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WESTSIDE / Cover Story : Police, Neighbors Organize to Crack Down on Prostitution in Gritty Neighborhood, but Official Urges Legaization Instead.

July 21, 1994|SCOTT COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

About 10 on a recent weeknight, a husky young man wearing a black miniskirt, high heels and heavy makeup was waiting to cross Santa Monica Boulevard at Formosa Avenue in West Hollywood.

The man wheeled around and caught a glimpse of Deputy Dennis Salazar, who had emerged from a Sheriff's Department patrol car in a nearby restaurant parking lot. Salazar motioned him over. The man bowed his head and slowly approached.

"Just want to ask you a few questions," Salazar said. The man nodded. He gave his name as Jessica, said he was 19 years old and that he had recently moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco.

Salazar asked him if he was working as a prostitute.

"No, uh-uh," he replied. After catching Salazar's skeptical look, he shifted his weight from heel to heel and corrected himself. "Well, I have in the past. But not tonight."

It was a typical encounter between police and a transvestite on the east end of West Hollywood, where angry residents say prostitution has spun out of control. Almost every night, up to two or three dozen young men dressed in fishnet stockings and stiletto pumps gather in the neighborhood around Santa Monica Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, where their nightly promenade often snarls traffic.

Up and down a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard between Fairfax and La Brea avenues, self-described drag queens such as Jessica share turf with shirtless young men who hustle on corners and at bus stops. Meanwhile, four blocks to the north, female prostitutes walking Sunset Boulevard do a bustling trade with motorists who stop alongside streets.

The area has been a haven for prostitution for years, according to police. In 1991, the city designated the area a prostitution abatement zone, providing deputies with additional authority to arrest repeat offenders.

But homeowners and tenants are growing increasingly weary of the problem. They complain of finding used condoms and syringes in their driveways and discovering prostitutes and johns having sex in bushes and alleys. Citing fears about the impact on families and businesses, as well as the possible spread of AIDS, east side residents have spurred West Hollywood officials to attack this aspect of the sex industry more aggressively than ever.

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A citizens' group recently led a march to "take back the streets" from prostitutes and drug dealers. The Sheriff's Department is conducting sting operations aimed at cracking down on repeat offenders. This month, the city is convening a multi-agency task force to examine the issue and deliver practical recommendations.

"There's a quality of life issue here. A lot of residents are uncomfortable bringing (guests) to their homes," said Nancy Greenstein, West Hollywood public safety coordinator. "In terms of the business community, prostitution discourages the mainstream customer. People just don't feel safe, even though they may in fact be safe."

But the war on prostitution has become controversial in West Hollywood, a historically liberal enclave and the spiritual center of the Los Angeles area's gay community.

Critics of the city's anti-vice efforts say that any measures designed to curb prostitution are doomed.

And at least one government official has suggested, over the outraged objections of homeowners, that the east side be turned into an adult entertainment zone in which prostitution would be licensed and regulated.

The only consensus so far is that finding a solution will not be easy.

Experts say that prostitutes congregate on the east side of West Hollywood because of the city's reputation as a gay mecca and the neighborhood's relatively depressed economic status.

"The east side of the city has been a standard place for prostitution for both men and women for years," said Jim Gordon, a West Hollywood psychotherapist who has studied the prostitution problem. "The visibility now is more because of the transvestite parades. It's hard to get that image changed."

"Even though West Hollywood has been at the forefront of a lot of social issues, this isn't one the city is prepared to tackle," said Ruth Williams, a community activist who has lived in the area since 1950. "It's just gotten so out of hand."

In recent years, Williams says, she has frequently found used condoms on the streets and sidewalks outside her home. She has complained to the police about prostitutes and johns committing drug crimes and thefts in the neighborhood. But the final straw for her came last year, when a neighbor had two cars stolen and a garage set on fire, presumably by street hustlers.

"My son said, 'I think it's time to move.' But I said, 'No, it's time to fight,' " Williams said. "Where can you go in this city where you don't have some problem?"

Williams founded the Alliance of Citizens for the East Side, a grass-roots group dedicated to cleaning up the neighborhood. Earlier this month, several dozen members and neighbors, escorted by sheriff's deputies, marched down Santa Monica Boulevard to protest prostitution and other vice.

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