King's Cross vice defies the cameras
Sunday 22 August 1999
More than pounds 37m in grant money has been ploughed into ridding the area of pimps, vice girls and drug dealers. The police have dedicated 35 officers to patrol the area 24 hours a day and more than pounds 2m has been spent installing closed circuit television cameras. But since the cameras were turned on, in April 1998, the crime rate has doubled. Local residents are adamant that nothing has improved.
The CCTV signs are prominently displayed on lampposts and traffic crossings, but this is not deterring drug dealers who can earn pounds 1,000 in a day here. Indeed, the stretch of pavement from the station past the shop fronts and on up Pentonville Road has earned the nickname "drug alley".
The dealing is not confined to the hours of darkness. In the middle of the day the activity goes on. Just a few feet from the cameras, one man brazenly passes a rock of crack cocaine to his friend who swiftly slips it into his mouth. They then disappear into the crowd.
At the corner of King's Cross Road and Pentonville Road, a motley gang of men is loitering by a phone box plastered with prostitutes' calling cards. They are ordering their next drug fix. On the top of the telephone, they leave behind their calling card in the form of a miniature Bacardi bottle. The hole burned in the side and the tin foil around the neck are the telltale signs that it has been used to smoke crack cocaine.
Across the road is a derelict building. Two weeks ago it was the Surrey Racing betting shop but, reportedly, it had to close after it became a haunt for drug dealers. Outside King's Cross station, prostitutes slope around looking for "tricks" under the noses of the security guards and police officers.
One girl, with a love heart tattoo, is swirling around like a demented morris dancer. High on crack cocaine, her body twitches from side to side but she manages to steady herself long enough to single out a potential "client".
"Are you looking for business?" she says, leering at a bewildered commuter.
Leaning against the wall is Lisa. Clutching a can of lager, she seems to be finding it difficult to keep her head from lolling about. Her skin is blotchy and you can see on her thigh a vivid red scratch.
In the CCTV control room, Ray, a security guard, is watching Lisa's companions sitting in a doorway chatting to a known rent boy. On another screen, he points out two men who are known drug dealers. They soon shift behind a traffic sign so that only their trainers are visible to the cameras.
He admits that the dealers soon become wise to the location of the cameras, but maintains that CCTV reassures other people. "The police come and clear them off the streets," he adds. "But it creates a vacuum and people are queuing up to take their place. The prostitutes get fined. But there is not much else [the authorities] can do."
The head of Operation Welwyn, the codename for the clean-up operation, is Chief Inspector Simon Pountain. He says the police have got to take a long-term view of the situation. "We won't drive the drug dealers and prostitutes away from King's Cross completely. There's no point in leaping in there to arrest people. Dealers will just swallow the drugs and make themselves sick."
Many people see the proposed Eurostar extension as the saviour for the area but there is no guarantee that this development will ever happen.
Pamela Manci is chairwoman of the King's Cross Partnership, which was set up to help regenerate this part of London. In 1992, she took to the streets to protest about the "tide of vice" sweeping across the area. But today she is more philosophical about the problems.
"There are a lot of dealers and prostitutes that we would like to get rid of, but I'm wise enough to know now that it will all be around a little bit longer."
This is no solace to the shopkeepers, or to those who have to walk home late at night past the pimps and the prostitutes. One resident, Harvey Bass, formed the King's Cross Action Group to stop prostitutes operating in the stairwell of the flats where he lives. They are long gone but he feels little has changed elsewhere.
"The dealers just dance in front of the cameras," he says. "They are passing drugs at the bus stop in front of grandmothers and children. And the cameras do not deter them - when you need money for drugs nothing does."
CRACK AROUND THE CLOCK
Early morning: first cup of tea at Ginghams cafe inside the station and, apart from a few Big Issue sellers, everything is quiet.
9.30am: Andy who runs the news stall tells us that all the prostitutes are with the crack pushers getting their first fix of the day.
9.40: our photographer is propositioned for the first time, by a prostitute outside the station terminus. He politely refuses and says he is waiting for a friend.
10.45: a woman with a tattoo showing a heart staggers past the tourists at the station. She is clearly high on drugs.
Mid-morning: two vagrants point out a building used by crack addicts. On cue, a group of men emerges - they shout out 'Are you CID officers?'
Later, one of the same group reappears on the corner of Pentonville Road. He is shouting at a prostitute.
Lunch time: There is a girl lying on the ground outside the station clutching a white paper bag. She is talking to herself and appears to be high on drugs.
1.55pm: Three men in baseball caps are placing vice cards in a phone box by the station. None of the prostitutes we encounter could be mistaken for their "slim leggy blondes".
3.15: By this time we are starting to recognise the dealers and prostitutes. The girl who propositioned the photographer walks past with her pimp in tow.
4.25: As we walk up Pentonville Road, two men come towards us. They pass a lump of crack between them and one quickly puts it in his mouth.We find a home-made crack pipe in the phone box.
Early afternoon: Talk to a prostitute outside the station but her pimp calls her away. Her face is covered in sores. A group of vagrants is moved on by two police officers from the doorway of Barclays Bank after staff complain.
5.45: The final proposition of the day. The girl with the heart tattoo asks our photographer if he wants business. She gets threatening when she sees the camera.
Footnote: early next day, a man is pestering a motorist near the station to have his windscreen cleaned. He refuses, the cleaner gets angry and bangs on the vehicle.
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