Prostitution flourishes on Pulaski Highway

February 13, 1994|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writer

Wanda lifts a swollen hand to her face, scratches her nose and tells the eternal lie about quitting the heroin habit.

Her eyelids are at half-mast, and her voice is the low grumble of the junkie as she talks about life on the street in the white glow of the Marylander Motel sign on Pulaski Highway.

"All these girls out here tricking are shooting dope or are crack heads," she says.

"I've OD'd in a phone booth, I've shot up in gas station bathrooms. I once would shoot as much dope as I could get my hands on. And for me, there's only one way to finance that trip. But I'm clean now. I am -- what are you looking at?"

Wanda is always in a hurry. She starts walking down Pulaski Highway to her home in Highlandtown, weary from a long day of pleasing men for a price. But on this night, like the others, she'll -- out to any car whose driver stops to make an inquiry. Among the prostitutes of Pulaski Highway, the race goes to the swift.

While the highly orchestrated state police raid on the Block Jan. 14 gave politicians an opportunity to stake their claims as prostitution and drug fighters, police and community groups say the real bazaar for hookers and the retail narcotics dealers who follow them is a six-mile stretch of Pulaski Highway from Highland Avenue in the city to Rossville Boulevard in eastern Baltimore County.

Dotted with cheap motels, bars and clubs, it's an indoor and outdoor flesh market, well known to the suburban customers from three states who patronize it, the police who try to contain it, and the community activists who have been fighting the blight for years -- with varying results.

The highway has been a route for commerce of all sorts since it was built as part of U.S. 40 in 1938 and named for Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish-born Revolutionary War hero who raised his legion of horse soldiers and infantry in Baltimore.

"Prostitution goes back to when the main truck route was Route 40, before I-95 opened," said Capt. Jeffry Caslin, commander of Baltimore County's White Marsh precinct. "Prostitutes catered to the truckers at various truck stops and certain motels. But it was more discreet then."

It's not discreet any more.

"It snuck on us about seven years ago. Suddenly, you saw new faces. They would get arrested and skip town before their trial and go to Memphis or Florida or New York. Then you'd see them again six months later," said one longtime Armistead Gardens resident who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

"Some of them told me they rent motel rooms by the week. They go by all sorts of names like Tiffany, Star. They even had one hooker who was known as Tooth. She had one tooth, that was it."

The communities along the highway are angry. Residents of Armistead Gardens in the city are fighting back with some success, working closely with a police department that has a "padlock law" it can use to shut down offending establishments.

In Baltimore County, however, community leaders in Rosedale complain that the administration of County Executive Roger B. Hayden has ignored their pleas for extra help.

"When the city puts the heat on, they stream into the county

and, when warm weather comes, the girls are out there like it's a convention," said Jerry Hersl, a longtime Rosedale activist. "The police do a good job, but they just don't have enough officers. The county has the resources, but the commitment doesn't come from the top of the government."

Mr. Hayden twice refused a reporter's request to comment on the prostitution issue, referring all questions to the Police Department.

"We're really upset about Mr. Hayden not taking a position on this issue," said Darryl Buhrman, president of the Rosedale Community Association. "I just fail to understand why the leader of the county is playing cat and mouse with us, with a community."

'A sad place'

City and county police say 80 to 100 known prostitutes work the strip's streets and motels during the warmer months, maybe half that many in cold weather. They come from all parts of the country. As many as 25 percent are transvestites, and their brazen hitchhiking solicitations surprise even police veterans.

"It can sometimes look like a Third World country, a sad place where women are walking around outside in their underwear," said Maj. Bert Shirey, commander of the city's Northeastern District.

In the county, Captain Caslin says he's still amazed by the variety of hookers -- and their desperation.

"Our officers have arrested one woman who was a grandmother, one seven months pregnant and two sisters and their mother," he said. "During an eight-month period, we arrested 58 prostitutes, but how do you continue to do that with the jails packed with major violators?"

Captain Caslin said his precinct is understaffed and is short at least 30 officers.

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