Women say roving Johns make them feel afraid
By Shuli Levine
Illustration provided by Hunts Point Alliance for Children.
Mention Hunts Point to an outsider and the word he or she is likely to think of is “hooker.” The 20-year-old HBO documentary branded the neighborhood indelibly.
“Hookers at the Point” sensationalized prostitution, but it wasn’t entirely a work of fiction. Hunts Point does have a prostitution problem.
Just ask the young women who participate in Rocking the Boat’s after-school program in Hunts Point Riverside Park. For them, the walk up the hill to the subway or the residential section of the neighborhood can be an ordeal.
Toni German, age 17, has been attending Rocking the Boat for two years and is still cautious when traveling. “I wouldn’t walk alone at night,” she said, wide-eyed and serious. She is used to the taunting “Can I talk to you” from the men on the street, but is frightened of those who yell “Get in my car” through their windows.
Last year, Hunts Point Alliance for Children asked fifth to eighth graders at PS 48, MS 201 and Saint Ignatius School to describe the neighborhood as they see it. “Hunts Point is all prostitutes,” said one child. “Prostitutes coming and going—not dressed properly,” reads a section from the conversation, which, in turn, is followed by “Women getting beaten up on the street.”
Large apartment buildings, enclosed parking lots, and grungy warehouses line the section of Lafayette Avenue running down hill from Hunts Point Avenue to the Bronx River. At night the hill is poorly lit. The few street lights and the dim warehouse lights do little beyond highlighting the surrounding emptiness. This is one of the well-known areas for sex-workers in Hunts Point.
”When I walk up the hill by myself, I walk in the middle of the street—take my chance dodging cars,” Anita Antonetty explained as she drove up Lafayette moments after pointing out a sex-worker on Edgewater Road.
A native of Hunts Point, Antonetty is the job skills advocate of Rocking the Boat, a program that works to empower and employ young people by teaching them boat building and on-water skills. She has seen many changes in Hunts Point, as abandoned buildings turned into inhabited apartments and houses, but she feels there are not enough street lights or enough police surveillance in the industrial areas once the warehouses and manufacturers end for the day.
A report released by Sustainable South Bronx in February 2008 discusses at length the problem of prostitution as both a public safety and community health issue.
The report, which surveyed 425 people, found a perception gap between men and women. By a wide margin women were less likely to feel safe in Hunts Point. “Fear of being mistaken for a sex worker and propositioned by men,” keeps many women of all ages, from feeling safe walking in the neighborhood, the study concluded.
Iris Algarin, an employee of the Corpus Christi Convent, moved from Puerto Rico to Longwood 26 years ago. A slight woman, who has worked at the convent for a year and a half, she is scared when walking at night. “When I walk I always see people—cars stopping, getting ladies, drug dealing,” she said, adding that drivers do not discriminate between street workers and others when they honk at or follow women.
Street-workers occasionally come to the Corpus Christi Monastery for food and clothing. In the 27 years that she has lived in the monastery on Lafayette Avenue, Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart says she has seen vast improvements in the neighborhood, including a decrease in the number of girls looking for aid. Smiling warmly, she attributed the changes to the influx of artists and families.
Antonetty, who would like to see more street lights and police supervision along Lafayette Avenue, expressed slight frustration with the fact that police commanders change every two years, making a consistent approach to policing the area difficult.
She was emphatic about the need for the community to come together to demand these changes. Change is most effective “when there’s a push from the people in the neighborhood,” she said.
The director of an organization working to help prostitutes agrees that change needs to come from the community. Part of the process, explained Julie Laurence of G.E.M.S (Girls Education and Mentoring Service), is getting residents to realize that even though prostitution is so prevalent, it can be changed. (See accompanying story.)
The change will be slow, she said, because there are many different factors at play, but she spoke well of the collaborating organizations. They are “beginning to see the community start taking a lead,” she said.