Monday, October 12, 2009
El Cajon Boulevard has been San Diego's hub of prostitution for decades. Reporter Keegan Kyle, from voiceofsandiego.org, found out why and also looked into how the business of prostitution is changing.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. To long-time residents of San Diego, it's easy to see that the section of El Cajon Boulevard running through North Park has undergone a renaissance. There are new businesses, condo complexes, restaurants and the North Park Theatre, all giving a new urban spirit to what was, in the 1980s, a rundown and crime-ridden section of town. However, one part of the checkered reputation of El Cajon Boulevard is proving hard to change. Part of the boulevard is still a hangout for prostitutes and the men who cruise for sex. San Diego Police say the majority of prostitution arrests in the past year have been made around the area of El Cajon Boulevard and 30th Streets. And, they also say the nature of the prostitution business in the area has changed. The Voice of San Diego recently posted a feature report called: Why El Cajon Blvd. Is A Prostitution Hotspot. Joining us now is the reporter who wrote this story, Keegan Kyle. Good morning, Keegan, welcome to These Days.
KEEGAN KYLE (Reporter, Voiceofsandiego.org): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Keegan, you open your story describing a daybreak scene on the corner of El Cajon and Kansas Street. Tell us about that.
KYLE: Well, I went out very early in the morning to kind of, well, to begin – I always heard this diner was kind of a hotspot for where prostitutes would go in the morning. You know, obviously the nighttime is kind of their big market hours but at daybreak you would sometimes still see prostitutes hanging around this diner either for breakfast or trying to get some last minute clients. So I went out there very early in the morning, probably about 5:00 a.m. and just started driving up and down El Cajon Boulevard looking for prostitutes. Yeah, which is very fun. So – But I found a couple and parked my car across the street and just kind of waited and watched. And I wanted to see what was happening, how they were responding to the situation, how people were responding. And that’s really when I kind of started to write down notes and kind of gauge the situation.
CAVANAUGH: And what did you see? Were there police around?
KYLE: Yeah, they – Eventually, police starting patrolling the block and the first time they came by the prostitutes had turned around and left the street and avoided the police. And the police missed them and, you know, went somewhere else for a little while. But eventually the police came back around and came up behind the prostitutes and kind of, you know, were then able to corral them into a space and kind of talk to them.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that we are asking listeners if they’d like to join the conversation to give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, but, Keegan, I’d also like to know, how did you become interested in this topic?
KYLE: Well, I’m not actually – I’m not a born San Diegan. I’m from the midwest and moved here about seven weeks ago now. And as part of coming onto voiceofsandiego.org, my job is to kind of get a background in San Diego’s culture of crime, where crimes happen, how do they happen. And that’s when I started to look at data of where arrests happen in the city. And a lot of different crimes are, you know, scattered throughout the city, you know, especially like homicide. Those can happen, really, anywhere. Some types of crimes like assault will happen more concentrated near bars or taverns or things like that. But prostitution really jumped out as far as in the mapping of where this particular crime happens or at least where people are arrested for it, and that was really around the area of 30th and El Cajon. So that kind of started me asking people native, native San Diegans, you know, why is this area, you know, a prostitution hotspot? And even people that have been living here for 20, 30 years, didn’t really have a straight answer to that question.
CAVANAUGH: But you did some historical research in this article and what did you find out about El Cajon Boulevard?
KYLE: Well, the best explanation I received from police and residents was really that it all had to do going back to the U.S. Route 80. And before El Cajon Boulevard was, you know, kind of a street like it is today, it was the main east-west road out of San Diego, and it had a kind of a business culture catering to the traveling public. So people that were coming from east county or maybe tourists coming to visit San Diego were coming through this area and stopping at businesses and the business climate catered, really, to the traveling public so hotels and also some more elicit activity like strip clubs or, you know, card rooms.
CAVANAUGH: And so that’s the history. And how far back does that go?
KYLE: That would be more than half a century ago.
CAVANAUGH: So we fast forward to about 20 years ago. As I said in my opening, there was, I think, people who lived here around that time would agree that the problem of prostitution, the incidents of prostitution, was much more widespread on El Cajon Boulevard than it is today. Is that something that you also discovered?
