Market Street

Market Street

Every major city has it's "track." That street or neighborhood which has evolved into an area known for drugs, crime and prostitution.

Market Street is ground zero for prostitution in Wilmington. Other women operate out of apartments and private residences throughout the area, but not as many.

"People just think that Market is a place to go shopping," smiled Cheryl Groves, an advocate for addicts who has volunteered before for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.

Groves often hits the streets with Naloxone kits and gives them to prostitutes on Market Street.

"It all seems pretty normal to a person not involved in this other world," Cheryl said. "When I drive down market I see something completely different. When I drive down Market Street, I see nothing but heartache and a bustling graveyard."

To be clear, Groves is referring to the area between 23rd and College streets on Market, where many of the prostitutes operate out of hotels.

That strip has been the focal point of attention in recent months, now that District Attorney Ben David and the Wilmington Police Department have sent final warnings to hotel owners.

The prostitutes said not much has changed although some of their clients, or Johns, are now more reluctant to frequent certain hotels. In response, many of the women have moved to hotels just off Market Street to avoid being targeted.

Shelly Martinez owns Ace Bail Bonding and sits on the Board of the Lower Cape Fear Bail Bonding Association. In her line of work, you stay busy on Market Street.

"The end of the line, you know what I mean? It's like the end of the line," Shelly said, again referring to that specific track of Market Street. "It's the end of the line whether you're a drug addict, prostitute, anything."

Market Street wasn't always the hot spot and if law enforcement continues to push back against street crime in that area, it will inevitably change again.

"Five years ago the prostitutes were predominantly out on Fifth Avenue, more downtown," said Evan Luther, a vice agent with New Hanover County's Sheriff's Office.

Before smart phones, social media and Backpage, hanging out on the corner was the way to make money. The women moved to Market Street when police started targeting that area.

Patricia "Patty" Combs was a streetwalker in the early 2000s. She is well-known and well-liked by staff at the police department, not because of her extensive, multi-page criminal record, but because of her excellent performance as one of the police department's interns.

Now, she owns and operates a sober living house on Oleander Drive.

Patty gave an inside look into her former life on the street. It all began for her at the backyard of a church near Fourth Street and Wright Avenue.

"You would just walk. You walked everywhere and people just come by and pick you up," Patty remembered. "You'd get out of the car and the next block get picked up again. I would literally leave my drug dealers house and I couldn't get around the corner without getting picked up. Back then it was like a revolving door."

Patty described that era of streetwalking as a "family." The prostitutes worked together and looked out for each other's safety.

Compare that to the girls today operating out of hotels who have stories about territory fights over who walks which block and who operates out of which motel.

"There was a handful of us and we would just walk different blocks," Patty said as she headed down Wright Avenue, pointing out different memories. "We weren't dressed up. We had on normal clothes. I mean I've walked the streets in pajama pants before. It was 3:00 in the morning. It was all times of day, all times of night."

A streetwalker can make a lot of cash in a short amount of time, but where does it go? Drugs and prostitution go hand-in-hand and every cent went to her drug dealer.

"I would eat a Little Debbie, get a bottle of Boone's Farm, and a 25 cent chip," Patty recalled.

She and the other streetwalkers would sleep on the steps of houses in the rare event that they slept at all. For a period of time, they lived in a house that was practically falling apart. The women substituted a bucket for a toilet since there wasn't any running water.

"You look rode hard," Patty flatly remarked. "You're not sleeping. You're doing drugs. You're not taking care of yourself. You're not going to the doctor. You're not on medications you need to be on. You're just not doing what productive members of society do."

Now, the internet has changed the way Johns seek out prostitutes.

"You have categories now," explained Detective Luther. "You have your streetwalkers that still exist, and you have your individuals gaining their business through the internet, social media, different websites."

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