The Gayborhood Is Coming Clean
Linda, who was born neither “Linda” nor a woman, doesn’t bother playing it cool. A little after 2:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday night, she’s posted up at the corner of 12th and Spruce, dancing for cars and calling pedestrians “honey.” She’s wearing heels, a shiny brown wig, and can’t weigh less than 200 pounds.
Me: “How you doing?
Linda: “Not good.”
Me: “Why not?”
Linda: “Maybe you can make it better.”
It’s not a bad line, but Linda really could be doing better. By 4:30, she’s scored just one customer, who paid her $100. Linda, who has been working as a prostitute in the Gayborhood for 15 years, says business isn’t what it used to be. A decade ago, she claims she’d net close to $1,000 in a weekend; now she’s lucky to earn $300.
As the Gayborhood’s been transformed into “Midtown Village,” gone are the check-cashing joints, the $300-a-month apartments, and the pimps and muggers and hookers openly plying their trade in front of Woody’s. Arrived: a three-decker “children’s enrichment center.”
Larry Robin, whose eponymous bookstore was one of the neighborhood’s last vestiges of bohemia, says friends thought he was crazy when he moved to 13th and Sansom in 1981. Now, 30 years later, Robin’s has closed, and Linda paces alone from corner to corner, a victim of gentrification. Regular transgender and transvestite hookers are still tricking alongside a smattering of drug peddlers and junkies, but as the strip’s cleaning up, their days appear numbered.
“I think it’s going to go away,” Linda says of her business, long a staple of the 12th and 13th street corridors. “Give it five, 10 years. It’s dying out now.”
Mocoa (pronounced “Mocha”), a 32-year-old hair stylist who, like her fellow ladies of the night, isn’t quite a lady, comes to the Gayborhood every few months when she’s low on cash. After just three years of living in the city, she’s noticed a shift.
“They’re opening up more businesses,” she says, “so that’s knocking a lot of the business for us.” As she explains it, increased foot traffic from the 13th street corridor makes covert transactions harder to pull off.
Higher-paying customers seem to have disappeared too. Mocoa charges between $200 and $250 for a “full session,” and $50 for oral sex if she’s feeling generous. But for a lot of the customers, who circle the area in beaten-up sedans, that’s too steep. Indeed, a couple hours earlier, near a shuttered Catholic church, one prostitute entered, then exited a man’s car within the span of a couple minutes, leaving empty-handed. Turns out the guy wouldn’t pay her the $60 she wanted for a “blow,” as she told another girl later. “Some girls have standards,” Mocoa says.
And some don’t. As the customer base has dwindled, many prostitutes have gotten cheaper, shrinking the pot for everyone. 22-year-old LaDonna Khan, who’s been working in the Gayborhood since she was 13 and motors around comically on a Razor scooter, blames the “crackhead trannies” who will work for as little as $10. Tamika, a regal-looking 35-year-old who identifies as transsexual, comes to a similar conclusion, making a distinction between herself and male transvestites like Linda, who she says hook not just for money or drugs, but for the sex itself.
“This neighborhood was crap,” says Larry Robin, sipping takeout coffee from Capogiro (a totem of the Midtown Village renaissance), sitting above a shuttered bookstore being rented out to an expanding Barbuzzo (ditto). “Nobody wanted to live here.” From the ‘50s to the ‘70s, it was a haven for spirited outcasts and weirdos, but remained fairly safe. By the ’80s and ’90s, however, it had become “heavily underground, criminalized.” Muggers stalked with impunity, and prostitution–straight, gay, trans–was rampant.
(Bill Wood, who for many years owned the famed gay bar Woody’s, says then-District Attorney Ed Rendell used to sneak up to the second floor of the bar just to observe the squalor, incognito.)
