Tough Row To Ho

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

Art Casillas trolls East Van Buren Street for hookers four nights a week. Dressed in an untucked tee shirt and jeans, Casillas looks like he might be a Little League coach. Maybe that's why there's something initially unnerving about the ease with which he can rattle off a menu of sex acts.

"What do you want to know about?" he asks, his dark eyes scanning the sidewalks. "Blowjobs? Half-and-half? Straight sex? Crack whores or circuit girls?"

He's happy to help explain the rules and vocabulary of the prostitution game, carefully going over terms such as "bottom bitch," "wife-in-law," "gorilla pimp," "breaking bank" and "out of pocket." When you're steeped in the sex trade, there's no room for delicacy.

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.
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.
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.
Judging from the marks on their bodies, prostitutes often suffer beatings, but few call attention to themselves by alerting police.
Judging from the marks on their bodies, prostitutes often suffer beatings, but few call attention to themselves by alerting police.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

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Casillas is patient, and there's an inherent politeness about him. His demeanor with the girls of the night, carefully honed over 18 years on the streets, is masterful. When necessary, Casillas can be paternal, gently encouraging the women to talk about their lives and reveal their secrets. On other occasions, he braves their outbursts with a gleam in his eye, coolly deflecting both flirtations and insults without missing a beat.

Casillas knows every inch of East Van Buren and has cultivated his peripheral vision to a point where he can watch all four lanes of traffic, plus both sidewalks. He'll remember the face of a girl he met once a year ago and address her by name.

But Casillas sees most girls more frequently than that, much more frequently than he'd like, and it frustrates him. "Sometimes it's the same girls over and over," he laments. "There's one girl I've arrested over 40 times."

Sergeant Casillas knows enough about prostitution to be a stellar pimp, which is perhaps why he's so good at what he does. He is in charge of one of the Phoenix Police Department's six-member Neighborhood Enforcement Teams assigned to clean up prostitution along the city's most whore-laden thoroughfare.

And Casillas' squad has been making quite a dent in prostitution along East Van Buren since forming three years ago. Since it began, estimates Lieutenant Mike Parra of the department's Central City Precinct, the squad has made more than 2,500 arrests.

Made up of five men and one woman (Officers Brian Peters, Fernando Galvez, Dave Williams, Bradley Geis, Allan Villa and Melissa Keltgen), the unit was hand-selected by Casillas. He credits members' innate skill, drive and careful training with their success at busting hookers, johns and pimps. They routinely outperform other squads around town in prostitution arrests and received the Chief's Unit Award in 2002 for their work on Van Buren.

Yet the oldest profession is firmly entrenched on what four decades ago was Phoenix's destination street for tourists, and while Casillas is doing all he can to diminish its numbers, neighborhood associations and civic agencies are ready to try a new tactic in the whore wars. Noting the past grandeur of Van Buren's motel strip, they argue that new development can overcome the street's well-earned reputation. If the cops can't dislodge the hooker colony, they believe urban design can.


Van Buren is like a spurned lover -- adored and then discarded by the city it helped fashion from desert and dust. Back when the street was known as Route 60, it was the pride of Phoenix, a resort destination of glittery neon and sparkling swimming pools. From 1910 to the late 1960s, piano bars and dance halls gave it class and attitude. For more than half a century, if you came to Phoenix, Van Buren was the place to be, the main road traveled.

But more than that, it was a main artery into Phoenix. And in a city built on cars and sprawl, transportation meant everything. In 1969, Interstate 17 was completed just south of Van Buren. In addition to the new highway being faster and more modern, motels sprung up along the route. Old Route 60 just couldn't compete.

Van Buren diminished further as a mecca for travelers when I-10 was completed through the city in the '80s. Businesses closed, and the motels that stayed open became desperate for trade. Soon disrepair turned into ill repute. Crime rates soared, as robbery, drugs and, most noticeably, prostitution replaced tourism as the street's main commerce.

Today, in a city where 50 years ago is ancient history, almost no one remembers the souvenir stands and flashy auto courts the street was known for in the '50s. These days, East Van Buren only comes up in news reports about serial killers, serial rapists, pimps, juvenile prostitution, gunshots, drug dealing and big busts by police of unsuspecting johns.

But lately, there's been a new twinkle in East Van Buren's eye. Civic agencies and neighborhood associations intent on cleaning up the area are courting redevelopment. It's true that the police crackdowns have made Van Buren more salable for upgrades (crime rates are down, and, based on arrests, prostitution has been cut nearly in half). But a proposal before the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, backers argue, would do something that all the police raids in the world can't do alone -- bring new business into the area.