KYLE: Yes. I mean, the problem with prostitution today compared to then is that we saw a lot of prostitution along El Cajon Boulevard in the ‘80s or ‘90s and today it’s become much more movable, meaning that police will go and do several sweeps of an area and prostitution will – may become completely eradicated from that several block area for the time being. But what happens is the prostitutes will just go somewhere else down the street and then you get a problem of, okay, now we’re going to go sweep that area and they might move back to where they originally were. So it’s kind of like, you know, it’s really hard for police, I think, to completely eradicate the problem because El Cajon Boulevard is such a long street, you know, how do you eradicate it completely and try to get these prostitutes to stay in the same area, I guess.
CAVANAUGH: And yet, in your article, called “Why El Cajon Boulevard Is a Prostitution Hotspot” on Voice of San Diego, you sort of compare the prostitution incidences that used to happen downtown, how that used to be a hotspot of prostitution as well as El Cajon Boulevard, and how downtown isn’t really that much – you don’t find that many arrests in comparison to El Cajon Boulevard. Somehow that’s changed downtown but it hasn’t changed completely on El Cajon, and why is that?
KYLE: I think the main two reasons seem to be political and also developmental. The city coming out of the, you know – coming out of World War II and really into its prime with population growth really started to develop the downtown, and everyone knows, anyone who’s been here more than 30 years can really explain more in detail how the downtown has changed. So the downtown saw a lot of development and with that development the city, for political reasons or simply because it, you know, had more money to, you know, buy out these less attractive businesses, you could say, for one reason or another, prostitution really got pushed out of that area. And El Cajon Boulevard, on the other hand, really didn’t receive that much – that type of developmental attention as downtown and it just kind of kept going with the business community that was there that catered to this type of activity.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with reporter Keegan Kyle and we’re talking about his feature report, “Why El Cajon Boulevard Is a Prostitution Hotspot.” It was featured recently on the Voice of San Diego. The number to call if you’d like to join the conversation is 1-888-895-5727. Jerry is calling us from Lakeside. And good morning, Jerry. Welcome to These Days.
JERRY (Caller, Lakeside): Hi. I just wanted to tell a little thing that happened several years ago when I was about 70 years old. I’m a little older than that now but I was at a meeting at an airport at the Montgomery Field airport restaurant, just a club meeting, and after I left the meeting, it was about nine o’clock or later. And I was heading east on that street, that main street there that heads over toward Highway 15 and I forget the name of the street. But anyway, out in the dark in a lonely area, there appeared this young girl standing there with a super short skirt, thumbing, and she was holding her shoes, standing there in her bare feet. And so I pulled over and she got in the car and she asked if she could get a ride back to El Cajon Boulevard. And so we drove along a little while and then I asked if she was hooking and she said, yes, and she told me that two police officers had picked her up on El Cajon Boulevard and then drove her clear out there into the boonies and told her to get out and just left her there. And so – which kind of puzzled me and I didn’t quite understand the reason for it. But anyway, I drove her back to El Cajon Boulevard and then I was able to give her my plate of leftover food and as I drove away she was standing there eating the food with her hands. She must’ve been really hungry. So I was just wondering why the police did something that was – seemed to me to be somewhat cruel.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I don’t know if we can answer that, Jerry, but we’ll try and thank you so much for your phone call. Keegan, does that ring any bells from what your research has – into this has told you?
KYLE: Police never seemed to say that that was one of their strategies at all. And their main police strategies today are not moving people so much as doing these types of sweeps to arrest people or identify ringleaders or people that are, you know, kind of organizing the prostitutes. I wouldn’t say – They’re certainly arresting people, you know, prostitutes for their activity but, you know, I’m not sure what moving them would really accomplish because that, as you kind of said, they do just come back to El Cajon.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk to Mariano is San Diego. Good morning, Mariano. Welcome to These Days.
MARIANO (Caller, San Diego): Hi. How are you?
CAVANAUGH: Just great. Thank you for calling.
