Like most schools in the Bronx, P.S. 6 in West Farms has a sign on its gates that reads, “Drug Free Zone.” Another sign on its bright red doors warns visitors and teachers about “No smoking in front of the building.”
Yet the school on the corner of East Tremont and Bryant Avenues may wish it could host another warning sign: “No prostitution on the corner.”
From the vantage point of the elevated playground at P.S. 6, children are able to look down on a large rock covered with small trees and weeds where school employees said local prostitutes have constructed a make-shift tent that includes sheets, mattresses and couch cushions.
At all hours of the day, women in low-cut shirts and tight jeans stand on Bryant Avenue, approaching passing cars, bending over drivers’ windows, and occasionally entering the car or escorting the driver inside the tent-like structure on the rock. All of this happens within view of the school playground perched above and across from the rock.
“It’s not healthy for kids to see that,” said Janilka Chevalier, the mother of a three-year-old pre-K student at P.S. 6. “Their brains are like sponges. What they see is what they learn.”
While local police insist that the situation has improved in recent years, prostitution remains a bitter fact of life for residents in the area, especially parents of the 750 pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students in P.S. 6.
“The 48th Precinct is number two in the Bronx for prostitution,” said T.K. Singleton of Bronx Community Solutions, a division of the Center for Court Innovation. According to data from the non-profit organization, which strives to keep prostitutes off the streets, the number of prostitution arrests in the past two years has increased by close to 25 percent. In 2008, police made 42 prostitution arrests near the school, accounting for 8.5 percent of all such arrests in the Bronx. A year later, that number shot up to 52 arrests, or nine percent of the borough’s total.
Police argue that the spike in arrests is a reflection of stronger law enforcement, not a rise in prostitution itself.
“It doesn’t mean it got worse,” said Police Officer Tony DiGiovanna, an officer at the 48th Precinct who has been cracking down on prostitution in the area for 17 years. “It could have been that we had more arrests, more officers out there.” Just 10 years ago, police were arresting at least 10 prostitutes in the area every month.
“Even if they took two months off, that’d be at least 100 a year,” said Officer Richard Marina.
The difference between then and now, according to DiGiovanna, “is night and day.” There used to be about 60 “regulars,” he said, who wore boots and barely-there clothing. Now the regulars have whittled down to about 12; half of them are trans-gender, and their wardrobe is more subtle.
On a recent afternoon, the only clue that a woman dressed in a tight red sweater and hip-hugging pants may be a sex worker was when she bent over the window of a passing car. A few hours later, police arrested six of the regulars, giving them tickets for loitering.
“It’s one of the hardest things to prove, unless you catch them in the act,” said one of the officers, who asked not to be identified. “But it’s usually the repeat offenders.”
The relative decrease of prostitution in the area over the past decade is a result of numerous trends. Police in the 48th Precinct credit undercover operations, in which police officers pretend to solicit a prostitute in order to make an arrest.
Eight years ago, the community also managed to shut down The Alps Hotel on nearby Boston Road, which had allowed sex workers to rent rooms for one-hour time slots. The Alps was replaced by a Howard Johnson, whose owner cooperates with police and Community Board 6 to prevent prostitutes and johns from securing brief trysts. The situation was improved even more four years ago, when an empty lot around the corner from the school became an apartment building. Now with fewer places to hide in the shadows, prostitutes in the area have just one place to go: the rock across from the school playground.
“If they built a building there, maybe they’d leave,” said Singleton, “but as long as that space is open and unmaintained, they’re going to stay. It’s a place of discretion.” Singleton compared the situation to graffiti, saying that no matter how many times authorities try to wash tags off of buildings, people will come back to do more damage. Similarly, she said, no matter how many times they try to cut down the trees on the rock to make it a less hospitable place to hide, or arrest the prostitutes who solicit customers there, “they will always go back to it in the end.”
Teachers at P.S. 6 fear that getting used to the site of prostitutes at such an impressionable age could have a lasting impact on young students.
“The kids notice them,” said Maria Lugo, who has been teaching at the school for 11 years. “And they might think it’s an easy way out, because they see them on the corner every day.”
“They’re always on the corner,” said Evelyn Vargas, the mother of a 10-year-old P.S. 6 student. “But you’ve just got to raise your kids well and teach them not to end up that way.”
Police said that in an ideal world, they would be able to stamp out the problem completely. But arresting prostitutes isn’t easy.
“We can’t pick them up for just standing on the street,” said Officer DiGiovanna. “They have to approach a number of vehicles.”
Even if they are arrested, keeping prostitutes away from the school is anything but guaranteed. According to statistics from Bronx Community Solutions, 79 percent of those arrested in 2009 received an average jail sentence of nine days. The rest were held for less than two days.
“A lot of times we bring them in, they get a slap on the wrist, and they’re back on the street the next day,” said DiGiovanna.
On some nights, the illegal activity travels to the steps of the school, where a school safety agent who requested anonymity said janitors sweep up condoms and needles before students arrive in the morning.
School officials feel that there is not much they can do to clean up the environment outside the school. And it shows. “This is the kind of school you send your kids to when you can’t get them into a better school,” said Bonnie Alexander, a mother of two P.S. 6 students. In its most recent progress report from the Department of Education, P.S. 6 earned an “F” for school environment.
“We schools are powerful in doing a lot of things, but there are some things in which we have no power,” said Myrna Rodriguez, the superintendent of School District 12. “The best thing we can do is make sure our kids learn well so that one day they can speak up in their communities to create change.”
The rest, she said, is up to other institutions, such as the police, community leaders and local business owners.