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For decades, sex has been sold on the seedy motel strip of Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. Police and other experts doubt that prostitution can ever be stamped out there. But now one organized neighborhood group is . . . . : Just Saying No

July 07, 1994|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sauntering across the dirty sidewalk, the woman with the short skirt and purple spike-heeled pumps approached a waiting car. She leaned into the open window, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, her skirt twitching toward the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway.

She slipped into the passenger seat, apparently unaware of the glaring disapproval of two people watching a few feet away. They made her take notice.

Pat Andrews marched up to the car and wrote down the license number on her clipboard while Dan Cangro went to the driver's side. "Did you know most hookers around Long Beach have AIDS?"

Although Cangro exaggerated, his remark had the desired effect. The woman in the purple heels got out of the car and flounced away. Cangro smiled with satisfaction.

One more streetwalker and a potential customer had been notified that they will no longer be accepted as an inevitable piece of the Long Beach terrain.

For decades, prostitutes have been working along this busy 13-block corridor of Pacific Coast Highway. It is an area marked by dilapidated motels, fast-food joints and small, dark bars on the city's west side.

Streets bear signs of their commerce. Condoms sprout like weeds from gutters and cracks in the sidewalk. Nearby residents are confronted with open sex acts being performed in cars parked a few feet from their front doors.

But the live-and-let-live attitude of most residents is on its way out.

Neighbors have organized themselves, staging anti-prostitution marches and setting up citizen foot patrols to confront the hookers. They've met with a range of public officials, from police officers on the beat to City Council members and state politicians, to lobby for more patrols and new laws against the shadowy commerce.

"I've been in special investigations for 15 years," said Lt. Richard Jones of the police department's vice unit, "and I don't think I've ever seen a bigger groundswell against prostitution."

Andrews and Cangro, who live near the highway, have been two of the most active agents of that groundswell, enlisting members of their Wrigley Neighborhood Assn. The Wrigley area includes the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between the Los Angeles River and Atlantic Avenue that is considered the city's most open prostitution market.

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Members of the association show up in court en masse during the arraignment of prostitutes and customers to serve notice that they want harsh sentences. The neatly dressed citizens wear homemade buttons with the words "hookers, johns" crossed out by the international "no" sign.

The neighborhood association, which has 205 members, has pressured state legislators to include the city in a trial program, patterned after drug forfeiture laws, that allows authorities to seize cars owned by the prostitutes' clients in certain circumstances. The group met with City Councilwoman Doris Topsy-Elvord, who then suggested the city put up signs along major streets warning that soliciting sex for cash is a crime. The association helped persuade The Long Beach Press-Telegram to begin publishing names of convicted johns. The group also has suggested the city paint all PCH curbs in the area red to keep customers from stopping--a suggestion that police and staff said was not feasible for such a busy commercial strip.

In short, the association's prostitution abatement committee, led by Andrews and Cangro, will try just about anything to rid the highway of hookers.

"I want to drive them all out of this neighborhood," said Andrews, 51, office manager for a moving and storage organization. "I am not going to let them win."

Law enforcement officials say they have little hope, however, that these tactics will actually rid the highway area of hookers. The practice is too entrenched, police and prosecutors say. Prostitutes and their customers keep returning to the area, knowing they can find one another in front of the highway's dilapidated motels.

"They were picking up prostitutes on PCH when I was here (as a deputy prosecutor) in 1960," said City Prosecutor John A. Vander Lans. "It hasn't really changed."

When asked what would work to rid the area of hookers, Vander Lans says: "Nothing."

Undaunted by such official pessimism, the Wrigley team patrols Pacific Coast Highway about one weekend evening a month, looking for hookers to chase off the streets.

They call their program "Adopt-a-Hooker," a helpful-sounding title that masks a strategy of systematic harassment.

The group spots a woman believed to be a prostitute, then follows her. If a car stops for her, they take pictures of the car, write down the license number and, if possible, confront the driver. Both the woman and potential customer are told they will be turned in to police.

While there have been occasional ugly confrontations, members of the patrol say they don't fear these women and their customers. Most streetwalkers, Cangro says, are easily intimidated.

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