The signs are pretty obvious that the neighborhood around downtown's west Archer Street has seen better days.
Many of the homes are run down, yards untended, and the streets, well . . . they're actually not much different from the rest of the city's streets, which is to say they match the blight of the rest of the area.
But there are also more subtle signs. Like the shoes strung together by their laces, dangling from power lines, for instance. In bigger cities, that tends to mean the area is dominated by some notorious gang of thugs or another.
In Tulsa, though, it might mean some band of lowlifes aspiring to notoriety think they run the neighborhood.
Or, it might just mean some kid felt like throwing someone's shoes over a power line, according to Officer Jennifer Mansell, the Tulsa Police Department's downtown liaison.
But some of the other signs of underworld activity are, unfortunately, not so subtle, nor so open to interpretation.
"I've seen a fair number of girls out there who look like they're working it," said Scott Smith, president of the Crosbie Heights Neighborhood Association, which includes the area in question.
"I've been flagged down twice, and even had one girl run after my car a third time, and this has happened when I've been with my family, like with my kids in the car," he said.
As Smith's experience indicates, prostitutes are a pretty common sight in the area, occupying much of Tulsa police officers' time and efforts in this northwest corner of downtown.
David Phillips, vice president of the CHNA, has lived in the neighborhood for about a year, but said the problem was apparent to him soon after his arrival.
As a public defender, he passes through the area in question on a daily basis on his way to the jail, and said the prostitution is hard to miss. He's never been flagged down as Smith had been, but said they are obvious by their demeanor.
"You can tell, the way they're looking at traffic, that they're maybe looking for a hook-up," said Phillips.
"It's a pretty big problem," said Mansell.
"It's not huge down there on Archer--not as big as it is out there on Admiral and Sheridan, or between Peoria and Utica between 11th and 12th Street," she added.
But, at seven to 10 women estimated to be currently active in the area, Mansell said prostitution is still a significant issue there.
"The New 11th Street" might be an appropriate description for the strip of road in question, as Smith commented that Archer St. and the surrounding area is fast catching up with it as the "known place" for picking up prostitutes.
However, as bad as the illegal sex trade is around Archer St., it's only a symptom of a larger problem. Mansell said the girls working as prostitutes generally do it to support their crack habits.
"It's mostly over there by the Day Center, for a quick fix: 'I need a quick little amount of money,' because of the drug problem," she said.
"Back in the day when we worked the prostitutes really hard over on 11th Street, there were several who did not have a drug problem. They were actually just trying to make the money for their families, you know, to put food on the table. But these girls over here on Archer? Most of them have crack problems," Mansell elaborated.
"Are there girls actually trying to make some money for their family? Yes, there are, but they still probably have a drug problem," she added.
While the prostitutes are brazen enough on their own, their audacity in plying their wares doesn't match that of the drug dealers they help support, according to some.
Jake Thompson, proprietor of the Idol Time Tattoo parlor on Archer and Cheyenne Ave., told UTW that droves of crack dealers and buyers, along with the regular assortment of hookers, are a common fixture outside his business.
"Sometimes, man, they come right in our store. They're like, 'Hey, can we get change for a twenty?' so they can get a ten-dollar rock. That's every day," he said.
Do you give them change?
"Hell no. I tell them to get lost," Thompson answered.
How do you know they want it to buy crack?
"People driving by in a Tahoe don't stop in our store and ask for a twenty. They don't ask to use our phone so they can ask for a ride," he answered, explaining that his store is generally only a convenient stop for such pursuits if people are already hanging around nearby and, generally speaking, the only people hanging around nearby are there for the drugs, the hookers, or both.
"An hour ago, we watched a prostitute and a drug dealer get arrested right outside. It's every day," Thompson reiterated.
"We've seen them two days ago. One dude was over here selling drugs, and another dude turned around, pulled his pants down and pissed on the wall, and I had my kid out here. It's unreal," he added.
Thompson said as many as 30 drug dealers could be seen peddling their wares across the street from his store over the summer.
