|City Limits MONTHLY |
CONEY ISLAND HIGH
Why a bunch of addicts and drug dealers are the best thing that ever happened to the boardwalk.
By Annia Ciezadlo
A block beyond the boardwalk, just a bunt away from Coney Island's new minor league stadium, the women are out tricking by 11 in the morning. Just before noon, Jerome Goodwin and Janet Fishman run into Chocolate and Venus working the Surf Avenue stroll.
Wearing raspberry velvet stretch pants, Chocolate is pretty, with only one front tooth knocked out. Venus is missing all of her teeth, and her legs are hideously swollen, but this doesn't stop her from flirting outrageously with Goodwin, who is tall, older and sternly handsome.
Both women are renegades, meaning they work for themselves. It's more dangerous that way, but you make more money--important if you have a habit to support, which both do. Chocolate smokes crack. Venus, not to be outdone, declares, "I'll smoke anything that smokes, and I'll drink anything that pours."
Chocolate has another life. One of her two children is going to college, and the other is working in a law firm. They know what she does; sometimes, her daughter picks her up from work and drives her home. "I'm giving them a lot," she says. "And they have respect for their mother, because they see I don't bring it home--I don't bring it around where they live."
Goodwin asks them if they're ready to quit, and they both laugh. "Nope," says Venus, clamping shut her toothless jaw and thrusting her chin in the air. Chocolate shakes her head, but she doesn't seem so sure. He asks if they use protection. Venus shrugs and rolls her eyes. "I'm gonna give it to you straight," he says, pulling out some condoms, and Chocolate, switching her hips, replies: "Give it to me raw, baby! That's the way I like it!"
He does, but not the way she means. "I've been 12 years sober, 17 years in jail, and 40 years using on the streets," he preaches, and pauses to let that sink in. "I've been in every kind of situation, from jail to I even had a gun in my mouth. And the nigger pulled that trigger and that shit still wouldn't go off, so I know there's a higher plan for me."
They stare at him, speechless. "And what I'm telling you is, you better straighten up"--he holds up his hand, as if swearing on a Bible--"or you gonna straighten out," he says, slowly tilting his forearm down so it lies in front of him, flat as a corpse.
Half a block from Chocolate and Venus, toward the boardwalk on 22nd Street, Goodwin and Fishman run into another prostitute, washing herself at a fire hydrant. "I remember you guys!" she says, when Goodwin holds out a little baggie of condoms and soap. "I was sleeping on the beach, and you left a bag of condoms right next to my head. I found them when I woke up." Her leathery, battered face lights up at the memory of this kindness.
Across the hydrant from her, an elderly, half-naked man leans over and sticks his head in the water, ignoring the whole exchange. Directly behind him, a school bus full of children on a day trip to the stadium idles half in and half out of a parking lot. One little boy presses his face up to the window, wide-eyed and a little fearful, taking in the scene.
Inside the office where Goodwin and Fishman work, there's a map of Coney Island on the wall, stuck full of color-coded pushpins. Strung along Surf Avenue where cars cruise, 13 green pins stand for prostitution. Over by Ocean Parkway, toward Brighton Beach, two blue pins denote male prostitution. Red is for drug sales; there are 32 of those, clustered around Mermaid and Neptune. Right in the middle of all the red is a lone purple pushpin: "we are here."
"Here" is at the heart of the crackheads' bazaar, at 19th and Mermaid: a little white house, home to a crisis intervention and prevention center called Amethyst Women's Project.
Like the 15 other people who work at Amethyst, Goodwin and Fishman are used to the surroundings. Goodwin used to be a drug dealer, and Fishman was once addicted to crack. Most of their coworkers are former dealers, addicts and prostitutes, too. Many have been to jail at least once. Some, like Goodwin, have done serious time. Now they walk the streets cruising for clients, passing out condoms, urging HIV tests and trying to convince people to quit doing drugs, all either for nothing or for a paycheck of just $100 a week.
The arrangement is nothing unusual: Most drug prevention outfits hire former addicts as counselors and outreach workers. But at Amethyst, it's not just the counselors who used to be in that life--it's pretty much everybody, from the volunteers to the development director, all the way up to the executive director herself. In fact, the head of the organization didn't just used to do drugs; she sold them, right here in Coney Island.
