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Fighting Prostitution One Motel at a Time

The National Lodge on 17th Avuenue and International Boulevard on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010
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The National Lodge on 17th Avuenue and International Boulevard on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010
 
The National Lodge in East Oakland is popular for pimps, but cracking down is not easy

Around midnight on a recent Friday, a dreadlocked man wearing diamond earrings and a blue tie walked up to the National Lodge, a motel in East Oakland, and inquired through a bulletproof window about a room.

The computer showed 12 vacancies. The parking lot was nearly deserted. But the manager, Hiral Patel, whose father owns the motel, told the man he had no rooms available.

“Come on, man, that's what you said last time,” the man argued. “I got money now.”

Patel shrugged.

“Last time he was here, he had four girls with him,” Patel said, after the man had walked back to the street. “And he's dressed like a pimp.”

The police say the National Lodge and several other motels in the area have long attracted the pimps and prostitutes who line International Boulevard, also known as the Track. Pimps sometimes operate out of motel rooms, keeping an eye on the girls on the street. Prostitutes use the rooms for customers or to take a shower and nap before returning to work. The activity lures violence.

A prostitute waits for clients outside the National Lodge on 17th Avuenue and International Boulevard on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
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A prostitute waits for clients outside the National Lodge on 17th Avuenue and International Boulevard on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

As the Oakland Police Department continues to shrink, it and the city attorney's office are discussing new ways to combat the thriving sex trade. The ideas include requiring motel operators to report under-age prostitution and attend mandatory training to renew business licenses, and allowing the police and civilian monitors access to motel video surveillance.

“You just have to make it hard for it to flourish,” said Patricia Kernighan, a member of the Oakland City Council.

Police Chief Anthony W. Batts has threatened to shut down problem motels. But a night at the National Lodge shows the difficulties faced by motel operators.

From the office window, Patel has a clear view of teenage girls and women clattering down the street in skimpy tops, trailed by pimps. One woman told him she was visiting a friend in Room 114, where a family with an infant was staying. He turned her away.

Several men inquired about hourly rates and offered more money. Patel said no.

The motel has four surveillance cameras, but Patel is not always watching.

“This is the best street for the girls to work, so they want a room,” he said. “It's not like we just don't care. If I think she's a prostitute or he's a pimp, we don't rent them a room.”

The newlywed Patel, who grew up mostly in the suburbs, lives with his wife in a small apartment adjoined to the concrete-block office. His father, a retired house cleaner, bought the motel several years ago, and Patel, 25, now works there as a full-time operator.

Patel said that he welcomed help from the authorities, but that it was unfair to single out his motel.

“We're getting blamed, but the whole city is known for prostitution,” he said, after turning away the dreadlocked man.

“It's just me -- one person -- working in the place,” he said. “I'm not going to be able to stop prostitution.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of the New York Times.

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