The crowd was small but energetic and ready to give an earful to city officials. They’d been struggling for months to draw attention to a big problem in a small section of their West Adams neighborhood.
An onslaught of prostitutes, pimps and johns had turned their quiet network of side streets into an urban combat zone.
Fed-up neighbors had pushed for the meeting at the LAPD’s Southwest Division last month. It was a collegial affair.
Police officers and city officials opened with facts about shrinking budgets, criminal networks, law enforcement’s balancing act.
Residents submitted questions on index cards, then segued into indignant complaints.
They wanted simple things, like lights and signs and a telephone number an 80-year-old woman can call when she’s rousted from sleep by a naked prostitute hosing off on the front porch and a foul-mouthed pimp yelling orders from the sidewalk.
And they wanted impossible things — in a city racked by budget cuts — like a police car stationed day and night near the corner of 29th Street and Hobart Boulevard.
The neighborhood around them at Western Avenue and Adams Boulevard might be blighted, but they are not about to cede to urban ills their graceful streets of century-old bungalows, well-tended lawns and curbside jacarandas and towering palms.
“We’ve got pimps beating up women and laughing about it! In our frontyards!” one woman complained. This, in a neighborhood where the block club calls itself proudly the Nosy Eye.
“We go caroling every Christmas, and we have a block party every August,” Nosy Eye president Tracey Hart told me. “We have T-shirts, fundraisers, bake sales.”
And when you have to shoo children away from the cupcake table while you sweep up discarded sex paraphernalia, then something has gone very wrong.
As I listened to their stories, I tried to imagine what I would do if their problems showed up on my cul de sac:
If my teenage daughter couldn’t walk to school without being propositioned by men, cruising for sex at 7 a.m.
If I found used condoms on my lawn when I went out to tend my flowers.
If I were awakened at 3 a.m. by the cries of prostitutes being beaten.
If I couldn’t pull into my driveway at night because a belligerent pimp had it blocked with his car.
It’s not just the danger or inconvenience, it’s the blatant disrespect that bothers them. It’s the outraged voice of an elderly woman, who rarely ventures out anymore.
“One of my neighbors said someone approached him and said he could have sex for $5,” she said. “You can’t buy a Big Mac for $5. And they’re selling sex on the streets for that.”
It’s nothing police haven’t heard. Larded with liquor stores and cheap hotels, Western Avenue has long been a hub for prostitution, a money-making spot for locals and a standard stop on the circuit for statewide trafficking rings.
But something has happened to shift the dynamic. The girls are younger, the pimps more aggressive, the trafficking rings more organized. “Gangs have discovered,” LAPD Vice Lt. Andre Dawson said, “that it’s more lucrative to sell the girls than it is to sell drugs.”
Things got busier on Hobart recently when a city crackdown along Western forced a nearby motel to stop renting rooms by the hour. “Now they do it in their cars, on our block,” said Hart.
Both police and residents agree that it’s not just the prostitutes they should target. Mass arrests don’t solve the problem. Suspected pimps are being investigated, officers are being trained in the fine points of making “loitering” arrests and police have reached out to churches and counselors for help getting women off the streets.
At the meeting, vice Det. Hector Sanchez shared news of a campaign in some divisions to target would-be customers. Using license plate numbers, letters will be sent out with a warning like this:
Your car has been seen in a high prostitution area. Can you help us get information so we can improve the area?
“If their significant other opens the mail,” Sanchez said, “somebody will have some explaining to do.”
That was encouraging to residents, who want officers to be creative. There’s been a sense that tough tactics like that are reserved for suburban areas, “where prostitutes don’t belong,” one woman said. “They just throw up their hands down here, like it’s just a part of living in South Los Angeles.”
Residents here are determined to fight that perception. They’re prepared to keep fighting back. They sit out on their porches at night with flashlights, shining them into cars that slow down. They use their cellphone cameras to snap pictures and email them to police officers. They started a Twitter account to tally the action in real time. And, when need be, they negotiate on their own, asking streetwalkers to tone it down, move on.
And that encourages officers. Said LAPD Capt. Vito N. Palazzolo, commanding officer in Southwest Division, “I have a neighborhood that’s willing to get involved, and that’s a powerful tool. That’s huge.”
I’ve visited the neighborhood several times in the four weeks since the community met, and it seems quiet to this stranger. On Saturday, just before midnight, I cruised the side streets a few times, then realized a police car was tailing me. Reporting done; I headed home.
It’s gotten better, residents told me.
“We see police patrolling more now,” said Heather Ferguson, an art director who moved there with her husband, David Chiu, 10 years ago. “Instead of five or six prostitutes every night, its maybe two or three girls, three or four times a week.” The couple got so desperate recently, they installed their own floodlights.
Hart, the block club president, said “We’re on a first name basis now with everybody at the police station.”
And although they’re grateful for police attention, some are disappointed the city hasn’t done more to meet them halfway, with brighter lights, stepped-up trimming of trees and shrubs and signs warning lawbreakers away.
“Why can’t they put posters up on the empty lot on the corner: YOU ARE BEING WATCHED! With a big eye and a phone number?” one woman asked. “Can we have a visual, some kind of deterrent, to make it uncomfortable for people to stop?”
That doesn’t seem like much to ask, for a community that’s working so hard.
It’s clear this group is claiming its turf.
“I love my house,” she said. “I love my neighbors. But I would never have moved here if it was like this back then.”
And I’m betting the prostitutes will leave before she does.