While crack and prostitution are apparently big business in the area, the tattoo merchant said it's not doing wonders for his or other legitimate businesses in the area.
"A lot of my clientele would pull up and get approached by crack dealers, and then just not get out of their cars," Thompson said.
On top of discouraging business and downtown development, Phillips said the atmosphere and growing notoriety of the area are a source of anxiety for the nearby residents.
"I know that there are a lot of good people in that neighborhood who feel threatened by the things that are going on in that particular area," he said.
While they might feel threatened, there isn't much, if any, reason to be, according to police, as well as the neighborhood leader's own experience.
Phillips said he's never witnessed, nor been on the receiving end of any violence in the area.
That's likely because most of the violence, when there is any, is homeless on homeless, or between drug dealers and customers who don't pay their tabs, Mansell explained.
Of the countless people she's arrested or seen arrested for drug possession in the area, none have been armed.
"I haven't gotten guns off of any of them there," Mansell said.
She qualified, though, that the occasional drug dealer might be armed, but she hasn't encountered any who were.
As the crimefighter explained, statistically speaking, for someone walking or driving through the area at night, the greatest concern would be annoyance from crack dealers, hookers or panhandlers.
"Downtown really is safe. It's one of the safest spots in town. Most of our crimes downtown are not violent crimes: drugs, larceny, prostitution," she said.
And most of the thefts are "crimes of opportunity" in which the victim leaves valuables unsecured or in easy reach, she added. (See City, Page )
Thompson said some of the crack dealers infesting the area around his shop talk tough, but are more irritating than threatening.
"Sometimes they'll come over and talk a bunch of crap, trying to challenge us to see where we stand. But I'm not going to back down from them. I've got a place of business here, and it's how I take care of my family," he said.
More often, though, Thompson said, "I can step outside my place, they'll see me, and they'll go somewhere else."
So, if someone can manage to avoid owing money to drug dealers in the area, the chances are pretty good of not becoming a victim of violence.
"The number one concern is the panhandlers and the homeless, and that's just because it's annoying," Mansell reiterated.
While the hookers and crack dealers aren't necessarily a threat to life and limb, nobody likes to be annoyed, especially when that annoyance drives away business or drives down property values, so some area residents are demanding action.
"It would be nice if there were some action from the city to clean up that area," said Phillips.
"There was a period where I was calling the Mayor's Action Hotline every day," said Thompson.
"They know me by name. I requested a meeting with the Mayor, which I never got. They sent my request straight to the police department," he added.
Needs An Extra Helping
While Thompson is frustrated and fed up with the problem, he couldn't say enough good things about the Tulsa police.
"Officer Mansell and her crew of officers are doing an outstanding job. We really appreciate what they're doing. I won't say anything bad about them. I can't, because I've been watching them doing their jobs, and they've really cleaned the place up," he told UTW.
"They're doing an improving job, but there's still the day-to-day crack dealers outside and prostitutes outside," Thompson added.
He blames the proliferation of hookers and crack dealers on the nearby social service providers.
"It's the Salvation Army and John 3:16 Mission that's allowing all this stuff to happen. I place the blame on them," said Thompson.
He said they, and the Day Center, enable the crime that goes on by "feeding these people and allowing them to live this way."
Thompson suggested, "If they regulated it and said, 'We're going to feed you four times this week, but you need to find a job, or do something positive,' these people wouldn't be hanging out."
When told of the John 3:16 Mission's reputation for getting a large percentage of people it serves out of homelessness, he said, "That other percentage is hanging out at Cheyenne and Archer..."
"I'm not going to sit here and say they're not doing a good thing, trying to help people--that's their mission and everything. But, at the same time, if you give a dope dealer free food and a free place to hang out, they're not going to work. But from what I understand, McDonald's is hiring all the time," Thompson added.
Some of those charity providers, though, don't see that there's that much of a problem.
"I've worked here for 11 years, and I live in Owen Park (a neighborhood contiguous with Crosbie Heights), and I haven't been affected at all," said Samantha Messick of the Salvation Army shelter.
