When Étoile Academy Charter School bought a building along Bissonnet Street last November, staff hoped the beautiful campus would help students and families feel special.
The trash pile behind the school, however, made that difficult.
“We created Étoile Academy to feel like a private school for free for families,” said Kayleigh Colombero, Étoile’s superintendent. “You certainly wouldn’t see that kind of thing entering a private school, right?”
The trash pile seemed emblematic of the urban blight that has long plagued “the Track,” a section of Bissonnet Street known internationally as a hotspot for prostitution, sex trafficking and other illegal activity.
All that changed Saturday morning, when several dozen volunteers, city officials and police officers descended on Bissonnet to beautify the area.
The effort was the latest phase of a recent initiative to improve the Bissonnet area and drive out illegal activity. Starting May 16, Houston police implemented strategies designed to deter pimps and johns, including street closures, improved lighting and increased police patrols.
Those strategies, said residents, city officials and law enforcement, have been a resounding success.
“After more than three months working on this initiative, the trafficking activity we have long seen for over a decade has been significantly diminished and in some cases eliminated,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Friday. “The responses have been very, very positive.”
Reece Hardy, commander of the Houston Police Department’s west side patrol division, said police have made over 140 felony arrests and 40 misdemeanor arrests along Bissonnet since the initiative began, mostly of buyers and pimps, but emphasized that law enforcement’s efforts extended beyond enforcement.
“We would not be here today with the success that we’ve seen without the commitment of our local businesses and residents and their willingness to be supportive of these unique strategies, such as closing streets at night,” Hardy said.
City officials did not offer additional data on the initiative’s results.
On Saturday, volunteers concentrated their efforts on the corridor of Bissonnet between U.S. Route 59 and Beltway 8, long a focal point for prostitution. One former sex worker told the Houston Chronicle in 2019 that she had seen as many as 300 sex workers walking the Track on a single weekend.
“It’s a tight little loop that they continue to circle over and over again until they find what it is they’re looking for,” Hardy said.
Merchants have said their businesses have suffered for years because of criminal activity in the area.
“We went from a company that could do $10,000 a month to one that can’t do more than $800. It is that bad,” Bola Ogunjinmi, who owns the African restaurant Finger Licking on Bissonnet, told Houston Landing in June. “We once had 33 employees. Now we’re down to 14. You can barely pay your bills.”
However, previous efforts to reduce the activity along Bissonnet were unsuccessful, including in 2018, when local officials asked a judge to declare the area off-limits to over 80 suspected sex workers, pimps and johns.
The current initiative has made headway through deterrence strategies like street closures, improved lighting and increased patrols along Bissonnet, nearly all implemented by Hardy’s police division.
While advocates and sex trafficking survivors initially expressed concern that the initiative would simply drive the illegal activity elsewhere, Hardy said police have not identified any new hotspots.
“We have not seen anything that comes close to what we saw here on Bissonnet,” Hardy said. “The displacement has not been an issue.”
Turner announced Friday he had allocated an additional $5 million to HPD to support further efforts.
Not all the money will be spent on Bissonnet, but Turner pledged the city’s financial support for “whatever they need to maintain and keep this area going in the right direction.”
‘A noticeable difference’
The volunteers who gathered at the METRO Park and Ride off Southwest Freeway Saturday morning wore sneakers and T-shirts, leggings and sunglasses, donning reflective safety vests and toting water bottles and trash pickers.
“We’ve been blessed,” said Houston City Council member Edward Pollard, a shovel in hand. “It’s not as hot as it could be.”
The trash pile behind Étoile Academy was an early target for the volunteers, who split into groups and fanned out across Bissonnet. There, they worked with law enforcement to heave a discarded sofa and crumpled mattress into a city dump truck, while others sifted through scattered detritus like broken glass, dirty towels and empty water bottles.
The work was arduous in the summer heat, but the community’s enthusiasm for the project was palpable.
“Edward Pollard has done, in a short period of time, remarkable things for my neighborhood and for the super neighborhood,” said Gena Sylvester, president of the Robindell Civic Club and the Braeburn Super Neighborhood, which will integrate with Pollard’s city district in January. “I’m just returning the favor.”
David Peters, a member of the Southwest Management District’s board of directors, said local businesses have seen a marked difference in the amount of illegal activity taking place along Bissonnet, and expressed optimism that improved conditions will spur economic growth.
“As the safety (of the community) improves, the economy follows,” Peters said.
Colombero, Étoile’s superintendent, said the improvement initiative has even led to increased interest in the charter school.
“Now we have parents and students that are actually walking to the school each day, which originally families were really worried about,” she said.
Anthony Mays, superintendent of Alief ISD, agreed.
“(The challenges are) something that’s been ongoing,” Mays said. “And I can say now, given the concerted effort, that everybody sees a noticeable difference in the traffic and feeling unsafe because there’s not a lot of action going on here anymore.”
Other volunteers, meanwhile, joined the effort simply to support the positive changes they have seen in the neighborhood they call home.
“We’ve been trying to just be in the community to make sure that we keep it clean and safe for everybody,” said Lundin Alvarez, an area resident who volunteered on Saturday with her boyfriend, Ricky Cartel. “This was a good opportunity for us to do so.”