Tough Row To Ho

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.

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.

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Susy Buchanan