The Fight to Reclaim a Corner From Crime : Patrols Renewed for Troubled W. Hollywood Block

Times Staff Writer

Twelve-year-olds Crystal Angot and Mapuana Takamatsu were too frightened to walk 5 blocks to school in the morning.

They were scared of the panhandlers and male prostitutes who hung out along their West Hollywood route, shouting lewd comments or pleading for their lunch money.

Roommates Helen Milstein, 78, and Bea Davis, 74, were afraid to venture into their underground garage past dusk because they often discovered derelicts sleeping there.

Stepped-Up Efforts

Nearby, Charlie Topiol, owner of a clothing store, cursed every morning as he cleaned the garbage that the derelicts tossed around outside his shop--chicken bones, half-eaten hamburgers, empty beer bottles, hypodermic needles and condoms.

Almost every night, community activist Tom Larkin said he was propositioned by the prostitutes, who often conducted their business in cars parked in the alley or parking lot next to his home.

Most of the hundreds of residents and business operators who live and work near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Jolla Avenue in West Hollywood have endured similar fears and confrontations over the last few years.

As a result, the City Council has increased its efforts to rid the area of derelicts with periodic prostitute sweeps and foot patrols by deputies. Residents, happy with the temporary measures, want them to become permanent. But the city says it can't afford to continue foot patrols indefinitely, and sheriff's deputies say the sweeps' success is fleeting.

After listening to dozens of complaints at a City Council meeting earlier this month, council members again ordered deputies to patrol the area on foot, from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. each night. The city contracts with the county Sheriff's Department for police services.

Undercover-arrest sweeps have been conducted randomly along Santa Monica Boulevard since January, and more than 200 suspected male prostitutes have been arrested by plainclothes deputies who cruised the boulevard in unmarked cars.

To make the area less comfortable for the derelicts, who deputies said openly use drugs and burglarize homes, more light posts will be installed in the parking lot and alley, just south of Santa Monica Boulevard between La Jolla Avenue and Havenhurst Drive. City officials said they are also studying plans to enlarge the parking lot by including an alley, adding spaces for daytime use by the businesses.

And at 2:30 each morning, the alley and public parking lot are now roped off until 6 a.m.

In a letter to the City Council, residents also requested that the parking lot have only one exit and one entrance so that the one-way flow of traffic would discourage drug pushers from cruising through the alleys.

However, Sheriff's Deputy Simeon Plyler is not confident such measures will work.

"For these people it will be a slight inconvenience, but hustling is their way of life, and, no matter what, they are going to find a way to make a living," he said.

Hustlers Return

Plyler, who works in the Sheriff Department's Special Projects Unit, also said the past arrest sweeps did not prevent the hustlers from coming back.

"The sweeps were successful as far as arrests because sometimes we'd catch 12 to 13 people in one night," he said. "But the next day they'd be back out on the street, only they'd be a little wiser. They would learn how we operate and it would be hard to catch them again."

Residents and business operators said the presence of deputies on foot patrol over the last week has apparently frightened away many of the derelicts. On most nights, the streets and alleys, usually jammed with pedestrian traffic, were virtually free of people.

But City Manager Paul Brotzman said the city does not have enough money to keep the foot patrols indefinitely. "People on Sunset (Boulevard) want foot patrols, people around other nightclubs want foot patrols, people near the parks want foot patrols, and we just do not have the staff to do them all at one time," he said.

Brotzman was unable to specify when the patrols along the 4-block stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard would end, but when they do, business operators are certain the male prostitutes will return.

"Two months ago, the Sheriff's Department put foot patrols out here for 2 weeks and the hustlers went away," said Cathy Edery, who owns El Morocco Restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. "But as soon as the foot patrols ended, the hustlers came back. In fact, it seemed like there were more of them."

In their letter to the council, the residents and business operators, organized by Larkin and Edery, asked that the foot patrols be assigned to their neighborhood for 6 months.

"That way, we could break the habits of these hustlers who have come here for years," said Larkin.

Deputy Plyler said that over the years the area has earned a reputation as a lucrative night spot among male prostitutes throughout the county.

"Most of the hustlers we arrest are not from West Hollywood," he said. "They tell us that they heard about it from friends."

Residents insist much of that notoriety is generated by Circus of Books, a 24-hour bookstore at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Jolla Avenue that also sells sex paraphernalia.

An employee at the shop agreed.

"The hustlers know that people come here to buy sex paraphernalia 24 hours a day, so of course they hang out here because they know they may get lucky," he said, on the condition that he not be named.

Karen Mason, owner of the bookstore, said she had never received complaints from residents who live near her shop until last week. She said she will cooperate with the community to remove the hustlers from the neighborhood.

Bins Taken Away

Last week, she removed several bins, which contained free newspapers and community bulletins, from the sidewalk in front of the shop because residents and business operators complained that hustlers used the bins as benches.

"It was like a headquarters for their activities," said Topiol, whose clothing shop is a few doors away from the bookstore. "They would sit out there on the bins, throw their trash all over the sidewalk and make their calls from the public telephone."

Despite a few complaints by neighbors, Joseph Salley, owner of a gay bar across the street from the bookstore, said his establishment does not contribute to the problem. "We have a very respectable clientele and the street people are hustler, criminal types," Salley said. "My clients aren't interested in that. In fact, they complain about the hustlers."

However, most residents and merchants agreed that the cause of the prostitute problem is much deeper than the 24-hour bookstore, gay bar and unlit alleyways in their community.

City Councilman John Heilman suggested that steps be taken to reform the derelicts--especially juveniles. He said he wants to show juvenile hustlers that their way of living is a straight path to death.

Heilman said he would like to divert arrested juveniles from the courts and into an intense counseling program where they would learn about the dangers of drug use and promiscuity.

Heilman said he hopes to have a counseling program established within a year, and although it may not be the cure-all for this problem, he said the City Council will work closely with residents and business operators to end crime in the area.

"This is a difficult problem, but we are committed to keep working to fight it," he said.

Deputy Kerby Wong added an argument for continuing the efforts: "It's bad to see these hustlers out here shooting drugs and then having sex with different men all the time--the two things that doctors say are high risks for AIDS."

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