Before 19-year-old Alex Nash could drop his pants, a motion detector flooded what had been a dark, empty driveway with light.
Cursing under his breath, Nash snatched up his bundle of clothes and ducked into another garage. With no lights to deter him, Nash dressed quickly, keeping still whenever a car drove by. He swapped his baggy trousers for black tights and inflated two condoms before jamming them down his shirt.
“I’m a hot mess,” Nash said, brushing out the bangs on his disheveled wig. “Fix my boobies, will you?”
Nash is a prostitute who works the neighborhoods of Fordham and Kingsbridge in the Bronx. The tall, slender teen isn’t a transvestite, but he dresses in drag to grab the attention of potential clients who come to the area in search of sex.
“I go to Fordham because the money is easy,” said Nash, a California native who lives with a cousin in Queens. “You can always find clients there.”
He spends most of his time in the Village with his friends, a mixed group of transvestites and gay teenagers. Many of them are sex workers. In the evening, they roam around Christopher Street, but at midnight, they take a 40-minute train ride to Fordham to “get some coin,” a term they use to refer to payment for sexual services.
According to Nash, it sometimes takes hours to pick up customers, who usually drive by in cars. But on that particular night, he stood on the intersection of 192nd and Davidson for barely two minutes before a man sidled up to him to negotiate a night in a motel. They left together.
For sex workers such as Nash, who wants to become a nursing assistant, prostitution in Fordham is a way to make a quick buck. “The money is so good here,” said Nash, who charges about $100-150 for an hour of sex. “It’s better than working in a job.”
“Prostitutes and raccoons”
Although prostitution has long been a problem in Fordham, with Jerome Avenue being the epicenter of the freelance sex trade in the Bronx, it’s only starting to become an issue in the surrounding residential area. But because most of the residences around Kingsbridge Heights and Fordham Manor in the West 190s are single-family houses, it’s not easy for residents to just pack up and leave as they would if they lived in rented apartments.
The 52nd Precinct, which covers Kingsbridge and Fordham, has an estimated crime rate of just 2.5 percent in the past two years, but according to residents such as Magdalena Roble, it seems higher. “I’ve been living here for 30 years, and it’s never been like this,” said Roble, a housewife.
For a handful of Fordham residents, the increasing prevalence of prostitution in the residential areas of the neighborhood has become so common that they treat it as another annoyance—just like household pests.
“Our biggest problems here are prostitutes and raccoons,” said Ben Tetteyfio of Grand Avenue, who started padlocking his gate at night after one of his tenants saw a prostitute leaving with a client. “Hookers have sex at the back of the house. They just enter the gate and do their business in the backyard.”
“It can’t be helped,” Tetteyfio said. “They leave condoms behind, so I have to sweep them up after.”
Adeline Walker-Santiago, vice president of Community Board 7, said the precinct’s crime statistics did not reflect the darkening mood of the Kingsbridge and Fordham communities, which are composed primarily of Bengali and Hispanic immigrants.
“Those areas have been hit the hardest in the past few years,” said Walker-Santiago, who has been a community volunteer advocate for 13 years. “We used to have gangs here in the ‘70s, and they’re coming back. We’ve had a rash of recent crimes, including a man some thugs beat to death, plus a 4-year-old who was shot. It’s not the prostitutes who are responsible for them, but their presence is a measure of what’s happening to the neighborhood.”
Walker-Santiago said the Fordham streetwalkers came from as far as Brooklyn and Queens, but a number of them are locals. “Some homeowners didn’t even know their tenants are the same ones they see on the streets,” she said. “Prostitutes come because they know they can get away with it. Nothing’s being done to shoo them away.”
But police officers from the 52nd Precinct said they were working on bringing down the number of prostitutes in the area, although they would not provide the official number of prostitution-related arrests. “We patrol the streets and do decoy arrests,” said Officer John Rivera. “We’re working on it.”
However, Abdur Rahman Khan, 57, said the NYPD’s efforts to eradicate prostitution and crime were insufficient. “From midnight until 5 a.m., a minimum of 10 to 15 prostitutes—men and women—are out in the street outside my home,” said Khan, who lives on Davidson Avenue.
“Where there are prostitutes, there are pimps and drug dealers,” said Khan, the imam of the Bronx Muslim Center. “This area is dangerous.”
A dream house turned into a prison
In a public brainstorming session in November, Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera and Council Speaker Christine Quinn suggested installing security cameras in high-risk areas. But some residents, including Roble, had already installed hidden cameras in their homes. Sophisticated security systems are increasingly becoming a common feature in this part of town, where nearly every first-floor window is barred with metal rods. At first glance, the streets look harmless enough: a string of brick houses with picket fences and flower pots in pocket gardens. But there are no children playing in the streets, and gates are secured with padlocks and metal ropes.
Mohammed Solaiman Ali, who moved to Fordham in 2002 after living in Astoria, Queens, for five years, pointed out hidden wires in his living room—evidence of a $1,600 burglar alarm and surveillance system that costs him $100 a month to maintain. For Ali, currently an unemployed real estate broker, the expense is crippling but necessary.
“I have no income, but I have no choice,” said Ali, 45, a Bengali immigrant and a member of Community Board 7. He said the increasing crime and prostitution rates made him want to leave the neighborhood, but increasingly low real estate prices prevented him from doing so.
In December 2006, Ali took out a mortgage of $675,000 for a house on Grand Avenue. In 2007, a young woman entered his home through a window and took $3,000, plus some jewelry, and held a gun to his wife Johanara’s head. In a separate incident that same year, Ali said an alleged prostitute and a male companion assaulted him outside his home. According to Ali, police arrested the woman, who was eventually imprisoned for three years.
Unfortunately for Ali, who now takes on odd jobs to make ends meet, the 2008 collapse of the housing market cut the value of his property in half, forcing him to stay in a house he no longer wanted. His two-story residence is spacious and airy, with toys laid out on the front porch and pastel walls marked with crayon scribbles from his three children. “It was my dream house,” he said. “But now, it feels like a prison.”
Ali said some of his neighbors, particularly those from the Bengali community, felt the same way. His friend, Mohammad Karim of West 192nd Street, is burdened with property that is currently valued at $394,000, considerably less than the $740,000 that he paid for it in 2005, and lower than the street’s median property price value of $457,000.
Transient residents are considered lucky to be given the chance to leave; “Some people have just started leaving,” Walker-Santiago said. “Two people I know moved out because they worked late hours, and they were just too afraid to go home late in this area.”
The wary, frightened atmosphere that festers in the neighborhood is ideal for sex workers such as Nash, who said that residents mostly leave him alone to do his business. He said he had been arrested on numerous occasions for prostitution and disorderly conduct, only to be released after two or three days when his family bailed him out.
Clutching a brown paper bag that concealed a can of fruit punch Four Loko, a caffeinated alcoholic beverage, he admitted that his work was occasionally dangerous and led to rough encounters with law enforcers. “I hate cops,” he said. “They tried to frame me for cocaine possession, but all I had was Vicodin that wasn’t in a bottle. Didn’t stop them from scratching me up or calling me names.”
Nash does not see himself as a danger to the community; all he knows is that it is an easy way to scrape together cash for his vices, and perhaps get to save up to train for some real work in the future. “But no matter how broke I am, I’m never going to beg for change in the streets,” he said. “That’s what my ass is for.”