Just five blocks away from where Amethyst is now, Aida Leon used to deal crack out on Mermaid Avenue. Back in those days, the 1980s, she had a rep as one of the neighborhood's wiliest dealers. Her friends remember her as always surrounded by big shots with money, cars and fancy clothes. "Aida, yeah, you'd see her hanging out on the Avenue," says Francisco (Cisco) Goméz III, smiling nostalgically. "Her and her boyfriends in their Lincoln Town Cars--she always had rich guys."
After Aida got clean, she got out of Coney Island, where every block was a reminder of her old life. She got married, bought a house, moved to the suburbs. But as Coney Island was devastated by AIDS, she kept returning to bury her old friends, especially the women. So in 1999, she came back to the neighborhood, determined to win back her old client base, what she calls the "lost souls of Brooklyn."
She patrols the same streets she used to sell drugs on, looking for addicts and prostitutes and sometimes finding her own past. She'll see girls out on the streets, using or tricking, and recognizes them as her old friends' daughters. "I'll see some girl," she recounts, "and she'll say, 'I'm Nilda,' and I'll be like, 'Shit! I got high with your mom!'"
Now Aida wins awards with regularity. She gets grants from half a dozen foundations. Several claim they discovered her first, but none of them are right: She found them. A few years ago, at an awards dinner--she was dressed all in leather--she collared her first foundation officer and coaxed her into helping out Amethyst.
"What she has is charisma, and she's using her charisma to help others," says Howard Josepher, one of the godfathers of harm reduction, an approach to drug treatment that works with active users as well as those who have already quit. "What you have there is a charismatic personality who is determined to do something for her community, and that usually augurs well for both the person and the community."
Coney Island has been a dumping ground ever since land speculators created parts of it in 1902 with illegally landfilled trash. A de facto red light district in the 1880s--one 19th century moralist famously dubbed it "Sodom by the Sea"--the neighborhood evolved in the urban renewal era into a place where the city warehoused unwanted human beings, in acres of housing projects that loom around the shoreline like a mountain range. "Coney Island has always been a dumping ground," says author and Coney Island native Charles Denson. "It could be described as the sump of Brooklyn."
Now, thanks to a few determined locals and Rudy Giuliani's obsession with stadiums, all that has changed. After years of malign neglect, the city invested $31 million in building KeySpan Park, $5 million to clean lead paint off the Parachute Jump, and $220 million in city and state money to completely rebuild the Stillwell Avenue subway station, the dank and crumbling cavern at the end of the W line. For the last two summers, fans have flocked to the 7,700-seat stadium for sold out games. Other changes may be coming to the Island, too: Borough President Marty Markowitz wants to reopen the Parachute Jump for business, and there are rumors that Disney is sniffing out land deals.
Most residents believe the neighborhood's worst days are behind it, and they're basically right. Crime is down as dramatically as the rest of the city's; the local police precinct maintains that the neighborhood is now one of Brooklyn's safest. Property values are rising, says Judi Orlando, head of the Astella Development Corp., which has built almost 1,000 affordable single-family homes in the past 30 years.
"We removed urban renewal from the neighborhood, and we removed the bulldozers, and now the neighborhood's coming back," says Frank Giordano, who has earned the title of "unofficial mayor" (the neighborhood has three or four of them) after running a pharmacy on Mermaid Avenue since 1960.
But while most people who live here agree that Coney Island is changing for the better, it still carries the legacy of its days as the neighborhood the city would rather forget: few jobs, 7,000 units of subsidized housing, 30 percent of the population on public assistance, and some of the most flagrant drug dealing and prostitution in the city. "It's just out in the open out here," marvels Sheldon McLeod, the new director of Coney Island Hospital's Ida G. Israel Community Health Center, and a recent arrival to the area (he formerly worked near Times Square).
Men come from Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay and points north to cruise the waterfront for sex. Women and girls, some outsiders but mostly locals, supply it. Unsurprisingly, their health is not good: AIDS and gonorrhea are epidemic, and in 1999, Community District 13 had the city's highest infant mortality rate--a reliable indicator of high teen pregnancy and poor prenatal care, of which McLeod says he sees a lot.