MARIANO: Well, I just wanted to make a quick comment. I’ve been living in San Diego for a number of years now and I’ve actually been a frequent customer of the diner that you guys have been talking about. And one thing that my friends and I look for now every time we go down there is to see, you know, who’s out, like what sort of crazy things are happening because we tend to keep kind of later hours and so when we go it’s around two, three in the morning and sometimes things actually happen at the diner. Because when things get a little too hot or when they need somewhere to kind of rest or get away from things and the cops are coming by, they’ll duck into the diner. And so there’s, you know, a lot of, you know, there are bosses, so to speak, coming in and sometimes cause a little bit of a scene and it – it’s really just apparent and just blatant, out in the open out there, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot getting done because every night – every time we go, there’s new girls or the same – same old faces just walking up and down the blade out there.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Mariano. That leads me to one of the things that you said in your article about the new faces, about this circuit that prostitutes seem to be on now. They seem to be moved from one area if they start to get a little too hot or they’re up on charges or something to another area in Southern California. And this is some sort of – like a network now.
KYLE: Yeah, that’s right. You know, prostitution as it used to be and especially around, you know, the Midway area of our city, was more local prostitution, people who were known to the community. And those – that type of situation is very easy to deal with because you could identify troublemakers and then, you know, use some type of restraining order or whatever. On El Cajon Boulevard, it is a climate of people that are working on a network between Los Angeles, Vegas or, you know, other large cities in California and that really poses a problem to police to say, you know, how do you get rid of a problem where it keeps coming back in new waves and new faces?
CAVANAUGH: Right, and you also, in your article, talk about gang involvement in prostitution. Tell us a little bit about that.
KYLE: Yeah, the – over the years, I think, as it was described to me by FBI and police agents, was that the gangs have come to realize that prostitution has less dangers and could still be as profitable as running drugs or guns. And for that reason, they’ve started to take a greater interest in, you know, having some market presence in prostitutes.
CAVANAUGH: And is there – if gangs are involved in prostitution, is there a chance that there is gang – maybe gang warfare in prostitution? Or are – does everybody have their own turf when it comes to different areas of San Diego and other areas of Southern California?
KYLE: I don’t know. I don’t know. If there were elevated levels of gang warfare, we probably would have seen it or at least had some reports of it. I’m sure there’s competition but I can’t really speak to, you know, what regions or what gangs are involved.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Keegan, tell us what the police have said about the difficulty now, since there is this circuit and so forth, in actually cracking down on the prostitution problem on El Cajon Boulevard. What do they tell you that they’re up against?
KYLE: Well, the – they’re up against the network and their reputation. That is really the key to the problem, I think, is that as long as that street’s reputation continues to exist, prostitutes are going to keep coming to that area because residents know they will be at that area. And that’s really what they’re fighting against, is not – is trying to convince, you know, San Diegans, the customers of those prostitutes, not to go there looking for prostitutes because as long as they do, the prostitutes are going to keep coming from, you know, elsewhere to our city.
CAVANAUGH: How about prosecuting the johns, the people who go there looking for sex, is that type of prosecution – is that kind of sting something that police do from time to time?
KYLE: Yes. I mean, they do arrest both prostitutes and the johns. The – I think the way the city’s prosecution department looks it, however, is not to necessarily, you know, certainly punish these people but then also to rehabilitate them or try to make sure that they don’t reoffend. And that’s why they’ve set up kind of – they’ve given people options for social services either on the john side or the prostitution side to kind of, you know, help them get out of that type of cycle.
CAVANAUGH: In all the research you’ve done, in checking the history of El Cajon Boulevard and checking out what’s going on there today and all the people you’ve spoken with, did you get a feeling that there is some hope that prostitution will be eradicated from El Cajon Boulevard or does it look like it’s going to be here with us for the time – time in the future.
KYLE: Yeah, there’s really – Yeah, there are both sides of how people feel on that. There are some people who take a very, you know, approach that it’s not something that’s going to go away. It’s called the world’s oldest profession for a reason. And it’s something, you know, some people compare it to, you know, narcotics or drugs in that as long as there are users, there will be buyers. And how do you get rid of something that is so ingrained in our history? There are also people who say that with time it can be moved out of San Diego. Not that the problem can be eradicated but that it can at least be moved someplace else, and they don’t really know where but the idea that it can be, you know, that El Cajon Boulevard itself can improve with time.
CAVANAUGH: Keegan, thanks for coming in and talking to us about this.
KYLE: My pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: Keegan Kyle is the reporter behind the article “Why El Cajon Boulevard Is a Prostitution Hotspot,” and you can find it on voiceofsandiego.org. Now coming up, a conversation with singer/songwriter Steve Earle. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.