Mansell, though, emphasized that when she mentioned the Day Center as a locus for drugs and prostitution, she didn't mean that it or the other nearby social service providers are magnets for sordid activity, or that they are necessarily the reason behind the rampant drug dealing and prostitution.
She only mentioned it, she said, because the Day Center, located at Archer and Denver, is the most recognizable landmark, making it a convenient reference point for the area.
"I'm at the Day Center almost every day. I'm very pro-Day Center. I think what they do is really good," she said.
Sandra Lewis, executive director of the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless, also deflected criticisms like Thompson's.
"We work very, very hard to keep that kind of activity from happening in and around that building. That's all I can police. That's all I can take care of. We work very diligently to try to keep that kind of activity from happening," she said.
Lewis said the Day Center's security personnel police the grounds, and for any other activity they witness beyond the premises, they call Mansell on her cell phone.
"She's very responsive and comes right over and investigates the situation. She'll run warrants on people who we suspect may be doing some shady things," she said.
However, she said the homeless people she serves are often easy targets for criminal activity.
"My experience is that the people who really cause the problems in this area are not homeless people. They are the people who come into this area and take advantage of homeless people," Lewis said.
She elaborated, "I think there are people who come into this area and offer a homeless person a small amount of money to make a small drug deal or something, but our people are not the ones who are the dealers, or the big problems. They just become the victims of that."
Also, Lewis said homeless people in the area are sometimes the targets of random violence.
"I would say, within the last year, we had three different people who reported walking in this area, and a car would stop and people would jump out of the car, beat them up, and get back in the car, without any attempt to rob them at all," she recounted.
Mansell, though, said the homeless are frequently "robbed" of what little money they have, not by violence, but by the seduction of a cheap, plentifully available drug.
"Crack is the main problem--crack and prescription drugs. A lot of those guys and girls (who) are down there get prescriptions for Loratab and methadone, and a lot of them will sell them for cash, so they can turn around and buy crack," she said.
The crimefighter said meth and heroin are rare in the area, but crack is widespread because of its relative cost.
"It's the cheap drug. It's the poor man's drug. That's exactly what it is. You can get a rock for five dollars--a little piece that will get you high for 15 minutes," she said.
And because it's the "poor man's drug," poor people are the most likely to provide a market for it--especially poor people with nothing to lose in terms of a home, family, career or dignity, but with just enough money in their pockets to pay for a momentary escape from their privation.
"They (the crack dealers) will go over there knowing that a lot of those homeless people have problems--not only mental health issues, but alcohol problems and drug problems, and it's an easy sell," Mansell said.
Regarding the funding for that "easy sell," she explained, "A lot of these people get checks sent to them--state checks, government checks, and it's easy prey on these people (who) you know, the first day of the month, they're going to get a check, and they're going to end up spending their $600 in nothing flat because these drug dealers are pushing their product at them, and it's quick money."
New to the Neighborhood
But, the homeless aren't the only consumers of vice in the area. They just occupy the lowest niche in the Archer St. food chain.
"Sometimes we'll look down the street and see a Lexus or an Escalade sitting there, and you can clearly tell these people are from the other side of town, coming to buy some stuff," Thompson said.
Lest anyone think Archer Street's status as Tulsa's retail Mecca for crack and hookers is the result of inaction by police, Mansell said, "We're doing something every day about it. We're out there in marked cars, stopping them, finding out what they're doing, stopping the cars that have just stopped to talk to them (prostitutes or drug dealers)."
She said undercover officers in unmarked cars also play a major role in enforcement efforts in the area.
"We've got undercover officers (who) go out and will arrest a prostitute if they get propositioned. We're doing everything we can. We're out there working. They may not see us, but we're out there busting our butts, trying to make it better," Mansell said.
And, apparently, they're succeeding. Or, at the very least, police are keeping it from getting much worse than it already is.
Mansell said it's common to make between three and five arrests in the area on a daily basis.
She said arrests range anywhere from warrants for jaywalking to possession of stolen property, but the most common is for warrants for possession of controlled drugs.
