In an area of Hollywood where prostitutes and drug pushers are said to be on the run, the girl who calls herself Precious seemed almost out of place.
"They get me one more time and I'm done in," she said, surveying the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue as a police car approached. "I got bills to pay."
Since February, a police crackdown in the troubled neighborhood that surrounds what some call the most dangerous street corner in Los Angeles has made pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers less visible, residents say.
However, few are ready to celebrate.
"You've got to be realistic. There's only so much the cops can do. It's a tough place," said Bill Gonzalez, who owns a barbershop on Hollywood Boulevard a few hundred feet from Western.
In the nine months since a special police patrol began around-the-clock monitoring of a 12-block area that some residents have likened to a combat zone, police say serious crime has decreased 25%.
"Essentially, we're trying to win back that neighborhood from the criminal element," said Capt. Bob Taylor of the Hollywood Division.
A scruffy, bustling intersection in an area increasingly given to peep shows, bargain stores and run-down hotels, Hollywood and Western has long been synonymous with crime and decay.
In a survey conducted by two UCLA professors in 1985, bus passengers singled out a bus stop at the intersection as the most dangerous in Los Angeles.
"If you talk about the problems in the neighborhood, they all begin at that corner," said Arthur Ito, a florist who is chairman of the Hollywood-Western Neighborhood Assn.
His group is among several in the community that have banded together to form security committees, paint over graffiti and "generally do anything we can to assist the police to clean up the area," he said.
So far, the effort has achieved at least a modicum of success at the intersection itself.
After the phone company removed a bank of telephones that merchants complained were being used as a "central switchboard" by prostitutes and drug sellers, "there have been fewer unsavory types hanging around there," Ito said. "That's an encouraging sign."
Others are less optimistic.
"If the special police patrol ends, we'll be back where we were before," said Treeo Klein, who manages some apartments on Harold Way, half a block from Western.
Funded Until June
Funds approved by the City Council last summer are enough to keep the patrol operating until next June, Taylor said.
Klein, who has lived in the neighborhood for three years, measures the success of the crackdown by the number of prostitutes and drug traffickers she routinely chases away from the apartment building.
"Before February, there was 24-hour foot and automobile traffic--hookers on every corner filtering into this property, using my lawn and steps to serve their customers almost every night," she said. "It hasn't been happening as often lately.
"I like to think of this building as an oasis in the middle of the gutter, and I've tried to keep it that way."
She and a handful of other neighborhood activists on nearby Carlton Way have pushed merchants to get rid of graffiti, and when that has failed, they have volunteered to do it themselves, she said.
Sandra Melvoin, who helped organize the Carlton Way group, said she has written letters to owners of several large apartment buildings in the neighborhood whose parking garages were being used by prostitutes and drug takers.
"A lot of people around here have been disgusted for a long time," she said. "I've watched people selling rock cocaine in front of my house for years. Finally, something just snapped."
Another woman, who did not want to be identified, told of being attacked in front of her home by a prostitute who bit off part of her ear before her husband and daughter were able to come to her aid.
"I've felt like a prisoner in my home for a long time," she said.
Residents point to such episodes on their formerly quiet residential streets as a consequence of the deterioration that has taken place in the Hollywood and Western area. "I started to say this neighborhood has experienced its ups and downs, but I can only remember the downs," said Seymour Sterling, co-owner of a billiard room at a corner of the intersection.
His place occupies the basement of a building that was once home to Central Casting Corp., with its listing of 5,000 would-be actors, until the movies moved away in the 1950s and 1960s.
Signs advertising bed cushions and $2.99 cologne dot the window of the ground-floor store.
Bank Moved Out
Across the street, a boarded-up and graffiti-splattered building that until four years ago was a Bank of America branch is for sale. Neighborhood residents hope that a developer who has expressed interest in the property will be able to restore some of the corner's lost luster.
Scattered about the area are several ragged hotels and tenements, including the one at 1660 N. Western Ave., where its former owner, convicted slumlord Milton Avol, a Beverly Hills neurosurgeon, was sentenced to spend 30 days last summer.
On Hollywood Boulevard, juxtapositions that might seem strange elsewhere, such as a Latino church sandwiched between a bar and an adult bookstore, aren't out of the ordinary.
"This was a beautiful residential neighborhood when I came here 27 years ago," Ito said. "The children could walk down to the corner without any fear. You wouldn't want them out of your sight around here now."
History of Trouble
Other longtime residents of the neighborhood, including Sterling, do not have such fond memories.
"I've been down here since the early '60s, and it was always rough--maybe rougher. Fifteen years ago, you had your love parlors and your massage parlors all up and down Hollywood and Western, the difference being the massage parlors made a pretense of giving massages.
"What's left--the bookstores, peep shows--that's tame stuff," he said.
Joe Kamin, 73, who operates a variety store on the boulevard, said one thing hasn't changed.
"People will steal anything if you give 'em the chance. I once had a refrigerator lifted off the sidewalk. Anything I put outside now, I tie down."