Far from trying to keep her business quiet, Aida likes to remind local officials that the drug problem is there, the prostitutes are there, both too obvious to be ignored. "In the last maybe five to six years was when everything came into this community, and it started to have some life," she says. "But drugs, prostitution and all of that, the economically underserved--they're out there, and I mean it's not just a small situation--it's a very critical situation and it's just not being addressed. And they're acting as if they push it to the back, it's just going to go away. And it's not."
Aida will also tell anyone who asks--and even those who don't--that these people are the neighborhood, and that the neighborhood is them. When she says "the community," she means everybody, including the junkies, the prostitutes, the crackheads. At Amethyst, it's the very people who brutalized the neighborhood who are essential to healing it. They are the ones who will be willing to walk the sidewalks night and day for almost no pay, going back to their old haunts, "trying to pull out somebody that's in a place where we were in our lives," as Amethyst's development director Frank Neve says.
"They know the enclaves, the pockets where people who are at risk gravitate towards," says McLeod, who recently asked Amethyst to help him find patients who weren't getting treated for HIV. "We don't know these places. They do. They know the population, they know the neighborhood, and they know which buttons to push."
Coney Island never had the luxury of sending its problems somewhere else; it was somewhere else. No one knows that better than the people who lived it, and that's exactly why they're the ones who can save it.
Aida--like Madonna or Evita, she is simply Aida--speaks in a loud rasp that would be on TV if The Sopranos were ready for a Nuyorican female cast member from Brooklyn. She says "forget about it" a lot. She also says "outrageous," meaning amazing, as in "my mom, she's just an outrageous lady. I don't know how she did it, man--14 kids, wall-to-wall addicts!"
Driving around Coney Island, Aida delivers a running monologue, part braggadocio, part confessional. At 30th and Surf, she taps her windshield with one long, hot-pink fingernail. "You see that building?" she says. "They used to deal serious weight in that building, I mean, forget about it," she says.
At 21st and Surf: "She was one of my first clients," she says, pointing to a ponytailed teenage girl. "She was hooking, doing all kinds of stuff. She still comes in to do peer counseling." The girl looks to be about 16.
"When I was dealing, this was my spot," she says, driving past the corner of 24th on Mermaid. "We all had our little turf, you know? I used to do some crazy shit when I was out here, because I had a lot of backup. I had nine brothers, all of them dealing, and you would not wanna mess with me. I would hold a gun to your head, and I did that quite a few times, but I never kilt nobody," she says. Her brothers, the same ones who used to run the neighborhood's drug trade with her, are all clean and now help bring in clients: They hang around outside Amethyst, flirting with women passersby, offering them condoms or inviting them to Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Outside Amethyst, Aida pulls up and gets out of her car. A sexy, 46-year-old bottle blonde, she's dressed "for outreach," which means tight acid-washed jeans, a lavender halter top that reveals her tattoo and smooth brown belly, and Birkenstocks. A couple of guys walking down the street stop to leer. One of them makes a sucking, kissy noise. "Hey, Mámi," he calls out suggestively. "When can I come in and get my test results?" Next week, she tells him, tossing her head.
Inside the little white house, Aida has put purple decorations everywhere: In the bathroom, whose door has to be held shut with a phone book because the lock is broken, there's a bouquet of purple plastic flowers; upstairs, she's hung purple lace curtains; and outside her office, someone has nestled a teddy bear in the exact center of the purple loveseat.
Wherever you are in the building, you can usually hear Aida yelling at somebody--on a recent weekday morning, it was a feckless client who was trying to convince her that his parole officer "wouldn't let him" go to rehab. "Bull-SHIT, bro, I work for the Department of Parole!" was her answer to that, delivered at top decibel, as she followed him out of the office shouting in Spanish. (Aida doesn't work for the Department of Parole--she's given to exaggeration to make her point--but she does consult closely with them.)
