The Hard Life on Lake Street: Inside Minneapolis' sex-work hub

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

Daniel Farias didn’t realize how bad things had gotten until his business was broken into.

It was the middle of the night when police called to say the alarm system had gone off at Mi Boleto Travel. Farias drove to 31st Street and Bloomington Avenue — just a block off Lake Street — at 2 a.m. to check on his business. A window had been smashed. But he was equally shocked by what he observed on the street.

“It seemed like a scene from The Walking Dead,” Farias says. “There were people everywhere. And by people, I mean prostitutes, drug dealers.... It was insane. I had never seen anything like it.”

All night Farias kept vigil, watching out the broken window as a parade of people dealt in sex and drugs, some openly peeing on the street.

Lake Street’s reputation for prostitution and drugs isn’t new. But in the last few years, it’s reached fever pitch. Neighbors, particularly in the midtown area between 11th Avenue and Bloomington, describe finding condoms everywhere and witnessing sex acts in cars, alleys, and behind bushes. Both women and men say they experience unwanted solicitations and harassment.

Tessa Wetjen decided to move from the area last September after she and her husband found a prostitute unconscious in their front yard at Lake and 15th Avenue. The woman, who’d been working their block for a while, was beaten and motionless.

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons Colin Michael Simmons

Neighbors say prostitution was at its worst last summer. Now that spring weather has arrived, there are signs it’s about to get more so. “With some of the warmer weather happening last month, the activity was definitely starting to warm up,” says Corrie Zoll, executive director of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre on Lake. “Now that I have a year under my belt of seeing it, it’s obvious how sophisticated these operations are.”

Walk east on Lake Street, past the Midtown Global Market toward Bloomington Avenue, and it’s hard to miss the sex trade. Even during the lunch hour, you’ll find cars idling on the street, women lingering at bus stops while never actually catching a bus. They walk against traffic, making eye contact with drivers.

A young woman with rhinestone jeans strolls along Lake until a car stops. She briefly speaks to the driver. Then they’re gone.

On an overcast afternoon, a transgender woman stands on the corner of Lake and 12th. She’s tall, full-figured, hand on hip. She wears a lot of makeup, but her skirt and a blue sweatshirt are casual.

Yes, she’s working, she says, and agrees to talk. But she becomes reticent when a man approaches, looking menacingly over her shoulder. He seems to give the okay via a shrug, but continues to hover. 

“I’m just surviving,” the woman says. “The street doesn’t judge. Here, you are either predator or prey. Sometimes I think I’m a predator, but I know I’m really prey.”

Mary Brown lives on 15th Avenue a block south of Lake. She feels compassion for the women who ply their trade in front of her home. But she’s also a mother of four — all under age 9 — and is overwhelmed by having her family surrounded by prostitution, drugs, and crime.

It’s always been a fixture on her block. But around 2015, it seemed to grow in intensity. “It’s become a constant on our corner,” she says. “People loitering, selling, waiting to sell, and helping people to get high.”

Last summer, the prostitution and drug dealing reached an all-time high. “It was off the charts,” Brown says.

She counted nearly 30 women regularly working her block. On any given day, there were six to 10 walking by or standing in front of her house. “They are hailing cars. Or they’re standing there waiting to make eye contact.”

The women either hop in cars or meet clients in the alley, where Brown constantly finds discarded condoms. 

Neither Brown nor her husband is certain how to explain the neighborhood commerce to their young children. “They notice the women and so far we’ve kept it under the umbrella of people making unhealthy choices,” she says.

The Browns have attended neighborhood meetings about crime, organized by Councilwoman Alondra Cano, but don’t feel like they’ve accomplished much. They get advice such as calling the police and being as visible as they can. But Brown feels the pimps have become harder.

“It seems like in the past, the people that have been working our block tended to be more friendly or kinder,” she says. They’d occasionally even stop to pet Brown’s dog. “This new wave is harder and harsher. They are more angry, and more confrontational.”

One night, she asked a particularly loud group to move down the block because she was trying to put the kids to bed. “And the guy’s like, ‘You fucking shut your window! We’re not leaving!’” 

