baltimore, explaining why he didn't bother the boys and the men who're looking for fun on Eastern Avenue, "It keeps them out of other trouble." In the old Howard movie house I remember seeing a cop standing at the back, watching the film while a dozen men cruised the aisles and johns, and a couple of blow jobs were in progress just rows away. Of course there were no surveillance cameras in those days.

Villages reconceived

The whole gay scene in the US has changed a lot in these 35 years-- certainly in some ways for the better. But a lot of the sexiness and adventure and diversity has been lost. All this has to be put in historical perspective. Baltimore was one of the northern and border-state cities which began accepting wave after wave of immigrants after the Civil War, and again even more after World War I. The immigrants were fresh out of peasant villages in Italy ,Greece , and Eastern Europe-- flung into the simmering pot of urbanization. Cast out of their Old World villages, they created new urban peasant villages in places such as Baltimore. They lived packed in rowhouses built for them near the old-style factories where they worked (in Baltimore , especially the steel mills).

I'd argue that these particular peasant cultures fostered same-sex adventures-- and sexual experimentation generally-- more than, say, Anglo and other Western European societies that made up the elites in Baltimore (as in the rest of the US). This earthy approach to sex got transferred to the former peasants' new urban homes-- where the elites, as well as their own elders, eagerly sought out the ready street commerce.

I interviewed several grandfathers of young men I met on Baltimore streets in the 1960s. They all (Irish, Italian, Finnish, Polish) reported "going out" (as sexual liaisons on the street were then called) when they were boys-- often fresh off the boats that landed in Baltimore's Fells Point. It would seem that heterosexual adventure prospered similarly. The mother of one Russian boy I knew was a hooker in the 1960s. The family had lived near the docks in Fells Point for at least four generations-- with each including both male and female streetwalkers.

So, the fantastic eroticism of the streets of Baltimore was perhaps highly conditional-- the '60s and '70s that I experienced, as well as possibly the previous hundred years, fostered sexual opportunities and variety precisely because of the types of immigration, residence patterns, and work environments of those days.

By the 1980s, all this had changed. New immigrants were mostly non-white, non-European. New work was fragmented and service-oriented, not gang assembly-labor in the factories, that were now mostly shut down. And the new immigrants also spread around to various neighborhoods, sometimes replacing the old immigrants, but often mixed together. What was left was mile after mile of partly-boarded up, run-down rowhouses, a decimated economic base-- and mostly empty streets. After periods of abandonment, new groups flowed in-- producing incongruous combinations of the new-rich and near-rich white professionals with new arrivals from Guatemala or Vietnam , as well as blacks fleeing even worse ghettos in adjacent areas. With these changes, the free-wheeling sexual vibrancy of the neighborhoods and streets also vanished.

Of course much of that commerce and contact has been replaced today by the traffic on the internet. Instead of walking the parks and streets, or haunting restrooms and movie theaters, men sit for hours at computers looking for sex in all its varieties. And the sex is there-- hookups continue, for sure, though impeded by technological requirements, chilled by various forms of filtering and surveillance, and compromised by the loss of the immediacy of bodies meeting bodies. Perhaps the ferment of the streets-- with their own repression and surveillance-- has been simply replaced by that of the internet-- with more hooking-up than ever before. But I doubt it.

Road blocked ahead

For a long time-- as in other ways-- Baltimore lagged behind these changes, but a recent two-year stay confirms that Baltimore is quickly going the way of other US cities.

Most of the cruising scenes I visited in my younger days are completely gone. No more "regular" movie-house cruising. Even sex-cinemas-- whether downtown on the Block, on Broadway, and in the suburbs-- have lost their crowds and their energy. The Block is virtually dead for homosexual activity, and downtown streets are completely empty.

T-rooms are only sporadically active-- and are under constant surveillance. Wyman Park and other similar scenes have just vanished-- nobody there at night and only dog-walkers and joggers by day.