You get the feeling Aida thinks she can browbeat people into quitting drugs. And maybe she can: Listening to her bullyrag excuse-making clients, you imagine them giving up crack just to get her to leave them alone. "She's a very convincing person...I think she's always been like that," says Ronald Stewart, a parole officer who knew her back in her drug dealing days and now serves on Amethyst's board of directors. "I wasn't around when she was really into the drugs, but I think she was a hustler, as we would call them. She was probably very deceptive and conniving; I think she tricked a lot of people. And I think she uses that now in a positive way."
Growing up in Coney Island, Aida was shooting up by the time she was 12. She did time in all the juvenile facilities--Peekskill, Spofford, Mount Loretto. When the Leon family moved here from Puerto Rico in 1957, they joined a generation of blacks and Latinos who had essentially been driven to the water's edge.
There was always a small black community in the neighborhood, but in the 1950s Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who despised Coney Island's proletarian amusements, decided to use the neighborhood to warehouse families who couldn't afford to live elsewhere. The city began demolishing rows of small storefronts and hotels, at the same time placing poor black and Puerto Rican families in empty summer bungalows.
In his excellent new book Coney Island Lost and Found, local author Charles Denson recounts how Fred Trump, Donald's father, raked in city poverty dollars by housing poor families in abandoned beach bungalows with no heat or hot water. "There was a lot of substandard housing in Coney Island, and the city was able to place poor families there," says Denson. Among them were the Leons: Aida remembers stuffing cardboard into the boiler to stay warm in the winter.
The deliberate displacement was followed by classic scorched-earth urban renewal. As the city tore down hotels, apartment buildings and viable small businesses, many who still owned property in the once-flourishing neighborhood torched it. After the bungalows themselves were demolished, a number of the bungalow-dwellers stayed in the neighborhood, doubling up with other families. So when Mayor Lindsay decided to raze more of the area to build acres of massive housing projects starting in the late 1960s, they were initially ecstatic. "You had working-class families, there was some black, some Hispanic," recalls Stewart. "We felt immensely overcrowded. So when they talked about building projects-we were elated, man! We were in heaven, you kidding? We all moved in."
The Leons moved into the Grenadier Apartments in 1974, when Aida was 18 and working at a medical office. By that time, the Leon boys had started selling weed. Soon they moved up to harder drugs--heroin, cocaine. Aida was using seriously, but still functioning. In 1977, she enrolled at College of Staten Island. "That stood out," says Maria Lopez, who was getting high with Aida back in those days. "In all this madness--the riffin and the raffin, the drugging and all--and here she is going to college."
Aida dropped out when she got pregnant. In 1980, at 24, she had a son. Throughout the 1980s, as the neighborhood surrendered to crack, she deteriorated too, turning more and more of her life over to drugs, dealing and doing short stretches at Rikers. At one point, her mother took her son away from her. She would come to the door, and Mrs. Leon would open it just a crack, enough to stick a sandwich through and tell her to go away.
In those days, gangs and drug families ran Coney Island; the police were afraid to come into their territory. "We owned the community," Aida brags now. "Who the hell was going to come into this community where people were shooting each other in the streets? And I was out there shooting too!"
With her nine brothers, she ran the neighborhood's retail operations. People knew not to mess with the Leon family. Everybody knew Aida--she wouldn't sell to you unless you did--and everybody knew where to find her when they needed to. Standing on the corner of 24th and Mermaid, she would defend her territory against anybody who tried to take it.
But the illusion that she could control the neighborhood, and the life, didn't last. One night in 1984, Aida says, she walked into the building at 30th and Surf at around four in the morning--"I don't remember what time it was, 'cause I was coked up"--with $800 in her pocket to buy crack to sell on the street. Inside the building, her connection's apartment was empty. When she walked into the bathroom, she found the family she usually bought from, a woman, her man and their son, all shot dead.
Aida went on a rampage, using more than she ever had before. Other drug dealers thought she had killed the family. They found her on Mermaid Avenue, and beat her with chains. She went and shot through their door. At one point the police picked her up and asked her to help them catch the killers, hinting she might be accused if she didn't. She showed them the track marks on her arms: "I told them, 'You can't do shit to me anyway--look what I did to myself. You're going to have to get them on your fuckin own.'" Six months later, she went to Samaritan Village and got clean for good. She was 29.