The community-based nonprofit agency Corazon de Oro (a behavioral health and housing service) wants to turn an abandoned prison on 32nd Street into a community and commerce center, complete with shopping, entertainment, housing and a Hispanic Cultural Center. It wouldn't be anywhere near the massive Disney-esque development that sports mogul Jerry Colangelo is proposing for the nearby downtown core, but it makes more sense. The proposal calls for rehabilitating a facility that is already present, and proponents argue that the project would bring the right kind of people into the area. It would even attract tourists, and not just the ones looking for lust.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

When the cops aren't looking, the girls go silent as they try to sneak sodas from the nearby Coke machine. Word has long since reached the streets that this particular machine doesn't require money for a can of pop.

Some of the hookers have been here for hours, waiting for the police to finish the sweep and load them into a wagon that will take them to Madison Street Jail. For a majority, it's a familiar routine. Despite the fact that the ladies will all be spending the night behind bars, it's more like summer camp or a slumber party here. In some ways, they are relieved to have the night off.

They braid each other's hair, discuss crotch-shaving patterns, and boast about particularly odd requests from tricks. One woman with long gangly legs and an enormous mouth tells of the time a date paid her $1,000 to shove jelly up his ass.

Everybody -- including the cops -- laughs.

But several of the women also complain to the officers about a particularly bad trick, a man who likes to slice girls' throats with a knife. The cops listen and take notes, concerned but not surprised by the meanness of the streets. It has been less than a year since six women were found dead in the Van Buren area, allegedly murdered by Cory Morris, a karaoke DJ who kept some of the rotting bodies in the trailer home where he lived.

Casillas says prostitutes are frequently the victims of crimes but rarely speak up. "If they are hurt or beaten, only a small percent will call police," he says. A lot of prostitutes are robbed, he says, "but feel that since they are out there committing a crime, we won't take them seriously."

Aside from the obvious, one of the crimes that hookers commit is "jacking" or "trick fucking," Casillas says. "[The prostitute] will be giving a blowjob and squeezing the trick's ass with one hand while removing the wallet with another. She'll have his money spent before he can get his pants on," Casillas explains, as he watches the girls demurely sipping pinched sodas.

As arrest forms are being filled out, Casillas thins a petite Hispanic girl from the herd, unlocks her cuffs and ushers her into a back room.

Her long, scraggly black hair falls in her face, and she leaves it there. It's draped over a huge knot on her forehead that she'd rather not explain.

Sitting defiantly on the floor, the woman, named Luisa, tells Casillas she prefers jacking wallets to sucking dick. One of the girls in the next room has tipped off police that Luisa is underage, not so much out of concern for her, but because she'd rather not have her on the track anymore. Luisa drinks, fights and steals, and that's bad for business.

In the tiny command post, even with the door closed, Casillas can hear the whores laughing in the next room while Luisa sulks and lies. He sits back against a desk and looks at the person on the floor carefully. Luisa is the type of girl he thinks of when people say prostitution is a victimless crime.

Tonight she's claimed to be 21, 19, 18, 16 and then 19 again. In reality she's not quite 14 years old. Casillas talks to her gently, questioning and teasing a little. Finally, a smile peaks out from underneath her mop of hair, and Luisa reluctantly gives him her mother's phone number.

Turns out Luisa is local, and her mother is called to come pick her up. Casillas says underage girls from out of state are sent back to their families on a Greyhound bus if they are forthcoming about their backgrounds with police. Whether such girls return to the game he can't say, but at least they're out of Phoenix for the time being.

With prostitution, it's not so much about eliminating the problem as it is shifting it somewhere else.


A subsequent sweep brings a particularly pathetic gaggle of hookers to Casillas' trailer. There's no laughter or jelly stories tonight. Instead, it's tears, whining and cries of "fuck you, you pigs!" As the officers take fingerprints and fill out forms, the rowdy bunch gets louder and meaner. For Casillas and his officers, the wagon to Madison can't come quickly enough.

Casillas looks tired, and holds his tongue. With bitches like these, sometimes it's hard to be cordial.

He surveys the women on the floor like a disappointed fisherman. Only six so far, which is either a sign that his officers are doing their jobs or a sign they're not. But Casillas chooses to be upbeat: He says the smaller catches are proof that the street is cleaner. That's what he has to believe to continue doing his job.

In the group this night, Casillas sees another familiar face. It is that of a girl nicknamed The Troll, who had just gotten out of jail the day before. This is the third time she's been arrested this week.

She groans a bit, squirming in her handcuffs as she tries to hollow out the most comfortable seat possible on the floor. It's obvious that her ass is killing her. The reason: Her pimp had flogged her backside with a shoe the night before, leaving her sore, stiff and unable to stand without assistance.