Most of the street cruising has also vanished-- though a desperate and mercenary straggler can be found now and again on Cathedral or in Mount Vernon Square. Wilkins Avenue cruising exists but is sparse and dangerous. Eastern Avenue is less dangerous but even less active-- some nights nary a man nor youth can be seen; on good nights, one might see a couple of older, washed-out hustlers-- and on a very good night, a couple of younger crackheads. As for South Baltimore, Bellaire Road, Brooklyn , Pig Town, and all the rest-- forget it. Hampden looks promising at times, but there's little proof.

Most of the old neighborhood bars are gone. In the east, Quest is what passes for a hustler bar, not coming close to the irreplaceable Frankie and Ronnie's (later the Unicorn). Still, Quest is the one place where a few young guys cluster around the pool table. The Drinkery and some others hold out downtown. Lots of men older than I am (and I'm old!) hang out in these places, and a very occasional young man of twenty- or thirtysomething is available, though the prices have gone up and the selection has gone down. Leon's is still packed on the weekends, but on my two visits, I was the youngest one in the place. The cluster of bars in the Village on Charles Street could be in any US city-- there's no local quality about them. Evidently these are the places that all the newly married gays gather. The strip club that once was on the edge of Pig Town is long gone, as is the Atlantis. The new strip club in East Baltimore-- Spectrum-- is titillating, but seems more like an import from DC or New York, though a recent visit found quite a stable of attractive guys who might have once walked the East Baltimore streets. And several new Latino gay and mixed bars in the East feature a cruising scene much like the old days - among these are Sherrie's on Broadway, near Eastern Avenue, and Manilla Bar on Lombard.

And the neighborhoods themselves are gone forever, in the sense of authentic local enclaves. A new gentry dwells ostentatiously among boarded up houses in some areas, and cheek-by-jowl with some of the elderly who have not yet fled in others. And these trendy, affluent whites are "fixing up" everything-- elegant door-knockers, fancy doors and windows-- and of course the omnipresent roof-decks. Housing prices have skyrocketed, only this year finally leveling off, though not enough to make it possible for working people to find affordable housing anywhere in the old neighborhoods.

One thing that has not changed is Baltimore's residential apartheid of blacks and whites. Except for wealthy and professional blacks and students, segregation is the norm. Students and tourists can still cross from Johns Hopkins University in the north via downtown and the harbor, over to Johns Hopkins Hospital in the east, and remain virtually always within "safe"-- that is white-- turf. When I viewed the prize-winning film Boys of Baraka, about some impoverished Baltimore black kids who went to Africa and found pride in their heritage. I overheard a couple of yuppies commenting, "Where is that Baltimore? I've never seen such slums." They need have only gone a few blocks from the Charles Theater where the film was playing. The black underclass is as brutalized, oppressed, and isolated from the mainstream as any in the world-- yes, in the world. Not even in Haiti , which I often visit in my academic work, is life in some ways as brutal, despite far greater actual poverty.

Just as it was 35 years ago, the Baltimore gay community is less segregated. To their credit, Baltimore fags and dykes have always defied the racial taboos. If anything, the bars are more segregated by class today than by race.

Crime and punishment

The nature and intensity of crime and punishment has also changed in Baltimore- for the worse. Years ago, there was police brutality on an individual basis, and fags could get beaten up if they crossed the wrong cop's path. Police corruption was a fact of life. But most men, even those who dabbled in homosex, could go through life not coming up against police repression. Nowadays that's difficult, with 100,000 arrests yearly in Baltimore city-- which often entail stays overnight (and in some cases much longer) in the dreaded Central Booking Center. This huge and ancient fortress-like jail appears somewhat like similar institutions I've visited in Haiti . Murders within those walls take place fairly often-- scarcely noticed among the nearly 300 city-wide homicides yearly. Young men of any race are fair game for sudden police intervention: street searches and harassment for "quality of life" crimes like loitering on front steps or spitting or urinating in a public place. Bar raids are virtually unknown, but hundreds of people are arrested yearly for "sex offenses." These range from prostitution to public- and under-age sex. Even trivial sex offenders face years of public humiliation on the ever-growing sex-offender registry-- a veritable yellow star for perverts. No wonder this has led recently to suicides of gay men caught in the act in parked cars or parks, or because a trick turned out to be 17 (see "Down a Slippery Slope," The Guide, September 2005).