For the next 10 years, Aida followed a well-traveled path to recovery. She worked in treatment centers all over the city, getting state licenses to do drug and alcohol counseling. When she would tell people she was from Coney Island, sometimes they wouldn't believe her: "They would think I lived in the freakin rides!" she exclaims. She worked at an alternative sentencing program and learned harm reduction.
But nothing was as influential as Ana Aponte. During Aida's stint as a drug counselor at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, Aponte encouraged her to start a counseling program specifically for women. A proud, political Puerto Rican, Aponte was Aida's first exposure to ethnic pride, a different but no less fierce kind of loyalty than in the gangs she grew up with. "Puerto Ricans are very clannish, very loving people, but when I went to the South Bronx was the first time I was able to see that pride, and understand my identity and my culture," she says. "I didn't have that in Coney Island. It was all about being barefoot and pregnant."
Aida did get married twice, first in 1988 and then in 1994. Both husbands died of AIDS. After her second husband died, in 1995, she was devastated. In the midst of her grief, it was Aponte who pushed her to return to Coney Island and open Amethyst.
She had tried to get things rolling before, without much success: When she first came back to the neighborhood in 1985, there were no NA meetings there at all, so she started them. But when she proposed launching a treatment and assessment center for drug users, the Coney Island community board was less than supportive. "They took me off the podium, and they were like, 'You have to go through certain committees, and so on,'" she recalls. "I was like, 'They're never gonna let me open this thing.'"
The second time around, Aida didn't ask permission. She got a bunch of her old friends together, and talked them into helping her fix up a vacant garage. (Two years later, she traded it in for the little white house.) She painted it purple inside, naming it after the semiprecious stone that the ancient Greeks believed was proof against intoxication.
On August 9, 1999, Aida held her grand opening of Amethyst Women's Project. "It was an outrageous mess," she recalls with satisfaction. "I just took the community in a hostage situation. There was such a crowd. When they came, they were like, 'Who is this woman?'"
Running a successful community-based nonprofit is not entirely unlike running your neighborhood's drug trade. You spend a lot of time wheedling, bullying and manipulating people into doing things they don't want to do, like giving you things for free. When cash isn't available, promises will have to do.
At Amethyst, Aida has created a sort of perpetual motion machine: once she helps people recover, she gets them to work for her. They, in turn find new clients, and that helps Amethyst keep going. "I'm creating a major resource bank for myself," she boasts, adding that she wants "to bring people that are highly motivated and compassionate to this population, that are not fried, or burnt out, and that are not just going to try to pick up a paycheck. I want to see results."
Aside from the outreach, which brings in clients, the work is a combination of traditional peer counseling with referrals to extended services, including detox and rehab. Her workers show up at the precinct when clients get arrested. When nonviolent offenders are in danger of being put away, the staff sometimes pull strings with the courts to get them into sentencing programs that substitute drug treatment for jail time. At all times, they try to be a constant presence on the street, important whether you're a dealer or a healer.
Because most of Aida's staff are recovering addicts, the work is part of their recovery, and vice versa. Everyone contributes treatments from his or her own experience: there's a men's group, a group for women who have lost their kids to foster care, and one for teens. Aida also has support services for women who have experienced domestic violence and a weekly legal clinic for women who are doing sex work. "If you don't alleviate some of them stresses that a client has once they get clean, they're not gonna be able to stay clean," explains Aida. "They're gonna be like, 'Why should I stay clean? I'm not gonna be able to see my kids.'"
Aida yells at everybody a lot. It's part of her approach: loving yet ruthless, determined to make people do things they didn't think they could possibly do. "Aida, she's been real tough on me, like my big sister or something," says Cisco, formerly a burglar and member of the gang Homicides, Inc. She pushes many of her clients and volunteers to go back to college.
But not everybody thrives under Aida's benevolent dictatorship. Maria Lopez is one of Aida's biggest success stories. An old friend from the neighborhood--she has a son by one of Aida's brothers--she was out on the streets, hooking, pickpocketing, even robbing a gas station once. Lopez came in for treatment on Aida's second day in operation--"one of her first 'clients,' so to speak," says Lopez, grinning at the double entendre, because she was also a customer in the old days. She and Aida remain close.
