At the height of the dinner hour, it is eerily still inside the restaurant on Western Avenue near Rosecrans Avenue.
Each table is meticulously set: Place mats, paper napkins and silverware are precisely in place. Cardboard placards advertise dinner specials. Menus are at the ready.
But not a customer is in sight. Until closing, at around 11 p.m., not one patron walks in for a sit-down dinner, although a few stop by to pick up orders or phone them in for delivery.
Outside, at the brightly lit bars and motels nearby, the parking lots are full and the ebb and flow of customers continues until the early morning hours.
The owner of the restaurant, who asked that his name not be used, says prostitution in the neighborhood is driving his customers away.
"It's not good for business," he said. "Sometimes customers come in, they see the girls and they leave. They never come back."
Other merchants in the area, especially those whose businesses are open only during the day, say they have reached a peaceful but uneasy coexistence with the activities on the street.
Nonetheless, many report that prostitutes sometimes aggressively proposition customers attempting to enter the small shops along the street, said Gardena Police Lt. Gary Cherry. The prostitution problem on Western Avenue is centered around an area known as the Rosecrans Corridor, a jagged, milelong finger of unincorporated county land that extends along Rosecrans Avenue into the city of Gardena, from Crenshaw Boulevard to just east of Western.
One merchant, who requested anonymity, said he has survived by building a loyal clientele that has kept his business afloat for 30 years.
'We get along in this neighborhood," he said. "(Prostitution) is a part of life here."
But law enforcement officials hope to curtail it.
The Gardena Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department separately conducted raids on Western Avenue during a single week in August, making a combined total of 125 arrests.
In an Aug. 19 sweep by the Sheriff's Department, 59 men were arrested and charged with soliciting, two women were arrested on prostitution charges, and a man and woman were charged with interfering with police operations, said Lt. Dennis Slocumb. The sheriff's sweep was conducted around 146th Street and Western Avenue, he said.
Five days later, on Aug. 24, Gardena police conducted a sweep at 148th Street and Western. Sixty-two men were arrested and charged with soliciting prostitution, said Gardena Sgt. Robert Watts. In a separate sweep on Vermont Avenue on Aug. 25, Gardena police arrested 21 more men who were charged with soliciting, he said.
In both the police and sheriff's operations, undercover female officers posing as prostitutes stood along Western Avenue, where potential customers driving by pulled over to the curb to solicit sex, law enforcement officials said. The men were later cited on suspicion of soliciting prostitution, booked and released.
Both stings began during broad daylight, around noon, police and sheriff's deputies said.
Since then, the number of prostitutes on the street has decreased somewhat, said merchants whose complaints helped trigger the sweeps.
Still, law enforcement officials and business owners predict that the lull will be temporary.
"I've seen them take women and drug dealers off the street, but they come right back," said a longtime merchant who asked to be identified only as Brian. "You turn into a cynic."
Jerry Kitahama, whose family has owned the Wayside Nursery near Rosecrans Avenue since 1934, said police efforts have helped to lessen the problem in recent years, but he is pessimistic that it will be eradicated.
"No matter what they do, they'll never get rid of it," said Kitahama, whose nursery falls within Gardena city limits.
'A Losing Battle'
Gardena Sgt. Watts concurs. "The problem is, in my opinion, it's a losing battle," Watts said. "It doesn't have a long-term effect, primarily because there are a whole lot of customers out there."
Geography also plays a part in Western Avenue's prostitution problem, according to city officials, police and business owners.
Some business owners in the unincorporated county area complained that they rarely see sheriff's deputies on patrol. In addition, some said, response to emergencies might be swifter from the Gardena police, headquartered at the Gardena Civic Center less than two miles away, than from the Lennox Sheriff's Station, about four miles away.
Lt. Ron Herbst of the Lennox Sheriff's Station said at least one car patrols the unincorporated county area west of Gardena, including the Rosecrans Corridor, in the early morning hours. During the evenings, two or three cars patrol the area, he said. In addition, there may be unmarked vice or gang-unit cars in the area.
"Unfortunately, unless there's a specific call, it may appear no one's around," Herbst said. "But they're definitely there, and they're busy."