Some call them ladies of the evening, but they often can be found strolling the upper stretches of King Street well past dawn. And they're not all ladies.
As children trudged to three nearby schools one morning last week, a woman who admitted to working the streets chatted with a Charleston County schools crossing guard. A city councilman who lives nearby said he's had to chase male and female prostitutes off his porch.
"They used to be right in front of my door," said Charleston Councilman Robert Mitchell, who lives on King near Huger Street. "You see cars picking them up at night. Nice cars — you'd be surprised."
The odd mix of streetwalkers and school children has become part of the morning landscape on Upper King.
There are three schools in the area: James Simons Elementary, the Charleston Catholic School and the new Charleston Charter School for Math & Science.
City Councilman James Lewis said he received complaints around the end of last school year about teachers being solicited as they arrived for work.
Lewis lives nearby and said King Street between Race and Grove streets has been a trouble spot for some time.
"It's full of prostitution," he said. "Women and men."
As obvious as the prostitution is now, residents, civic leaders and school officials say things have gotten better.
Lewis and others, including North Central Neighborhood Association President Rev. Alma Dungee, credited a police crackdown with helping improve the situation since early summer.
"It really has been getting better," Dungee said. "The police officers are really working."
Yet Charleston police have tallied relatively few prostitution arrests during the past few years.
In 2007, they made 24 such arrests — an average of two per month— compared with 301 in North Charleston — almost one a day.
"I don't know why the numbers are so different," said Cpl. Tonatte Mitchell, a member of Charleston's vice squad, not related to Councilman Mitchell. "If we get a complaint, we do something about it."
Complaints spurred the arrest of two men on prostitution charges near King and Race streets in early August, as well as two others near Meeting and Huger streets in April. Tonatte Mitchell said the city made the arrests using a female decoy.
Street-level drug dealing seems to be a much greater concern for city residents, according to the vice officer.
"Prostitution is not high on the list," she said. "I don't think it compares to any of the drug complaints that we get."
Lewis said the two problems go hand in hand. "Anywhere you have drugs, you're going to have prostitution," he said.
Fred McKay, principal at Charleston Catholic, said that things were much worse a few years ago. He said police patrols have helped, though he doesn't consider it just a law-enforcement problem.
He's also worried about nearby boarded-up buildings that seem to attract a range of criminal activity.
"They've been very good about responding," he said. "I think it needs more attention, not only from the police perspective, but from a city perspective as a whole."
Lynn Owings, the new principal at Simons Elementary, said she wasn't aware of any problems but didn't work at the school last year.
Peter Smyth, principal at the School for Math & Science, did not return calls for comment.
Robert Mitchell, the city councilman, isn't sure where the prostitutes come from; he doesn't see them in the daytime.
"We've got to keep pushing to try and clean it up," he said. "They arrest them, maybe they pay a fine and they come back out and do it again."
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