Lopez got clean right away and started working as a volunteer counselor. But while she loved the new structure in her life, Aida's unceasing demands exasperated her. The final straw came when the staff had to prepare a big public presentation. She remembers Aida yelling at her and everyone else. "That drove me crazy," she says. "I'd never done a presentation before--I had never worked in a working environment. I never had to take orders from anybody." Lopez quit her gig at Amethyst.
Others find the toughest part of the job is confronting their former lives. Annette Quinonez is responsible for easing new clients into the program. Back when Quinonez was "all busted up"--tricking, strung out, with no money--the girlfriend of a big-time crack dealer was kind to her, giving her an occasional freebie. Months later, the next time Quinonez saw her, the roles were reversed: her friend was "tore up from the floor up," and Quinonez was married to a powerful Panamanian drug dealer.
Not long after, Quinonez was on her way out of the house to buy groceries and crack--"being one of them functional addicts, you know?"--when she realized she'd forgotten her money. Returning to her apartment, she caught the woman giving her husband a blow job.
"So turn around, years later I get a client. She's doing all this motion, the crack motion shit. She asked me, 'Did you get high?' I said, 'Yeah, I have a history.' Click. Right there, I said, This is the bitch. So I asked her, where did you get high? She says 'Ocean Parkway.' I said, 'You don't remember me?' I said, 'I had the spot on Ocean Parkway.'"
Instead of hating the woman who had sex with her husband, Quinonez discovered that more than anything she wanted to help her. "I was able to get her rehabs and everything. And then I saw her..." She trails off, swallows. The woman she desperately wanted to help had relapsed into addiction. "So that was hard."
Late one Friday night, Cisco is hanging sheetrock while Aida prepares for the night's NA meeting. Returning from a neighborhood Italian restaurant, she brings him a lobster dinner. "Look at that!" he says. "She's always taking care of me."
Part of the reason Aida's always feeding everybody is that she can't afford to pay them real salaries. Everybody makes either nothing or $100 a week, even those with kids, except for Aida and development director Frank Neve. After working unpaid for the first two years, both get small salaries now from grants: Aida gets $40,000 a year for her round-the-clock work, and Neve gets $20,000 for working part-time.
Some stay on, some don't. With the experience she's gained at Amethyst, pretty, quiet Lisa Valentin could easily get a job somewhere else. Instead, she stays on, working for a $100 weekly stipend, because she says she knows Aida needs her. Cisco, who used to rob houses with Aida's brothers, started out as Aida's right-hand man. But with a family to feed, he couldn't afford to stay on, so now he only helps out occasionally.
For all her resourcefulness, jobs are the one miracle Aida can't conjure. Douglas Oakley is a case in point: In the 1980s, he had 15 guys running drugs under him in Coney Island. Now that he's clean, he's one of Aida's best outreach workers, because knows all the tricks, like how to find crackheads in the projects (walk down the stairwells). But when Aida tried to hook him up with a job doing outreach for Coney Island Hopital, it fell through at the last minute. Oakley thinks his felony record is probably the reason. "Coney Island's changing positively, but for us, there's still no jobs," says Cisco, who says he would leave if it weren't for his mother.
A few of the folks at Amethyst grumble about the stadium, which city officials promised would generate jobs. As Judi Orlando points out, it did bring jobs--just not very good ones. "If you think about it, they play 38 games here, and they're part-time games," she says. "That's not a job. That's like pin money."
Aida has a scheme to change her staff's economic circumstances. She has applied to the local community board to build a transitional housing center for women with AIDS, about six blocks from where Amethyst is now. She's envisioning it as something like a benevolent patronage mill: Aida hopes that when the new place gets built, she can give her staff paying jobs. "Last night, I had a dream that me and Aida were walking down the hall with amethyst-colored walls--it was so beautiful!" says Fishman. "We both had clipboards, and I was wearing a suit. It was a real job."
Sitting on the boardwalk, drinking a beer at noon, Robert Allen--everybody calls him Spike--meditates on Coney Island's tenuous future. Spike, who wears a do-rag with two little braids sticking out, is more or less homeless right now--he has a trailer he can sleep in, but doesn't want to broadcast its location. He is 38 years old and has lived in Coney Island his whole life.
