by Benn Ray
Recently, I had a conversation with Baltimore Beer historian and former Baltimore Sun reporter Rob Kasper, and he dispelled a misconception I had held for a long time.
Maryland's nickname, "The Free State" has nothing to do with which side Maryland did or didn't come down on in the Civil War.
In fact, Maryland's nickname was coined decades later in the 1920s Prohibition-Era by then Baltimore Sun editor Hamilton Owens, in response to Georgia Congressman William D. Upshaw who accused our state of being a traitor to the union for never passing any kind of Prohibition enforcement act.
See, Maryland didn't care for Prohibition, so we did nothing to enforce it. Thus, in that era, Maryland was a Free State in that you were pretty much free to get a drink even though it was technically illegal.
Now, nearly 100 years later, Baltimore seems to suddenly find itself being governed by new-Prohibitionists who want to make it increasingly difficult for us to get a drink.
Recently, new City Council member Nick Mosby (7th District) proposed legislation that prohibits anyone under 18 from entering a liquor store. Never mind that many liquor stores in the city carry non-age specific goods, like soda, ice, snacks, etc. Or, actually, that is the point of the legislation.
The intent here is to prevent the normalizing of youth from going into liquor stores. It also puts the criminality of enforcement on shop owners. But the result seems to be hardship for local businesses who, for years, have been serving their community by selling neighbors more than just booze.
Continuing this trend, city health officials are proposing essentially shutting down nearly 130 small businesses throughout Baltimore under the guise of public health and safety (they'll do this by zoning and pulling licenses despite the targeted businesses already being grandfathered in from previous zoning).
Our elected officials like to tell us small businesses are the backbone of our economy. They also like to tell us we can't afford things like firehouses and recreation centers because we don't have the tax revenue. And they like to tell us Baltimore needs jobs, jobs, jobs.
Shutting down nearly 130 stores throughout the city will further shrink tax revenues. It will put hundreds of people out of work. It will create blight in some neighborhoods, which leads to more crime - real crime - like prostitution and drug dealing.
Also, if the city is going to shut down businesses, aren't those businesses going to need to be compensated for their loss, inconvenience, hardship? Will that be covered by the money we don't have for our current programs and infrastructure?
When has an elected official in Baltimore, or a Maryland official for that matter, passed any new legislation crafted specifically to help small businesses? The point being, every time you hear a politician praise American small business, they've most likely voted for at least half a dozen bills that make small business more difficult.
In debates over big box stores coming into the city, one of the more ideological arguments corporatists float is that we don't want to make Baltimore City appear to be hostile to business.
I can't imagine anything more hostile to business than the city coming in and shuttering 130 small businesses, many of whom have been serving their community for years.
Officials are trying to spin this as an attempt to improve troubled neighborhoods by closing down predatory/exploitative liquor stores of the bulletproof glass wrap variety.
However, in the Hampden-area, there are 3 stores being targeted.
1. The Wine Underground (Evans Chapel Rd.) - a beloved neighborhood store that has already tried once to move into a traditional shopping plaza and away from residences and was blocked by a community organization who doesn't want any liquor stores in that plaza
2. Roland Park Liquors (Roland Ave.) - a liquor store I have used regularly for 12 years. In fact, I have them in my cell phone because they deliver and they carry a good selection of craft beer and decent whiskeys.
3. JT's (Falls Rd.) - A liquor store and local deli/market/carryout.
Interestingly, the most controversial liquor store in Hampden, the liquor store most detested by many in the community, Red Fish (Falls Rd. & 41st St) is not on the list.
If city leaders have their way, The Wine Underground, Roland Park Liquors and JTs will either have to find a new place to move (in a neighborhood that is, largely as a result of Red Fish, hostile to liquor stores moving) or change their business completely and no longer sell what they know how to sell and have been selling for years (a ridiculous if not financially disastrous expectation).
Also, the city will have established a precedent for shuttering local small businesses simply because they don't like the products they carry (while, I hasten to point out, bending over backwards to bring in big box development and corporate retail).
And just in case people think I'm being hyperbolic with my "New Prohibition Era" proclamation, moonshine - here more appropriately called "cityshine" - has just recently started being slung on corners in the inner city, with flavors like bubblegum, watermelon, peach and berry.
New taglines for it from a friend of mine who has been consuming this stuff include:
"From thug to the jug!" and "Stop the killin', start the stillin'!"
For $10 a half pint, you can get locally distilled corn whiskey rocket fuel of unknown content. Local entrepreneurs who used to set up grow houses for pot in the abundance of Baltimore's abandoned rowhomes are now setting up stills because, well, you can smell the growing marijuana from the street and but stills are less detectable by authorities. And closing down regulated liquor stores throughout the city will only help to increase this blackmarket.
So, Baltimore city, in the Free State of Maryland, is determined to make it more and more difficult for residents to buy legal alcohol while illegal production and distribution of cityshine is already setting itself up - production that will not be monitored for public safety, with sales and distribution that will not generate any sales tax revenue.
City leaders are now beginning to recreate the same failed mistakes of our nation 100 years ago that, at the time, we were too smart to participate in.
Sounds like a New Prohibition Era to me.
If you live in the greater Hampden-area and want to save The Wine Underground, Roland Park Liquors or JTs, contact your city council representatives immediately and tell them to leave our liquor stores alone. If you live in other parts of the city, check the linked City Council directory below and contact your representative as well.
And while we're at it, let's start pushing for things we want. Like how about 4AM liquor licenses? Letting grocery stores carry beer and wine? And letting all liquor stores be open on Sunday. Hell, while we're at it, let's decriminalize marijuana too.
What the city is doing is regressive. We need to push our representatives to be progressive.
Correction: In a previous version of this post, I misidentified the liquor store JTs as Hampden Parks. This post has been updated to fix that mistake.