Just before her interview with UTW, Mansell said officers arrested three people just as they were lighting up.
"We got crack pipes right out of their mouths," she said.
"They were felony arrests, because they've got brand new crack rocks in there," added Mansell.
She said they were caught in a "honey hole," as it's called by police, which is an alley behind the red brick building at the corner of Archer and Cheyenne, owned by Borden Milk, where crackheads typically go to hide while they get high.
"They think they're going out to a little private spot, but we know they're there," she said.
Mansell says Borden just purchased the building but hasn't moved in yet, but plans to use it as a mechanics' area for milk trucks.
"We're trying to get a letter through the city where, if somebody's on their property, we can just automatically take care of the no-trespassing without the victim there," the crimefighter said.
Mansell said undercover cops are assigned to the area to catch the dealers, while patrol officers are there to make business harder for them.
If they observe suspicious activity, she said officers will question someone suspected of selling drugs thus: "Are you getting services from the Day Center or the Salvation Army? If not, why are you here? Why are you coming down here and spending six hours down here with these people?"
"We basically tell them, 'I know why you're here, and we don't want to see you back out here again,'" she said.
While drug-related arrests are common fare in the area of Archer St., she said it's pretty rare to get anyone on prostitution-related charges.
"You've got to catch them in the act. Hard to do in a police car," she said.
"What we basically do, if we see a girl get in a car, is we can write them for 'pedestrian soliciting a ride,' and just not even let the act happen. That's usually what you do, because it's really hard to follow a car to find where their little spot is where they perform their act," she explained.
She said, on the rare occasion that they bust someone for prostitution, undercover officers are the ones to do it.
But, it's pretty hard to land such an arrest, since the officer has to be told both the act and the price: "Give me $50 and I'll show you a good time" wouldn't do it, though, since there must be specific mention of what particular service is on the table.
And, of course, it isn't hard to figure out how to make an offer while maintaining plausible deniability.
"Some of those girls are old school," Mansell said.
"There's one prostitute down there (who's) been around for a long time, and she knows how to play the game. She knows what to say, what not to say, and if she doesn't feel comfortable, she'll say, 'Pull over, I'm out of here,'" she explained.
Most of the prostitutes, Mansell said, are "poor, white drug addicts," ranging in age from 25 to 50 years old.
Police also target the "johns."
"They're the ones who keep the prostitutes in the money. If we got rid of them, the prostitutes would have nothing," Mansell said.
Prostitution patrons range in all demographics, but the typical "john" is a middle-aged, working-class man.
She said, during the week, noon is one of the peak hours of activity, when clientele are on their lunch breaks.
"When they're supposed to have a sandwich or a burger, they go get something else," Mansell said.
Also, evenings after work are the other times of peak activity, when johns are on their way home from work.
She said the hookers' potential customers aren't too hard to spot. "We look for the guys who are just circling and circling and circling. When you see them more than once down there, you try to stop them and ask, 'Why are you down here?'" Mansell said.
She said they have to have committed a traffic violation to be stopped, but that requirement isn't much of a hindrance to police efforts.
"They're so busy looking for a prostitute that they're going to not stop at a stop sign, or not signal when they turn. It's really easy to get them," she said.
When they "get them"--just like they do with the drug dealers and customers, officers question them on their reason for being in the area.
"Most of that's just investigative: 'Why are you here? I've seen you circling the same spot. I know why you're here, so tell me why you're here.'" Mansell explained.
Of course, "I'm looking for my favorite hooker" is rarely if ever the answer to such inquiries, but the officer said their efforts prevent the transaction from taking place, and discourage repeat business for the prostitutes.
While each arrest, or prevention, is a success, as Mansell describes it, fighting crime in area of Archer St. is much like rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll right back down again once they get it to the summit.
"We work hard on it, but as soon as you put one in jail, you've got two new ones out there selling," she said.
The crimefighter added, "We want it stopped, man. We're down there every day. It's a hard job, and we work our butts off on it. We'll never give up, but it's a hard road for us, too."
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