When Governor George Pataki came to Coney Island to campaign last September, the cops cleared people like Spike and his friends off the boardwalk. "The governor came out here," he says bitterly. "You know how far he went? To the Parachute Jump. But the cops were snatching everybody up."
He waves to include his wife, Helen Gonzalez, whom everyone calls China (pronouncing it 'Cheena'). "It's rough for us still out here," he says. "When they say they're gonna revitalize the area, they're talking about the amusement area. They're not talking about us." China nods morosely over her beer.
For now, Coney Island remains as isolated as ever. The renovation of the Stillwell Avenue station, which will bring a big boost in 2004, has cut it off from two subway lines until then. And though many residents appreciate KeySpan Park--Quinonez sent her five-year-old son to a Police Athletic League day camp there--its customers haven't changed the area substantially, aside from making it harder to park. "They shoot in and shoot out," says Giordano.
But if the revitalization visions the Giuliani administration set in motion are ever realized, then Amethyst--and Aida--will be faced with a predicament. A revived amusement area could bring jobs, but to get tourists flocking to the seaside once again the city will want to clean up the neighborhood. If the police clear all the pushpins out of the area, like they did in Times Square, then what becomes of the people who worked there?
Already, it's getting harder for Coney Island's beach dwellers to find hiding places. In the summer of 2000, homeless people built a little fishing colony on the pier across from the stadium site. Mostly addicts, they set up tents made of tarps and cardboard. They would carry out buckets of crabs they had caught and sell them to the restaurants on the boardwalk. When the city knocked down the Thunderbolt and built KeySpan Park, it filled in the space underneath the boardwalk and cleared off the pier. The crackheads and prostitutes who used to sleep on the beach went elsewhere.
Both Aida and Frost'd, a citywide group that does street outreach to prostitutes, say there have been fewer sex workers along Coney Island in the last several years. Yelena Makhnin, head of Brighton Beach's Business Improvement District, says there's an increasing population of street prostitutes on certain corners in that neighborhood just to the east, some black and Latina, others "ladies from the former Soviet Union." Makhnin suspects they might also be moving indoors, to brothels.
They could also be moving to other parts of Brooklyn. Chocolate, who lives in East New York, comes to Coney Island to work the streets because it's safer. Out here, she thinks the worst that might happen to her is that a guy might not pay her for a date. In other neighborhoods where she has worked--Canarsie, Sheepshead Bay and all the other strolls in Brooklyn--you can expect much worse, "everything from the guy put a gun to your head and say he's going to kill you if you don't do this or that, to keep you in the car and have all his friends come do you." In East New York, a friend of hers was almost killed out tricking last summer. "They beat up my girl so bad, they left her for dead," she says, her chin trembling. "She's brain-dead now."
Such stories are not unusual. Violence against prostitutes increases exponentially when they're pushed to remote parts of a city, says prostitution researcher John Lowman. A criminologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Lowman conducted an quantitative analysis of violence against prostitutes in Vancouver for the Canadian Department of Justice. After that city began a concerted campaign to move them out of a highly trafficked area and into a more remote one, he found that murders increased "in the hundreds of percent."
That was partly due to one particular serial killer, but as Lowman points out, moving prostitutes to distant areas makes it easier for assailants to prey on them. "There's less eyes on the street, the women are spread out more, they don't spot for each other," he explains. "They don't take license plates, because they're in these dimly lit areas, and predatory, misogynistic men clearly have been much more able to pick up a woman without being seen."
Displacement and dispersal create a much more intractable law enforcement problem as well. Lowman is skeptical of the logic that prostitution can ever be reduced by "sweeps" and other traditional policing methods. "Those human beings are not detritus to be dealt with that way," he says. "We have to find real answers to the problems that lead to addiction, and especially the kind of survival sex that is involved with addiction-driven prostitution."
Which is where Amethyst comes in. Aida is adamant that, wherever its clients end up, Amethyst could follow them. When asked what she would do if the city drove the prostitutes out of the neighborhood, she shrugs. "Go somewhere else, somewhere that needs us," she says. "This community is so small, you could see any kind of change coming."
