New Tricks on South Congress

A Community Policing Success Story

A twice-told anecdote: A friend and his young son were on South Congress around dusk, why I don't remember, when they encountered a lady of ill fame stretched over the hood of a parked car, eating an orange. As they passed, she lifted her skirts to reveal a second orange wedged amidst the admirably supple muscles of her pelvic regions. She asked if they would like some juice.

After you rehearse explaining this sight to a small child, ask yourself if prostitution is a victimless crime. Those who live in neighborhoods, on the East and South sides particularly, where hookers (and, often as not, drug dealers) are part of the scene have learned to forgive their trespasses and to steer their kids and dogs away from used rubbers in the gutters. What suffers instead (well, aside from the prostitutes themselves, but that's another story) is the neighborhood, its image and self-image. Nothing scares away prospective tenants and homebuyers, customers, and business owners, and other harbingers of the American Dream faster than a hooker perched under the nearest lamppost.

Or at least this is the premise along South Congress, famed throughout town and country as Where the Girls Are. (And boys too, transgendered and otherwise.) The Avenue hasn't always been Austin's de facto red light district -- early in our history, what is now the Warehouse District was the notorious Guy Town, home to several hundred working ladies and at least a dozen major bawdy houses, until it was wiped out in a 1913 anti-vice crusade.

That fight was an uphill battle against what has typically been Austin's laissez-faire attitude toward prostitution, and throughout much of the postwar era the River City was seen as a magnet for hookers throughout the country due to local authorities' lax enforcement of the vice laws. By this point, the trade was divided more or less evenly between the Sixth Street area and South Congress (much of which was, at the time, outside the city limits). The avenue hosted some of the city's most famed houses of ill fame, such as the bordellos of Peggy Stephenson (closed for good in 1957) and Hattie Valdes' M&M Courts (closed down in 1965 after a 25-year run). "When I was growing up here, it was the talk of all the guys in high school," says Donald Dodson, secretary of the Dawson Neighborhood Association (DNA), which adjoins South Congress between Oltorf and Ben White. "You would go down to South Congress to Hattie's to get your whores. So the image has been around for a while."

To that end, the DNA, along with the Austin Police Department and local business leaders, is working to eliminate the vice problem along South Congress by changing the area's image. This latest phase of the APD community-policing initiative, a successor to the Self-Reliant Neighborhoods project begun in 1991 and the CrimeNet operation created in 1993, works to solve problems that traditional policing has done little to ameliorate, says Sgt. Darla Gay, head of the new CrimeNet South unit. "The vice squad did two stings over three weeks on South Congress while CrimeNet was working, and that didn't deter people," she says. "The traditional law-enforcement response doesn't work; you need to change the image, which is known nationwide, that South Congress is where you go in Austin for prostitutes and drugs." The CrimeNet South unit -- there are also units for the North and Central patrol districts -- was built with funding made available by the federal government under the auspices of the much-ballyhooed 1994 crime bill. Unlike the original CrimeNet, which took officers from all over the city to work on a single neighborhood public-safety problem, the new units aim to have longer-lasting and more efficient results by being more locally focused. "The old approach took officers away from beats they know -- it was good training, but the buy-in wasn't completely there," says Gay. "And maintenance was another obstacle -- how do we make sure what we started remains in place? Here, we're trying to build an infrastructure that will persist after we've gone."

This is particularly important, since the federal funding for the CrimeNets only allowed for 90 days of work. With this time limit, Gay's unit opted to focus not just on South Congress, but on the motels lining the avenue that have historically provided shelter for the drug and sex trade. As an initial step, the CrimeNet unit prepared an intriguing analysis, based on a methodology developed by Dallas police, of how much money the city receives in taxes from each motel, compared to the amount spent on police response to trouble calls at each. While all four motels between Oltorf and Ben White ended up in the red, one in particular, the South Congress Motor Inn at the corner of Havana Street, emerged with particular odiousness. Between January 1995 and March 1996, the 38-room inn generated 178 police calls resulting in 70 arrests, at a cost to taxpayers of $48,238; the motel returned only $10,500 in tax dollars to the General Fund over the same period.