Her mother named her Sabrina, but The Troll is what she's called on the street, and the label is cruelly accurate. She's short and squat with thick, white thighs spattered with an archipelago of yellowing bruises (fading souvenirs of previous beatings). She tries to smooth down her skirt to cover the marks, but as she talks and wiggles, the garment gradually rides back up. Her hair is short and bushy and dyed a brassy orange, her complexion spotted with acne.

The Troll is 18, she says, and was turned out in Denver by a pimp she met online two years ago. She usually brings in about $500 a night, she claims, but Phoenix has been rough on her. All this jail time is seriously affecting her income, although right now she's worried more about the man who beat her last night than about another arrest. She breaks into tears as she confides to her neighbor on the floor that she's worried about where her "boyfriend" will sleep tonight without her money.

She screws up her face as she describes the circumstances of her arrest, maintaining she was only waiting for a cab to take her to the bus station and back home to Denver. "I can't believe I got arrested for trying to go to Colorado!" she wails.

As more whores are brought in, the blonde next to The Troll quits crying and acquires an attitude. "I've been drinking at a bar for the last four hours," she says, insisting that the only reason she got in the car with the man who busted her was because she had hoped he would take her somewhere to pee.

"What? A person can't straighten up and go to a bar now, can they? Fuck these police; they're fucking pigs! They don't try to help your shit, they just say, Stop ho-ing.'"

A TV crew is here filming a cable documentary, and the blonde shouts her frustration straight into the camera as the interviewer nervously grips her microphone.

"Just because a bitch carries a condom, then, oh, she's a ho. Do you know how many times I've been raped? If they have a condom, at least they use 'em."

The blonde, encouraged by her nascent television career, tries to cheer up The Troll, who is weeping next to her.

"All these square-ass bitches [she's apparently referring to women who will watch the documentary out there in TV land], they wouldn't last one day on the street, and they're out there smirking at us thinking we're dirty."

She adds angrily: "We're the ones who figured out we can make money from our pussies!"

The camera shuts off, and the crew thanks her for her comments. "Wait," she asks them. "Do I get paid for this?"

Next to her, The Troll is having a life-changing moment, a revelation Casillas says many in his custody feign. She remembers being a good girl once and swears she's ready to become one again. Enough with selling herself on the street and worrying about police and shoe-wielding pimps. She vows to Casillas and his squad that she will return to Colorado, go back to school and become a beautician. If only they could just forget about this arrest.

"I just want my life to be straightened up," The Troll sobs, wiping her nose with the back of her one uncuffed hand.

The blonde looks her up and down and states, "You a ho! It ain't never gonna be straightened up. Once a ho, always a ho. Get used to it."

Which sums up what is at the core of Casillas' frustration, what causes his otherwise sunny disposition to go dark now and again. No matter how many hookers he arrests, sometimes the same ones come back. And when they don't, others show up.

"It's nice making arrests, but it gets to be the same year after year," he says wearily. "You start thinking something must be wrong."

Part of what's wrong lies with the judicial system, he says. Members of the oldest profession are arrested on misdemeanor offenses that not even the courts take seriously.

A prostitute will be jailed for a night, then bailed out by her pimp the next day, often for a few hundred dollars. "That's nothing to them," Casillas says. "They can make that in one or two tricks."

By the time the court date for the first offense rolls around, he says, "we have arrested the same girl five, six, even eight times."

Often, judges will offer the girls a deal, rolling all the misdemeanor cases into one. If the prostitute agrees to plead guilty, she may be allowed to trade jail time for a 36-hour prostitution diversion program called Dignity House. Although some go through the program and leave the street, many skip class, skip town, and begin the process again in another city.

Likewise, hookers who are forced out of other cities come to Phoenix. It's the street's reputation that brings them to Van Buren.

So half a century later, the irony is that Van Buren's destination resorts of the '50s and early '60s still draw conventioneers and tourists. It's just that, nowadays, they only stay for an hour or so.

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.


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.

"But with the concentrated effort, instead of the once-a-year media events [of the past], there's been a huge change."

Before, it wasn't unusual to see 50 girls a night along the street, he says. "Now it's not unusual to see only one or two.

"I'm not discouraged by the fact that there's still prostitution," Hesselbrock says. "Whether it's beating you or you are beating it is the issue."

And if the cops just keep beating it until the light-rail line is up and running and the area is developed over the next several years, he and McIntosh say, Van Buren could once again become Phoenix's Great White Way.

E-mail susy.buchanan@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8440.

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