Tough Row To Ho

Can the city's seediest street ever be cleaned up, much less gentrified?

Now all the community activists have to do is convince the Board of Supervisors that the county should take a chance on the city's sleaziest street and first lease and then sell the property to them. If that happens, Corazon de Oro says, the project could be a "heart of gold" for the area. The East Van Buren district would be known as something other than the hooker capital of Arizona.


A few blocks from the abandoned prison site, the battle against prostitution rages. Mike works the same hours the hookers do. As night watchman at the Travelodge, he spends his evenings on the front lines in a glassed-off living room trying to watch football and Sylvester Stallone movies, but mostly chasing whores and johns out of the parking lot with his flashlight.

Officer Melissa Keltgen is one of the stars of a Phoenix Police Department squad assigned to bust prostitutes on Van Buren.
Officer Melissa Keltgen is one of the stars of a Phoenix Police Department squad assigned to bust prostitutes on Van Buren.
After a sweep, Sergeant Art Casillas loads prostitutes into a wagon headed for Madison Street Jail.
After a sweep, Sergeant Art Casillas loads prostitutes into a wagon headed for Madison Street Jail.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

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He's been at the motel for five months, and despite (or perhaps because of) the sinning outside his window, he says it's the best job he's ever had.

Mike proudly announces that he knows the faces of most of the girls on the street outside. "There's China, Cutie, Nina, Liz," he says, counting them off on his fingers. Sometimes they'll stop and chat with him while he's outside smoking, or their pimps will ask him for a plastic cup so that they can raid the motel's ice machine.

The hotel's lobby is like an inverted vice aquarium, with the fish on the outside. As Saturday night blurs into Sunday morning, the corner of 29th Street and Van Buren is teeming with whores who are spilling from the sidewalk into the street, their legs silhouetted in the glaring headlights. If their numbers have been reduced by the cops' diligent action, it's hard to glean on this night.

The Travelodge is across the street from the Blue Moon, an all-nude bar, and in sight of the Copa, a by-the-hour motel and notorious drug den. The Travelodge is the only legitimate motel on the block, and the parking lot Mike zealously protects is spattered with the rented sedans of senior citizens who sleep maybe not-so-soundly in their $54-a-night rooms.

Mike grips his flashlight angrily as a car cuts through the parking lot. Springing off the couch with teeth gritted, he aims the flickering beam of his light into the driver's window. The motorist ignores him, transfixed by the spectacle of a statuesque blonde arching her back and exposing her breasts. She stops traffic along Van Buren for a few moments until somebody in a Lexus summons her over and she hops in.

Show over for now, the invading car moves along, and Mike holsters the flashlight and hitches up his pants.

"These girls make a lot of money. China's got a white Cadillac," he says. "And she's got three condos. Three! And she just came back from a trip to Hawaii!"

Mike chooses to believe even the most outrageous claims of the girls he watches from night to night. It doesn't cross his mind that a hooker might lie. He blushes when he talks about some of them, admitting that he's got a crush on one or two, even though he doesn't approve of what they do.

Casillas is on the street as well, in an unmarked car watching a female cop on the corner. "Before my squad started, there were 35 to 45 girls out there every night. It was like Hollywood," he says, as the curvaceous cop paces back and forth. She's drawing a lot of attention as cars slow and heads turn, but no takers yet. Police decoys are often prettier than the real thing, and the undercover officers out tonight look a little too clean for Van Buren.

The setup is typical of TV cop shows and movies. The decoy is wired, and her conversations are monitored. The john won't get laid; he'll get taken into custody when she takes the decoy back to a motel room.

This time, the john is a middle-aged balding black man in town for a convention, dressed in preppie clothing and wire-frame glasses. When he gets a glimpse of the men waiting inside the room, he gasps and tries to step back out, but they grab his arms. His fearful expression turns to one of shame, as he realizes he's not about to get jumped, but arrested.

"Any weapons?" an officer asks, as he and his colleagues pat the man down. The perp shakes his head no.

They turn his pockets out and remove his wallet, tossing it on one of the beds while an officer goes through its contents, which include $265 in cash. Inside the room with his squad members by now, Casillas reads the paper while the officers go through their routine.

"How much trouble am I in?" the john manages to ask, pursing his lips.

"It's a misdemeanor offense," they tell him. "You'll go see a judge and can bond out tomorrow if you don't have any warrants."

"Tomorrow?" he asks incredulously.

If convicted, the penalty is the same as it is for the girls: 15 days in the slammer. Johns are rarely arrested, but when they are, Casillas says optimistically, they think twice about picking up a hooker again.

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