Tough Row To Ho

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

"We have a saying," an officer tells the man. "Come to Phoenix on vacation, leave on probation."

The decoys take an hour break, and Casillas' squad decides to wait in the room. The whole squad is together, and members are relaxed and easy, if a little bored. One of the officers gets antsy and decides to take a walk. Soon he's back, a big smile on his face, with a question: "There are two crackheads up there that want to sell me some rock. What do you want to do?"

The cops look at each other, then at their watches, and communally shrug. "Why not?" is the consensus. The officer slips back out of the room and, within minutes, there's a knock at the door. A heavyset woman with wild eyes and jeans two sizes too small enters and is promptly arrested. In addition to the crack, she'd offered the officer a $20 blowjob.

Casillas (right) thinks of juveniles like Luisa (left) when people say prostitution is a victimless crime.
Casillas (right) thinks of juveniles like Luisa (left) when people say prostitution is a victimless crime.
For some, a night in jail means a break from the daily grind on the street.
For some, a night in jail means a break from the daily grind on the street.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

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Turns out getting arrested is as familiar a routine for the woman as it is for the cops. "Hey, we know you," an officer says. "It's Michelle, right?"

Michelle quickly manages a wave before her hands are cuffed behind her back.

"What did I arrest you for, Michelle?" Casillas asks cordially. Michelle rolls her wild eyes back in their sockets, then fixes them on Casillas. "Duhhh," she responds in a breathy drawl.

"Got any crack on you?" the officer asks. "Yes sir," she answers.

As he extracts a chewing-gum-size rock and two blackened pipes from her breast pocket, Michelle confesses her true intentions. "I was gonna rob him," she offers, nodding toward the cop who brought her in. "The same way we usually do. I don't really date anymore, just jack."

"Hey, Michelle, when were you born?" asks another cop, eyeing the horoscope section of the daily paper.

"Aries," she sighs.

"Aries," he reads. "Enthusiasm marks your professional and personal life. Tonight, get physical!"

The officer taking down her information continues. "Where are you working at?" he asks her.

She smirks and cocks her head. "Oh, you got some jokes tonight."


Mercedes Robles has heard all the talk about how the cops are cleaning up East Van Buren, and she's not buying it as any solution to the district's problems. The hardboiled community activist and 20-year school board member from the Wilson neighborhood has lived near the boulevard of whores all her life. Experience has taught her that this kind of attention from City Hall comes and goes, whereas prostitution has come and stayed.

"[The police] have their little sweeps," she says dismissively, "but it's a Band-Aid approach when we need a more surgical approach."

Robles would like Maricopa County to give her and the nonprofit agency Corazon de Oro she works for permission to operate.

Civic leaders and urban-planning experts agree that the area is poised for revival. They say a proposal like Corazon de Oro's could rapidly change the face of the blighted area. It could be an anchor that would affect future development along Van Buren.

Those behind the proposal are committed. Corazon de Oro says it is working with Butler Housing Company, and has secured pre-development financing from the Bank of America. Its plan is supported by the Wilson Neighborhood Community Development Corporation.

The $30 million project that Corazon de Oro ("Heart of Gold" in Spanish) is proposing for the 13.6-acre prison site would include:

• A community gathering space, including a school, church and retail shops.

• A recreation and community center that merges with the play area of adjacent Wilson Elementary School.

• A plaza setting, with a park, landscaped grounds, flowers and fountains.

• Multi-family affordable housing.

• Coordinated activities between retail in the plaza area and the 2,650-seat Celebrity Theatre nearby.

The organization has asked the county to lease the prison site to it for three years at a rate of a dollar for each of the first two years. At the end of the third year, Corazon de Oro would pay the county the current assessed price of the land: $2.63 million. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to take up the matter this month.

The idea to reclaim the women's prison site as a community, commercial and cultural center came to Robles from her mother. It was November 1999, and a newspaper article had reported that the Arizona Department of Corrections had plans to vacate the county-owned facility, which had been turned into a corrections facility from the old Highway House Inn.

Robles' mother suggested that it was time the site be used to give something back to the neighborhood.

"It was immediately apparent," she says, "that the greatest and highest good for the property would be its return to community use through economic development activities and the development of the residential area immediately adjacent to the property, namely the Wilson School community."

Replacing streetwalkers with street commerce will rejuvenate the neighborhood, she asserts. "It's [an] expensive, long-range-type plan," she admits, "but it's going to be the most effective."


Another night, another sweep, and a dozen whores find themselves off the street and in custody. Their laughter bounces off the walls as they sit handcuffed together on the floor at Casillas' command post, a trailer hidden just off the beaten track.

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