And everywhere in Baltimore , police are out in force. To an outsider it really does look like a police state: police helicopters, shining floodlights on streets and alleys in the wee hours, and blue lights portending street-corner surveillance cameras. Some cameras have loud speakers hooked to monitors in police stations, from which come booming voices warning that those who come too close to a wall or who loiter on the corner face arrest for "criminal acts." These things are so commonplace in Baltimore that most people I've talked to have become numb to such massive violations of privacy and civil liberty.

This survey could not be complete without a comment about the ever-widening scourge of drug addiction and the fruitless "war on drugs," both factors driving the repression. Back then, there were plenty of drugs and drinking among young and old. But the Baltimore streets, the bars, the baths, the toilets and the parks were not defined by drugs and the moral and police crusades against them. Now they are.

Almost nary a trick cruising for sex in Baltimore today is not addicted. Ugly thing, addiction-- crack is not pretty, but crystal meth and designer drugs can be even uglier and faster in their grim toll.

I came back to Baltimore , but found a different city than I knew those years ago. There are still spots of recognition and some pleasures to be had. And Baltimore is still slightly behind the curve of what is the totalitarian society now taking root in the former "land of the free." But not enough behind the curve for me.

I've moved on again-- this time outside the US borders, to a place that does still have some semblance of the old homosexual flair for risk and abandon, with male-male sex (not just LGBT political correctness)-- believe it or not-- everywhere you look. With US power and styles and habits spreading fast all over the globe, sexual variety and joie de vivre may not last much longer in my new home, but then I may not either.

Chowing Down Then & Now

With a plentiful catch of Chesapeake crab to work with and a patchwork of ethnicities, Baltimore's always been a good place to eat. Solace for the loss of street sex?

New upscale restaurants have largely replaced the old Baltimore-style crabhouses and funky eateries. A few survive-- the Sip 'n' Bite (the delightfully sleazy and once most erotic diner in the world) seems not to have changed much in menu or even prices, nor has the working-class Eichenkranz-- though the latter is mostly empty except for seniors, and the Sip 'n' Bite has more hip straight couples than hustlers or gay men nowadays, and the sexual edge is gone. Many of the old restaurant gems have closed. the more upscale Hausner's at the heart of East Baltimore's cruise strip closed years ago, while one of the most recent casualties has been the eccentric Mamie's in Hampden. Both of these had huge menus and varieties, where you could pay a few bucks or a small fortune, set amid the private art collection of the founders-- Maimie's was low-class kitch, Hausner's was literally museum-quality European classic. Most of the genuine working-class crab houses with newspaper on the tables are gone-- such as Bud's on Lombard in the East as well as several in the harbor area and Southwest Baltimore-- while the expensive ones, such as Obrykie's, remain. Fells Point is alive and vibrant in the wee hours-- if you don't mind mostly tourists and rowdy college students; and if you can stomach high prices and "European"-style menus that feature all kinds of nifty but inauthentic crab dishes. There are to be sure, some new, authentic local restaurants which attract all sexual persuasions. One is Tamber's, a fantastic, friendly Indian and Nepali staffed restaurant in Charles Village with an eclectic Indian, Italian and American menu, and moderate prices, as well as a very unique upstairs lounge which features beds where one can drink champaign amid pillows, while served fruits and Indian breads-- needless to say, not for Baltimore's lower-income queers. Another is a Mexican eatery, Holy Frijoles on 36th-- still a cruisy working-class strip in Hampden. Yet another is a low-priced Italian place called Tutti Gusto at Linwood and Fait in the heart of the old Canton cruising district. There is also a proliferation of Spanish, Mexican, El Salvadorean, Peruvian, and other Latin restaurants-- and bars-- in East Baltimore, with authentic, cheap, and delicious food.

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