Bust Shows Seamy Side of Street

Times Staff Writers

For years, Hollywood residents have complained about a gritty swath of Santa Monica Boulevard that is a late-night magnet for transgender and male prostitution.

But it wasn’t until last month, when a prominent Hollywood director dressed in drag was arrested on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute on the boulevard, that the area’s problems received a wider airing.

According to the LAPD, Lee Tamahori -- the New Zealand-born director of “Mulholland Falls,” “Once Were Warriors” and the James Bond movie “Die Another Day” -- was wearing an off-the-shoulder dress, a long black wig and full makeup when he propositioned an undercover vice officer for oral sex near Santa Monica Boulevard and Lodi Place.


The city attorney’s office agreed Thursday to dismiss solicitation and loitering charges against the director as part of a plea deal. Tamahori agreed to serve three years’ probation and perform community service after pleading no contest to trespassing.

Tamahori’s attorney, Mark Geragos, said his client was “pleased with the disposition, and he’s back at work.” (Variety reported Wednesday that Tamahori will direct Julianne Moore and Nicolas Cage in the science fiction thriller “Next.”)

But as Tamahori gets on with his life, residents say their lives continue against the backdrop of blatant open-air solicitations.

“Traditionally, it’s been the biggest problem in the La Brea-Highland area,” said veteran Hollywood activist Ferris Wehbe.

Longtime residents said there was a time, years ago, when LAPD officers pushed the prostitution problem west into the city of West Hollywood, only to have L.A. County sheriff’s deputies push it back east into Hollywood.

Although turf battles among law enforcement agencies are a thing of the past, prostitution has continued to flourish along this several-mile-long strip, where the regulars who ply their trade are recognized by face -- if not name -- in some neighborhoods.

Hollywood vice squad officers say they know most of the regulars along this stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard. Numbers vary, depending on circumstances. On some occasions police have seen as many as 18 prostitutes on one corner; other nights the streets seem empty, LAPD Sgt. Mark Garza said.

Garza said prostitutes in the area include cross-dressing men as well as transsexuals undergoing hormonal or surgical procedures.

As at other prostitution hot spots, including east Hollywood and a section of Sunset Boulevard, the LAPD has used undercover officers and stings to try to scare off business.

“That area is blatant,” Garza said. “The seedy part of Hollywood would be the best way to describe it.”

Santa Monica Boulevard is on the south end of Hollywood, blocks south of the trendy clubs, restaurants, movie theaters and retail centers that are revitalizing once-struggling Hollywood and Sunset boulevards.

Santa Monica Boulevard is a mix of mini-malls, entertainment-related firms, restaurants and self-storage facilities.

Hollywood residents say that although the police presence is welcome, the hope for turning the area around lies in injecting vibrancy into the neighborhood through environmental improvements and economic development.

Toward that end, Los Angeles Councilman Tom LaBonge said city officials were exploring steps to pave the way for an economic revitalization while maintaining some of the area’s character.

“Any development on the south side of Santa Monica [should] be Hollywood-studio related -- offices, studio sound stages, industrial advertising -- anything complementary to Hollywood,” he said.

The boulevard is already dotted with numerous live theaters, which residents say has helped the neighborhood by attracting visitors.

LaBonge said he wanted to discourage prostitution through better lighting, street tree-planting and traffic management.

“I’m a very strong proponent of the ‘broken windows’ concept,” LaBonge said. “If it looks like no one cares about it, no one will care about it.”

Officials say there have been preliminary discussions with police and business owners about installing surveillance cameras along Santa Monica Boulevard to reduce crime. The devices are in place along Hollywood Boulevard and have resulted in scores of arrests.

Wehbe says the city needs to provide redevelopment money to lure restaurants, sidewalk cafes and shops.

Though that will take time, Wehbe said he has seen an improvement in the last decade with a reduction in the gang violence and drug-dealing that accompanied prostitution.

"[Prostitution] will never end, so we need to manage it,” Wehbe said. “The reason they are doing it is because there is no light on it.”