BALTIMORE — Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeehouse is located on the corner of West North and Baltimore Avenues north of Baltimore’s Penn Station.
The bookstore and coffeehouse, which is named after Emma Goldman, a Lithuanian anarchist and political organizer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1885, on its website describes itself as a “worker cooperative behind the restaurant, coffee roaster, bookstore and community events space.” Red Emma’s has also become an institution of sorts in an increasingly gentrified neighborhood.
“This area’s historically a black area and new space is opening up with a lot of money and a lot of queerness, a lot of LGBT going on, a lot of kinkiness, which is great,” Baltimore Transgender Alliance Executive Director Ava Pipitone, who is one of Red Emma’s employee owners, told the Washington Blade on Aug. 10 during an interview at Red Emma’s. “But it’s a white-facing project and an upper-class facing project.”
Red Emma’s is less than two blocks from the Baltimore Eagle, which reopened on the corner of North Charles and West 21st streets in January.
American Fuel, a gas station across the street from the Baltimore Eagle, has applied for a Late-Night Commercial Operations permit from the city that would allow it to sell food and cigarettes between midnight and 5 a.m. The Baltimore Eagle’s owners and the Charles North Community Association oppose the application.
Alan Mlinarchik, president of the Charles North Community Association, in an email to the Blade noted American Gas began to operate after midnight in 2012. He said prostitution, drug dealing and other “illicit activity” at the gas station “declined significantly” when the city halted the gas station’s late-night operations.
Mlinarchik told the Blade that “late night operations” resumed at the gas station last fall.
“Residents closest to the intersection complained of regular incidents of people exposing themselves, running into and blocking traffic, verbal abuse and threats, sex acts being performed in backyards, and urination and defecation on porches, sidewalks, and on parking pads behind homes and businesses,” he said. “Drug dealing from vehicles on the American Fuel lot has been reported repeatedly, and aggression associated with that drug dealing became a serious problem. Residents, property owners and patrons of local businesses avoided that intersection at night.”
Chuck King, co-owner of the Baltimore Eagle, echoed Mlinarchik’s concerns.
“We have observed a whole lot of violence, drug dealing,” King told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview.
King said Baltimore Eagle patrons have been harassed after they have left his bar. He also told the Blade he has seen people running to the cars from inside the gas station.
“We think it has to do with a drug deal gone bad,” said King.
Advocates: Gas station ‘safe space’ after dark
Charles North is among the Baltimore neighborhoods in which sex workers frequently operate. Several of them who work in the area are trans women of color.
There is no indication that Watson or the trans woman who was attacked in front of the Baltimore Eagle were engaged in sex work when they were shot.
Advocates feel opponents of the gas station’s license application have made sex workers scapegoats. Pipitone specifically described members of the Charles North Community Association who have complained about public defecation, loitering and public indecency in the neighborhood as “old guard people, old time people.”
“When I hear those things, I don’t know a single person who lives outside or is homeless or unstably housed doesn’t know how to poop in a plastic bag,” she told the Blade. “The people pooping in the back alley quite frankly are the people coming out of the club who don’t want to wait in line for the bathroom.”
“People who leave condoms in the back alley are not leaving condoms in their workplace,” added Pipitone. “That’s again people who don’t want to do it in the club, can’t wait until they get home.”
Brian Gaither, a local LGBT activist, told the Blade on Aug. 10 during an interview at Red Emma’s that sex workers operate in north Baltimore because “there’s enough automobile traffic and enough residences around that the people who are on the streets feel if they were to cry out, if they’re in real danger that somebody would call the police.” He also suggested the gas station, which has large flood lights, provides a sense of safety to them and others who live and work in the area.
“[You see] fellowship on the sidewalks after dark,” Pipitone told the Blade, referring to Baltimore’s so-called Black Butterfly that encompasses the city’s historically black neighborhoods. “You see people with pools and grills on the sidewalk because we reclaim public space and use it for fellowship.”
“That is what happened at the only lighted corner of 21st and Charles Street,” she added. “There was outside fellowship. Just because those bodies were black and/or trans and queer, there is no correlation to criminalization. Unfortunately there was, and there should not be.”
Pipitone further pointed out to the Blade it “wasn’t that long ago that cisgender white gay men were tricking on the street corner.” She and Robin of the Sex Workers Outreach Project Baltimore both noted it is some of these same men who are now criticizing trans sex workers within the context of the gas station.
“These generations of white gay men that we’re talking about coming out of the AIDS crisis are gaining more capital and buying their own homes, which is wonderful and magical for lots of reasons,” Robin told the Blade. “They’re also shifting an idea of what the power that they have in the community to say this is what I want to see, this is what I don’t want to see, I want my neighborhood to look a certain way, I don’t want to have to deal with mostly seeing sex work in their front yards.”
King said he does not see the gas station as a “safe space” for trans sex workers.
“From our perspective, it’s not really a safe space,” he told the Blade. “It’s really sad the transgender community sees that violent space as a safe space.”
Permit opponent criticizes ‘tranny prostitutes’
Some of these tensions have manifested themselves into blatant transphobia.
John Yelcick, who loaned money to King and other Baltimore Eagle co-owners, in a Facebook exchange with Gaither noted “tranny prostitutes” and “questionable clientele” at the gas station. Members of the Charles North and the Old Goucher Community Associations who oppose the late-night operation permit have also made transphobic comments in public forums.
“We condemn them,” King told the Blade, referring to Yelcick’s anti-trans comments. “We tried to explain to him why that language was so offensive.”
Mlinarchik said Yelcick, who is a previous voting member of the Charles North Community Association’s board of directors until his removal, “does not and did not speak for the” group. Old Goucher Community Association President Kelly Cross, who supports the gas station’s permit, told the Blade trans women of color are “being singled out, whether they’re sex workers or not.”
“We happen to have a pretty significant population of trans women of color in this neighborhood,” Cross told the Blade on Aug. 10 during an interview near the gas station.
Mlinarchik and King insist sex workers are not behind their objection to the gas station remaining open after midnight.
“The problem at 21st and Charles Streets isn’t sex work,” Mlinarchik told the Blade. “It is the behavior of some of the people involved in the illicit activities that disrupt residents’ sense of safety and quality of life.”
Pipitone said she has proposed the creation of public charging stations and restrooms to the Charles North and Old Goucher Community Associations as a way to address their members’ complaints about sex workers in the neighborhood. Robin also talked about increasing the number of garbage cans in the area.
They, GG and Pipitone all said these solutions would not involve the police.
“When you’re calling the cops on someone you think is doing sex work, you’re writing them a death sentence,” Robin told the Blade. “You can’t separate those things and so the answers are not to further police.”