An old Toyota almost goes unnoticed as it pulls over at the corner of Starr Street and Cypress Avenue at the Ridgewood/Bushwick border. Neon light from a nearby Chinese restaurant illuminates the sidewalks, painting the late night street bright yellow. A couple of patrons from a nearby quirky bar are smoking and talking on the street while a woman working at the corner walks over to the Toyota and talks to the driver for a couple of minutes.
The driver is one of the “johns,” as the women as well as the cops refer to patrons of prostitutes. At this corner, johns usually offer somewhere between $10 to $50 for a variety of sexual services.
Under the usual circumstances, the woman would have entered the car, which would then drive deeper into Ridgewood on Starr Street where the residential buildings are replaced with warehouses and empty parking lots — an environment ideal for illicit sex. But tonight is not john’s lucky night.
The assumed prostitute recites a Miranda warning and the john quickly finds himself under an arrest. He just tried to buy sex from an undercover police officer and he might be charged with a misdemeanor of patronizing a prostitute and if convicted, will face a jail time up to one year and a fine up to $1,000.
The area changes, prostitution remains
For more than three decades now, the corner of Cypress Avenue and Starr Street has been known as one of the old-school New York prostitution hotbeds. Even as gentrification of the area rapidly progresses, prostitution as a symptom of the “bad old times” continues. Today, the corner of Cypress and Starr is surrounded by a strange combination of two- to three-story apartment buildings, several small businesses as well as industrial warehouses such as Apollo, which sells windows and metal studs.
Most of the businesses on the block are old-timers such as Sze’s Garden, a modest Chinese restaurant; a deli; a pizza parlor; or a laundromat. But since October 2014, a quirky bar and antique store called The Keep has been operating on Cypress Avenue as well.
Besides drinks and small plates, The Keep offers psychic readings and live music catering to the eclectic tastes of the changing demographic of Bushwick and Ridgewood.
Owner Stephanie Castillo, a native New Yorker who has been living in Bushwick for a decade, told QNS that The Keep has generally “a fine relationship with the girls.” She added that she doesn’t think that their presence affects her business negatively.
“They never approach any of my customers,” she said.
The Keep in the center of Operation Losing Proposition
According to Castillo, prostitution at the corner comes and goes in waves. She has lived in the area — on Willoughby and Cypress avenues — for a decade, and she said that it used to be a lot worse. “There’s less and less of it. These days it’s a lot more low key,” she said.
“Johns bother me a lot more that the girls,” Castillo continued. “The girls just do what they have to do.” Castillo added that some of the women at the corner are very polite. Specifically she recalled one transgender woman who stands by the deli on Cypress often.
“She is very nice,” Castillo said.
The nature of the neighborhood and all its layers are very complex, she added. Other women often are substance and alcohol addicts, she said, adding that “You have to know how to talk to them. You can’t be too confrontational.”
Unbeknownst to the owners at the time of the opening, The Keep became somewhat of a local epicenter for the “Operation Losing Proposition,” the goal of which is to lock up johns as they solicit sex from undercover police officers. Police officers have been using the bathrooms at The Keep to change into their covers as they “hit up” the corner ever so often, Castillo told QNS.
Seize the car, arrest the john
Operation Losing Proposition, which has been ongoing since 1991, is an initiative of NYPD’s Civil Enforcement Unit (CEU). It focuses on the demand side, rather then on supply side of the prostitution problem.
In his book “NYPD Battles Crime: Innovative Strategies in Policing,” Eli B. Silverman explains that the initiative was designed by CEU attorneys who researched the law that allows for the seizure of property that was used to further criminal activity. In this case, johns’ cars could be seized. Originally the NYPD was skeptical about the operation, and it was unclear whether the courts would uphold the criminal charges as well as civil claims for the seized property, writes Silverman.
But the operation has been yielding incredible results as far as the number of arrests and property seizures go, and prostitution has been greatly reduced, according to Silverman.
One police officer told Silverman, “The john may be able to explain a night away from the wife, but not the absence of the family car.”
Bottomless well of arrests for almost three decades
For many years now, the operation has been consistently dubbed a success, but 26 years later, one has to wonder whether the number of arrested johns is the correct indicator of success, or whether the operation opened a bottomless well of meaningless arrests.
Additionally, only 3 to 7 percent of those arrested for patronizing a prostitute were actually convicted of that charge in the years between 2003 and 2013. The vast majority of the charges were downgraded to disorderly conduct, SumAll Foundation found out when analyzing data from the New York State Criminal Justice Department.
Women are worse off than men in prostitution-related activities
And despite the focus of Operation Losing Proposition on johns, the numbers of arrests for prostitution were still 25 percent higher than the patronizing arrests. Importantly, the chances of being convicted for prostitution are significantly higher than chances of being convicted for patronizing.
SumAll Foundation writes in their paper that individuals arrested for prostitution are convicted of prostitution 6.5 times more frequently than individuals arrested for patronizing are convicted of patronizing. Furthermore, prostitutes are punished more severely than patrons. Convicted prostitutes are twice as likely as convicted patrons to receive a jail sentence (42 percent of prostitutes versus 20 percent of patrons).
SumAll related their findings to gender-related disparities as 87 percent of individuals arrested for prostitution were women, while only 13 percent were men. On the other hand, only 1 percent of prostitution patrons were women. Women therefore face harsher legal outcomes in prostitution-related activities.