Why is there so much prostitution on Aurora Avenue in North Seattle? Beth Quintana, who lives in North Seattle near Aurora, asked KUOW’s Local Wonder project, so we sent reporter Posey Gruener to find out.
Well, Beth, one reason there is so much prostitution on Aurora Avenue North is that people know there’s prostitution on Aurora Avenue North.
“In every city you go to, there’s a track,” Noel Gomez, a former prostitute, said. “In this city, it’s Aurora and Pacific Highway South. So when the pimp comes here with his girls, he comes to the track.”
The track is a stretch of road where prostitutes walk. Teen girls are pimped on Pacific Highway South; older women, many of them addicts, end up on Aurora.
The wheels were set in motion for Aurora to become a place for pimping and prostitution in the 1930s. More people had cars, and the middle class wanted to get out and explore America. Roads like Aurora were paved so cars could speed out of town. Motels and filling stations popped up alongside.
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“Here was a place where you could pull up your car, unload the family and rent a room for a dollar a night in the early years,” said Leonard Garfield, director of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. “Everything that would appeal to a motorist is on Aurora.”
But this motor utopia declined. Jet travel replaced cars. Interstate 5 replaced Aurora. And when the World’s Fair left town in 1962, the motels lost business.
“They became much more housing for transient people,” Garfield said. “There was some prostitution that was often associated with it. It became, in a general sort of way, a neighborhood that Seattleites viewed as seedy.”
Aurora had always been transient, even in its heyday. With cheaper motels, it was the go-to place for pimps and prostitutes when police cracked down on prostitution in downtown Seattle in the 1960s.
On a recent rainy night, Sgt. Thomas Umporowicz drove up and down Aurora between North 90th and North 140th streets. Umporowicz heads the vice squad at the Seattle Police Department. His detectives are undercover, posing as johns.
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“Before you go to your spot, why don’t you meet me at the Home Depot in your regular spot in the back,” he said into his radio. He continued, “There’s another blonde working up here by the Holiday Inn.”
The blonde woman wore a puffy coat and a hat with a pompom. He could tell she was a prostitute.
“It’s the way that they’re walking, the way they’re looking,” he said.
The woman ambled along, looked over her shoulder and tried to make contact with cars driving by.
Cheap motels are another reason prostitution thrives on Aurora. The older motels offer some of the cheapest lodging in the city.
A few motels have become places where pimps and prostitutes live and do drugs.
Umporowicz said some motel managers aren’t aware. Others allow it passively, but others help the pimps.
Police busted a motel like that earlier this year. Just driving by, they knew something was amiss.
“When we saw it, it was heavier than we’ve ever seen around a particular hotel, just like a little bees’ nest,” he said. “As we started going in there, doing some undercover operations, it was easy for us to see, ‘Hey, these people aren’t just permitting it. They’re encouraging it.’”
Gomez, the former prostitute, said many women end up trapped on Aurora.
When Gomez and her best friend Miranda were 15, they both had what she called major issues at home. Then they met two men in a grocery store parking lot.
“They had nice cars and had nice stuff and were a little bit older, and you know, wanted to buy us things and treat us good and were paying all this attention to us,” Gomez said. “We just thought that we met some really great guys.”
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Those nice guys were pimps. One took Gomez, the other took Miranda. Unlike drugs, the girls were a renewable resource – the pimps could sell them again and again.
“I ended up with a pretty bad drinking problem,” Gomez said. “She ended up with a pretty bad crack problem.”
Miranda later turned to heroin, which Gomez said happens a lot on Aurora. The johns know it too – and will offer even less money for sex because of it.
“They know the women are desperate for the drugs,” Gomez said. “It has made North Aurora known to be a very cheap track.”
For these women, life on Aurora becomes an endless cycle of getting just enough money to survive. Gomez called it the gerbil wheel.
“You need to get your dope,” she said. “Then keep working, keep working, get your motel, then keep working, get some more dope, keep working, get your, you know, cigarettes and may be a little food, keep working, get dope to your boyfriend – it doesn’t stop.”
After 15 years, Gomez got out. But Miranda stayed. Years later she died of kidney failure. She had spent more than half her life as a prostitute.
After Miranda died, Gomez spoke with a woman who had worked with her.
The woman told her, “When all you can do is turn $5 tricks, there’s no reason to live anymore.”
“That’s when I started the Organization for Prostitution Survivors,” Gomez said. Her organization offers a break from the track, a space where women can begin to imagine a way out of the life. And, when they’re ready, the help they need.
Back on Aurora, Sgt. Umporowicz was parked in a dark lot behind the Home Depot.
A detective pulled up with a woman in the passenger seat. She was drenched and had two black eyes. She had been sleeping outside for the last month. And she was hungry.
“Hey boss, is it OK if I get her something to eat?” the detective said. “She’s been out here for a while.”
“I’m soaked to the bone,” the woman said.
“We will not be taking you to jail on the warrant,” Umporowicz told the woman. “We will not be taking you to jail on this charge. He’s going to get you some food, and we will offer you services. This detective will talk to you about the services we can offer.”
In the 1980s, when Umporowicz was new on the force, the Seattle Police Department arrested a record 2,000 prostitutes in one year. But most of those women returned to the street right after being released.
Umporowicz has heard people argue that prostitution is a victimless crime that should be legalized. He knows there are sex workers in Seattle who manage their accounts, but that’s not who he sees here on Aurora.
“It’s a matter of survival for these people,” he said. “If they’re being controlled by a pimp, they absolutely have to get back out there and earn money, because their lives are at stake.”
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“It’s hard to describe the incredible amount of control a pimp has over a prostitute,” he said. “It’s very similar to what POWs go through in war. To break somebody down to that point where they’re either terrified or you are the center of everything to them.”
That understanding has changed how Seattle police have cracked down on prostitution in the last five years.
Detectives now connect women to service providers like Gomez and crack down on the customers instead. In addition to being charged, police impound their cars, and the johns must pay the tow fee and a $1,000 fee to get their cars back.
Police believe it will be more effective – and fair – than booking the women.
This brings us to the last answer to your question, Beth.
Another reason there is so much prostitution on Aurora Avenue North is because there are buyers here.
Umporowicz and Gomez said it is ultimately up to the buyers – until men stop cruising Aurora, this road will remain a track.
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