Already, she's made a few forays out of her turf. As the number of Russian prostitutes began to increase, she got a Russian-speaking worker who could talk to them, only to lose her to college. Now Oakley, who's also going back to school, is trying to teach himself Russian. It's slow going: "I know just enough to say 'Do you have a Medicaid card?'" he says, smiling wryly.
But if the little white house were to be picked up and dropped down in East New York, Wizard of Oz--style, Aida's omniscience in Coney Island wouldn't do her much good. In her neighborhood, she knows everybody, from the prostitutes out on the stroll to the local community board, whose district manager calls her "a dynamo." Even the 60th Precinct is said to occasionally send clients her way (though Aida says she doesn't know anything about that).
And it's on her own streets that Aida finds her inspiration. Last August, Aida found Ibian Soto, an old friend from the neighborhood, turning tricks on the street in sweatpants and a dirty t-shirt. She took her home, put her in some clean clothes. Then she made up Soto's face and gave her a whole new hairdo. "The next day, she woke up, and I said, 'What do you want for breakfast?' Now, you know, most people, they'd say, 'Oh, whatever you want to get me, Aida'--cause I don't do breakfast and none a that shit in my kitchen," she says with disdain.
"But she looked up at me and you know what she said? 'I'll have eggs over, and toast, and coffee,'" Aida relates, pride masquerading as outrage. "She ate her ass off! She thought she was on vacation."
Not long after, Soto was back on the street, and Aida was scheming to get her back and into rehab. A month later, she finally did. "That girl, she's like a sister to me," says Aida. "She's like the last one that might die on me. Out of all the girls I used to get high with, that are still out there, she's the last one who's still alive."
She pauses, then speaks quietly for once. "Such an outrageous thing," she says, "to save a life."
LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
As a long time supporter and admirer of City Limits, I was deeply disappointed in "Coney Island High," December’s cover article about the Amethyst Women’s Project. The tone of the article was more voyeuristic than journalistic. One had the feeling the reporter was describing a side show of Coney Island characters utilizing exactly the kinds of sexist and racist stereotypes used by mainstream media to describe marginalized communities. I tried to imagine another City Limits article where such pains might be taken to describe in detail a person’s style of dress or manner of speaking. Why weren’t we treated earlier in the issue to the details of Father Powis’ outfit or the color of Councilwoman Gail Brewer’s nail polish? There’s a reason. City Limits is not Vanity Fair and we have grown to expect serious stories that give voice to communities the mainstream press don't hear.
Aida Leon (and she does have a last name that she uses) approached our foundation just as many people do--displaying tremendous urgency about the work that needed to be done and an incredible commitment to making it happen. To describe her as a hustler not only misses the point, it proves her point. The people of Coney Island are easily dismissed when described like characters from a television show; portrayed as New Yorkers trying to protect their community, they make for less sexy copy, but at least they are real.
New York Foundation
Annia Ciezadlo replies:
Describing people isn’t sexism, or racism, or even voyeurism. It’s journalism, and it’s what makes readers care about human beings and the hardships they face.
Likewise, I used Aida’s first name because I wanted readers to feel like they knew her as a person--not an abstraction like a “struggling New Yorker,” but a real person, fallible but magnificent, with courage and autonomy, whom they could identify with and admire.
Writing a Vanity Fair-style article about Aida is exactly what I set out to do. Why shouldn’t grassroots heroes get the same front-page treatment, complete with description and dialogue, that “the mainstream press” usually reserves for mayors, moguls and movie stars? Why should poor people be relegated to the dusty realm of pious, politically correct “serious stories”? (And how does one “give voice” to people who already have their own voices?) To portray them as suffering paragons, to suspend our storytelling abilities and critical capacities every time we enter “marginalized communities”--now that, I believe, would be promoting racist stereotypes.
As for trying to imagine another City Limits article that mentions a person’s appearance and manner of speaking: You don’t have to. Just read my September 2001 profile of white male lawyer Norman Siegel. He got the same treatment Aida did, complete with commentary on his looks and his thick Brooklyn accent--and yes, like Aida, I even compared him to a movie star.