The South Congress Motor Inn has been in trouble with the fuzz before; two years ago, APD threatened the motel with abatement (closure for a full year) unless the place cleaned up its act. Which it did, briefly. While the inn's owner, Sam Chin, has been responsive on both occasions, the APD's undercover operation concluded that the management and employees of the motel were involved in narcotics and prostitution; many employees have since been fired. "We didn't go running in to the owner immediately," says Gay. "First, we determined how deep the activity was and that management was involved; then we got the community mobilized, since they were all up in arms, and got them thinking about what should happen next. So when we met with the owner, we had our ducks in a row; he immediately asked what he could do to help."

What resulted was a contract between APD and the South Congress Motor Inn providing for, among other things, regular inspections by representatives of the Dawson Neighborhood Association. "We get to be the Nazi neighborhood," says Dodson with a laugh. "We go through and point out things that we think need to be fixed. But things do seem to have improved."

The fact that the neighborhood has lived with vice for decades hasn't seemed to make them more tolerant of its presence. A galling irony to some DNA leaders is the wealth the South Congress motels generate for owners like Chin, who typically live in affluent Westside boroughs, though Chin's cooperativeness has prevented this issue "from being discussed in such blunt terms," as Dodson notes. As well, Gay points out, "South Congress is such a mixture of businesses and residences that prostitution in the area really isn't a victimless crime. The vice sting made arrests for public lewdness in the neighborhood itself, right in front of houses." (Dodson adds further that some of these arrests occurred in broad daylight.)

Again, none of that should be news to people in other high-vice neighborhoods, which begs the question of why the community policing approach hasn't been as visible elsewhere. Around the Salvation Army, center of Austin's largest street community, APD's "zero tolerance" strategy has resulted in many arrests, but you can still buy crack in the shadow of the police station. And on East Eleventh Street, the perceived sex and drug traffic is held to be a leading indicator of pervasive urban blight, from which the Eastside supposedly will be rescued through booster initiatives.

By contrast, APD's post-CrimeNet mandate for South Congress involves a lot of issues one would expect to be handled by other city departments, like, say, the actual Neighborhood Housing Conservation office. (It's interesting to note that in other cities, notably That Place In Oregon, the elaborate and institutionalized neighborhood-involvement process that currently reigns -- the sort of system Austinites are currently contemplating -- was spawned from community policing programs.) "Our ultimate goal is to reduce crime and do a whole lot more," says Suzanne Pardo, APD's neighborhood liaison, who's currently working to develop a steering committee and form coalitions among South Congress residents, businesses and institutions. "Changing South Congress' image will involve different things -- one is beautification, one is safety, and one is building partnerships to figure out what resources the neighborhood needs and where to go get them."

The range of topics discussed at the Dawson neighborhood's first meeting in late April with APD included not only public-safety concerns -- better lighting, less graffiti, an open-container ban -- but also improving the landscaping along South Congress, extending 'Dillo service, repaving and widening streets, and making city funds available for small-business startups. While the community's vision for tomorrow's South Congress is hardly unified at this point, "I do see a lot of common ground," Pardo says. "They've determined they're going to roll up their sleeves and work to achieve their goals. I also think they understand it's not going to happen overnight."

But when it does happen, APD feels, a transformed South Congress will provide its own riposte to cynics who question a community's ability to eliminate prostitution from its streets. "We used to have a tremendous prostitution problem along Sixth Street," says Gay, "but the people there just came together and decided to not allow it to happen. You can't say specifically why it stopped, but the community organized and worked together to prevent that kind of traffic, and it did stop; prostitution on Sixth Street now is pretty negligible. We're hoping that South Congress can learn from that example."n

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