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

Amber, 18, has worked Lake Street when she wasn’t meeting johns solicited on or stripping at clubs downtown.

She was molested by her grandfather at age 7, which launched multiple suicide attempts. When she eventually told on him, her father disowned her.

At 16, she was raped again by a group of boys who were never charged. A year later, she began to sell herself.

She was with a group of friends who were in college when she agreed to prostitute herself, almost by mistake. “I thought they were talking about something else. I was just confused. But the next day, I put an ad on backpage.”

Her first pimp gave her just $11 out of the $300 he was paid. She would end up working for four different men over the next two years. The journey would take her from Minnesota’s countryside to Minneapolis, where she’d work Lake Street making $30-$100 a trick while waiting for online hookups, which paid better.

“There’s a lot of competition on Lake Street,” she says. “Also, there are some people you have to watch out for more over there.” Rape is always a danger. It’s happened to Amber more than once. A client pays, then rapes, then robs. It’s one of the dangers of the life.

Minneapolis police Sergeant Grant Snyder, who specializes in human and sex trafficking, worked with Amber last summer, helping her get stabilized. But he lost touch several months ago. “When they get to an age where they get to make their own choices, I try to mitigate some of the realities of their life, if I am able to,” he says. 

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

Plaza Centenario is a vacant piece of land owned by Hennepin County and leased by the city. It sits outside the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, home to a statue of the Mexican General Emiliano Zapata, with the feel of a park.

“The plaza is the lipstick on the pig of this city,” says neighbor Greg Leierwood. “It’s a really horrible environment for this block.”

Wayne Bugg, the store manager at St. Vincent de Paul, says prostitutes have been buying clothes at his charity for years. But it’s picked up considerably in recent years. He attributes it in part to the absence of the undercover MPD Community Response Team, which was inactive for a year after members were caught having sex with prostitutes, and the squad was accused of brutality and search violations.

“The Third Precinct had public issues with some of the things they were doing,” says police Inspector Catherine Johnson, putting a polite face on the matter. “The CRT was temporarily... ‘disbanded’ is not the right word. Essentially what that amounts to is that we reconstituted with some new officers and a new supervisor.”

Despite its problems, the unit’s absence left crime to flower.

“Once the word got out that it was no longer being enforced to the degree it was previously, people felt more comfortable,” Bugg says. It wasn’t uncommon to see 20 people hanging out in the plaza selling both sex and drugs.

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, located on the 1500 block of Lake, sits near the heart of the street’s troubles. Executive Director Corrie Zoll says there’s more nuance to the prostitution around her theater.

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

“You don’t see someone hand over money and the other person hand over a woman,” Zoll says. “It’s a much more subtle transaction. There are guys on different corners, and it’s much harder for the police to arrest somebody.”

In 2015, when Zoll first took over, he made the decision to serve hot cider before holiday performances for both the audience and people working the street, a practice that’s continued. “I was trying to get our people to hang out outside the theater for the whole show,” he says, hoping it would dissuade trouble. 

Zoll stood outside for every performance. “After a while the faces start to become familiar,” he recalls. “You know who is out there dealing and doing business. For a long time, it looked like random faces. It was only when I stood there for a couple of hours that it slowly dawned on me that they all worked together.”

Zoll says the coordination reminded him of volleyball team, roughly 10 people working in unison. “Every once in a while they would shift positions. They’d move over a block, then all of a sudden everybody would be on one corner.... It was eye-opening.”

One drug dealer shared his perspective on the trade. “He said, ‘Yeah, we’re out here. We’re doing some selling, but the only people we are hurting is ourselves. We are not hurting anybody else. We are looking out for the people coming to the theater.’” 

The climate has forced the theater to adjust by not asking kids to come on their own, and changing programming to plan more events on the sidewalk to create a presence. “If this corner is going to be so unsafe that we can’t ask families to bring their kids here, then we can’t serve these neighborhoods.”

