Crime & Justice

In Walnut Park, legacies of prostitution and misdemeanor crime tough to erase

Maria waits for clients on Pacific Boulevard in Walnut Park. She has been working this same street for thirty years.
Maria waits for clients on Pacific Boulevard in Walnut Park. She has been working this same street for thirty years.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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This is third story in a five-part series on prostitution in Los Angeles. See part 1, part 2, part 4 and part 5.

It’s eight in the morning. Jesus Villa is walking down Walnut Park’s main strip — Pacific Boulevard — pointing to all the street corners where prostitutes hang out and the motels where they work, all within walking distance from his family’s house.

“You see the Travel Inn down that street? That’s one of the motels,” he says, facing a peach-colored, two-story building.

There have been sex workers out here since he was a little kid, Villa says. Now, he’s a 23-year-old film student at Cal State Long Beach, and somewhat of a local anti-prostitution activist.

Villa regularly calls the Sheriff’s Department with complaints, but he’s generally told there are fewer resources available to fight – not just prostitution – but illegal car sales, gang activity, and graffiti.

“I feel sort of degraded as a citizen, that the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t really consider this a problem," he says. "And by not doing anything about it, I feel that perhaps we’re second class citizens.”

Villa’s neighbors and local shop owners are bothered too – but many of them are too busy with multiple jobs to get involved. And others, who are in the country illegally, are fearful of talking to authorities.

“I hear the drag races regularly at one or two in the morning, and I don’t hear any cops out there," says Cristobal Fernandez, an immigrant from Costa Rica who owns a hall on Pacific Boulevard that he rents out for parties. "I’m really bothered by seeing the prostitutes in front of my business, too. It’s clear that we’re known across town as a prostitution hub.”

But when asked whether he’d call anyone to complain, Fernandez says it wouldn’t be his instinct to do so.

Being unincorporated, Walnut Park doesn’t have a city council or a police department. And it must share county resources with roughly two million other residents in Supervisor Gloria Molina’s district.

Still, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department and Molina’s field deputy, Edgar Cisneros, say they try to address quality of life issues here. But they rely and depend on residents to report their concerns.

Cisneros says his office receives one to two calls a year, complaining about prostitution. That's not too many, he adds. The Sheriff's Department, on the other hand, receives between 30 to 40 calls a year.

“It’s really nice when really a misdemeanor crime is what the focus is, as opposed to assault, shootings, murders,” he says.

That said, Walnut Park does also suffer from higher rates of violent crime and property crime than the L.A.

County average. But, says Cisneros, the county is making an effort wherever it can. Last year, an ordinance banning street-side car sales was an attempt to curb some of the illegal activity.

And since 2008, Molina’s office has been working to deny conditional use permits for some businesses where drug dealing or soliciting of prostitutes were suspected. Since the mid-90s, a handful of motels and bars have been shut down in Walnut Park, but building a legal case against them requires collaboration from multiple agencies and from residents coming forward with complaints.

“You know, some of them go out of business," he says, listing their successes. "Raimundo’s we took out of business; Sugar Shack Lounge we took out of business. Tiki Motel; they’re now in the process of converting to all apartments because we had their CUP pulled when they put in their application. That’s actually one that’s going on right now in 2012, and that was one of our biggest locations for prostitution-related arrests.”

At 5:30 on a recent morning, a prostitute named Maria, a native of Mexico, stands on the corner of Flower Street and Pacific Boulevard. She said she’d been doing this work, at this corner, for 30 years. She lives at one of the motels down the street, along with many other sex workers.

“We get fined $100 once in a while,” she said, “sometimes, the police take us to jail for up to six hours, but that’s it.”

With that, a customer pulls up and Maria is gone.

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