Tag Archive | "Prostitution"

In Hunts Points, 52-year-old mother of four still working the streets

For 52-year-old Barbara Terry, working as a prostitute on the streets of Hunts Point in the Bronx is “a business, a regular job.”

“Most women don’t make it to my age out here,” Terry told the NY Times. “I call myself the last of the survivors.”

Terry said working the streets of the South Bronx neighborhood, which is home to the world’s second largest food market, made her tough.

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House arrest: Why Fordham residents are trapped in their homes

Fordham and Kingsbridge residents keep their homes heavily padlocked due to rising concerns about crime and prostitution. BIANCA CONSUNJI/The Bronx Ink

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”

According to residents, the corner of 192nd and Davidson is a prostitution hotspot. BIANCA CONSUNJI/The Bronx Ink

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.”

All houses, old and new, take extra security precautions to secure their homes from intruders. BIANCA CONSUNJI/The Bronx Ink

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.”

Despite facing financial struggles, Mohammed Solaiman Ali invested in a $1,600 security system and pays a monthly fee of $100 to maintain it. BIANCA CONSUNJI/The Bronx Ink

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.”

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Prostitution and the playground

P.S. 6 on East Tremont Avenue and Bryant Avenue in West Farms. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

P.S. 6 on East Tremont Avenue and Bryant Avenue in West Farms. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

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.”

The tent on the rock lies is in direct view of the school playground. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The tent on the rock lies in direct view of the school playground. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

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.

The school playground, with the tent visible behind it. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The school playground, with the tent visible behind it. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

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 view of the rock from the playground fence. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The view of the rock from the playground fence. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

“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.

A condom wrapper found next to the school. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

A condom wrapper found next to the school. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

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.

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