Junauda Petrus, a playwright and actor who grew up in Phillips and Powderhorn, says strangers have cat-called her and attempted to solicit her throughout her life. But she also has compassion for the working women. “I get tender around issues of class and economic background and the way the people who are a part of it are ‘othered.’ How are we being realistic about a long-term transformation with community that makes it so women aren’t having to be selling their bodies for survival?”

It irks her to hear parents talk about how they don’t want their children around the prostitution. “Don’t [they] know these are people with children too? They are part of this ecology.”

Over the decades, prostitution on Lake Street has ebbed and flowed, depending on the neighborhood response.

According to Joseph Spangler, who lives on 15th Avenue off Lake Street, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the problems exacerbated by the crack epidemic. Neighbors and business groups organized with block clubs and revitalization efforts. New developments arrived, including the In the Heart of the Beast at the Avalon, which had formerly been a porn theater, as well as the Midtown Global Market, which opened in 2001. 

Since then, prostitution and other livability crimes have flared up occasionally, Spangler says, but residents have re-energized each time. Spangler points to the heroin epidemic, which spiked several years ago, as part of the reason prostitution and homelessness have grown.

Neighbor Greg Leierwood says the elimination of “lurking” laws, which tended to disproportionately target African Americans, means it’s more difficult for police to make arrests. But in the end, it’s not easy to enforce crimes such as prostitution, where the criminals can simultaneously be the victims.

Leierwood says Councilwoman Alondra Cano “is very interested in the big picture of people being prostituted, and dealing with that so as not to have the women in and out of jail. It seemed like everybody was backing off.”

Cano notes that while lurking ordinances were eliminated, loitering statutes are still on the books. But these laws have their limits. It’s not enough to simply suspect someone is engaging in prostitution. “The cops have to prove with physical evidence that that’s what’s happening,” she says.

Add in the woes of the Community Response Team, Cano says, and it was like “having a car with only two wheels working.”

Regardless, the problems have been building for years. “We haven’t done much to address the inequities that contribute to heroin use and sexual exploitation,” she says. “We are talking about a multimillion-dollar investment.” 

For Cano, getting at root causes instead of “arresting everybody and their mom” is the goal. “My stance, which has not been a popular stance, has been to not continue to criminalize the women,” she says. “I’ve been asking for ways that we can support the women to get out of the cycle that we see here.”

In the meantime, she’s pushed for cameras in problem intersections. There’s also a $250,000 fund that that will go toward resident-driven ideas to fight crime, and another $75,000 was given to groups addressing sex exploitation.

Pride, a group that helps sex trafficking victims, has staffers accompany officers.

“Some of the women on our staff are survivors of sex trafficking,” says program director Charisma Smith. “A survivor recognizes another survivor, so the conversation happens naturally.” It allows prostitutes to see that it’s possible to leave the life. 

Meanwhile, 3rd Precinct Inspector Catherine Johnson says Plaza Centenario has her full attention. Cameras have been installed and trees trimmed to eliminate hiding places. After she took over the precinct last summer, Johnson directed the reactivated CRT unit to focus on the plaza and the 1500 block of Lake Street, another hot spot.

Still, it remains a cat-and-mouse game. “We had a positive impact of what is happening on 15th,” Johnson says. “But some of that has simply moved to 16th. We try and anticipate where these things are going to move to, and we do our best to follow them to that place.”

Meanwhile, In the Heart of the Beast has hosted a health clinic in its theater. Pangea World Theater has teamed with Latinos United for Culture and Art to hold family-centered arts events, hiring musicians and hosting Zumba classes, break-dancing workshops, and music performances.

“It’s beautiful how many passersby show up,” Alejandra Tobar-Alatriz of Pangea. “Some of the people that are normally hanging out on the street have stopped by for Mexican bread and coffee, or even participated in the activities.

“As we come in, I always go and introduce myself,” she says. “I tell them we are having an event and show them the flyer.”

“Oh, that sounds cool. When do we have to leave?” one person responded.

They didn’t have to go anywhere, Tobar-Alatriz told them. Everyone was welcome. “It was very human.”