In the late ’90s, says 6th District police officer Joe Ferraro, things began to change. Straight hookers fled for the internet. Gay men stopped cruising the neighborhood for dates too. In 1999, a crime-plagued public housing complex a few blocks south, on Fitzwater, was demolished. And then there was developer Tony Goldman’s famed 13th Street makeover, which shooed prostitutes onto an increasingly small strip of 12th street. Add it all up, says Linda, a waitress at the Midtown II, and the “he-shes” don’t come around so much anymore.
All this is not to say stray syringes and used condoms have vanished; 13th Street, for all its improvement, remains Center City’s little block of horrors. Last July, the decomposing body of a man was found in one of the many Section 8 subsidized apartments near the Parker-Spruce hotel—a fetid druggie cesspool in its own right. John Edwards, a local architect, says he’s resigned to the dealers plying their trade on his front stoop, in broad daylight. Even the local methadone clinic, according to Wash West Civic Association President Clay Scherer, has been corrupted. Rather than take the medicine, he says, addicts sell it to dealers, who in turn use it to concoct equally potent home brews.
But though Scherer’s attempts to shut down the clinic failed, other efforts by Wash West Civic and the 6th District police seem poised to further reduce criminal activity. First, the Civic, since 2004, has improved sidewalk lighting by replacing high-arching “Cobra” lamps with lower, 15-foot lanterns on 11 neighborhood blocks. (Several prostitutes cited the new lamps, which rest below the tree line, as an effective deterrent). The lighting costs $250,000 per block and was paid for primarily with city and state grant money, in addition to citizen donations (businesses comprise a fifth of the Civic’s membership).
Second, since the spring of 2010, the 6th District has deployed its own “prostitution trained” police officers to pose as johns and conduct sting operations, rather than wait for the citywide vice squads to help out. In one respect, it’s difficult to measure their effectiveness. From July 1997 to July 1998, 62 prostitutes were arrested in the greater Gayborhood. Over the same period, from 2011 to 2012, that number dipped to 20. While some of the decline may be due to attrition and police deterrence, enforcement could also be stronger. In the past few years, according to police records, the 6th District has stopped making arrests after midnight, right when the volume of activity appears to increase. That said, police have the ability to round up prostitues at will, if they decide to: On March 13th, the sting squad arrested four in the span of an hour and twenty minutes.
Finally, six months ago, at the suggestion of police, new resident Karen Adams took the initiative to revive Wash West Civic’s long-dormant volunteer town watch. Forty volunteers showed up to the first training session on February 11th, where they were taught the basics: radio in to a dispatcher to report criminal activity; don’t intervene. After one more session, groups of two are set to begin patrolling on April 4th, from 8 p.m. to midnight. Adams is aiming to send out four volunteers, four nights a week.
In the last 18 months, says Scherer, he’s noticed an improvement. “We’re starting to get those type of resources focused to stomp out lingering prostitution and drug dealing,” he says. “And with that, you see fewer shitbags walking around, these sort of unsavory characters.”
One Monday night, around 1 a.m., I meet Ashley, a 19-year-old who graduated from high school in May. She says she needs money “to [become] a girl.” Like several others I talk to, she hasn’t made a dime, and tells me she heard it used to be “like thousands.” There is work in North Philly or West Philly, she adds, but it’s not as safe, and besides, she’s got older hookers to look out for her in the Gayborhood.
Others hang around not necessarily because they’re working, but because it’s where they feel comfortable. Twenty-one-year-old Tara, who takes hormones and looks more feminine than most, has been living as a woman for six years. Chatting with some other prostitutes near 12th and Lombard, she tells me she’s not hooking, but on her way to a gay bar. “You don’t have to be a certain way or look a certain way because you’re out here.”
Tamika, likewise, says she’s out not to make money tonight—she makes a good living off internet personals–but to take a little walk (she’s one of the few who lives nearby). Yet as she contemplates the erosion of the neighborhood’s sex trade, she becomes melancholy. “There used to be so much going on,” she says. “There is no life here.”
Which is, of course, another way of saying that the neighborhood is more alive than ever.
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