Tough Row To Ho

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

Unless Casillas and his cops get hold of them in the city's effort to scare away johns from the Boulevard of Blowjobs. Nobody's completely sure how well all the enforcement is working, except that far fewer prostitutes seem to be on the streets compared to before Casillas' squad got there.

And that, of course, is evidence enough for Casillas and neighborhood boosters to see the glass as half full.

A woman is arrested for soliciting sex on Van Buren.
A woman is arrested for soliciting sex on Van Buren.
Prostitutes are arrested and then processed in a mobile command post off East Van Buren's beaten track.
Prostitutes are arrested and then processed in a mobile command post off East Van Buren's beaten track.


Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

Van Buren is a special place for John McIntosh. As an architect and member of Arizona State University's Joint Urban Development Project, McIntosh has been drawing up plans for Van Buren since the late '90s.

Plus, he's been dreaming about the area since he was a kid; his parents used to vacation in air-conditioned luxury along Van Buren back in its heyday.

"Now the signage is decrepit and the neon lights are dim, but Van Buren was once the Great White Way of Phoenix," he says. "It was the strip."

But he adds somberly, "Then, almost overnight, it died."

Once the change took place, the street itself came to look like the makeup-smeared face of a prostitute coming out of one of East Van Buren's neon palaces turned hourly motels.

"It took 30 years to drive it into the ground," says McIntosh. "Van Buren hit bottom 10 years ago."

But the apparent success of the police at curbing prostitution in the district is one reason to believe the street may be clawing its way back to economic viability.

There are others. One, McIntosh says, is the street's vast inventory of empty space.

"For an area so close to the center of the sixth-largest city in the United States, it's astounding how much vacant land there is," McIntosh says. And there's more coming, he notes, when rental-car lots near Van Buren move onto Sky Harbor Airport property in 2005.

Another asset is Van Buren's proximity to the light-rail line scheduled to begin operation in 2006. To hear McIntosh describe it, it's almost an urban planner's wet dream, because restaurateurs, housing developers and other business people will want to build there to capitalize on the rail line.

"The vacant land is there, the transportation will be there," McIntosh gushes. "Van Buren's going to become the coolest place in town to live."

He predicts, "The day that first train rolls, you'll start seeing construction cranes coming out of the ground along Van Buren."

Even if prostitution remains, it will be only a small barrier to Van Buren's growth, McIntosh says.

"It kind of waxes and wanes," he says of the skin trade. "When police are present, it blows up to McDowell or over to Buckeye. When police presence goes down, it blows back to Van Buren."

McIntosh isn't worried because he thinks development will gentrify the area and force most of the prostitutes out, even if police presence dissipates eventually.

"The way to keep it down permanently is to promote street life of another type," he says. Along with the prosperity that the light-rail line will bring, he says, a project like Corazon de Oro's would be ideal for the district.

But a quick-fix solution would be to bring back curbside parking, which Van Buren lost in the '90s. In that event, the four-lane street would be reduced to two lanes, with parked cars blocking views of prostitutes on the sidewalks, as well as making pulling over for a negotiation and a pickup virtually impossible.

It was a cop, he says, who gave him the idea.

Some neighborhood activists believe that if the county gives Corazon de Oro the green light, a big reason will be that supervisors have seen the number of prostitutes on Van Buren diminish because of the continual sweeps by Casillas and his squad.

Don Hesselbrock, a member of the East Van Buren Civic Association's Crime Prevention and Reduction Committee, is thrilled with the squad's success. Hesselbrock meets with police, including Casillas, every two months to pinpoint locations that are particularly in need of police attention.

Hesselbrock and the civic association want to celebrate the flavor of the '50s that still prevails on Van Buren by renovating structurally sound existing motels. They want the street's kitschy character, neon signs and all, to stay.

A detailed series of design plans for the area, developed by the association in conjunction with ASU, shows streets with ornamental landscaping, storefronts with lofts above and little stick-figure families strolling the streets. While other areas of the city have been redeveloped or improved, the association argues, Van Buren has been left behind. It's time to remedy that, members say.

Despite the metro area's freeway system, Van Buren is still a convenient corridor between Phoenix, Sky Harbor and Tempe, the civic association argues. The street was once known as the Gateway to Phoenix, and the association wants the title restored. Members believe that the wider sidewalks and narrower streets that McIntosh suggests are part of the solution to Van Buren's problems.

But they also stress that the pimps and ho's must be bitch-slapped out of the area.

"People say you can never stop it," Hesselbrock says of Van Buren's cottage industry. "[They say] it's always been this way.

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