For years, 40th Road in Flushing, the one-tenth of a mile stretch of buildings sandwiched between a playground and bustling Main Street, has garnered the reputation as a “red light district.”
Illicit massage parlors sit above a row of restaurants, and sex workers can often be seen soliciting people walking down the block, according to local officials who are now looking to eliminate prostitution in the area.
On Friday, council members Peter Koo and Donovan Richards, police officers from the 109th Precinct, and representatives from the Flushing Business Improvement District (BID) announced a new multi-pronged strategy to address the longstanding issue.
Koo said his office has been working with the Flushing BID to identify the addresses of the “fake massage parlors.” He asked the precinct to shut down those locations.
The Flushing councilman said he’s also called the landlords of those buildings and “told them to clean up their act.” He said while some feign ignorance, others say they are helpless because their tenants sublease the units to massage parlor operators.
“We are tired of all these excuses,” Koo said. “All landlords should know their tenants. If they don’t, we will shut you down.”
In addition to applying pressure to the building owners, Koo said there will be undercover officers operating along 40th Road, as well as surveillance cameras watching the block.
The councilman sent a message to those who come to 40th Road looking for sex: we’re watching you.
“You put your privacy at risk for continuing to come here,” he said. “This is a growing community, a family-friendly community.”
As for the sex workers, Koo said he will task government agencies and community groups to teach them English and help them find other jobs.
He said he’s already been in contact with Garden of Hope, a Queens-based nonprofit that works to rebuild the lives of people who have been exposed to domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, specifically targeting services for the city’s Chinese communities.
“We’re here to help them,” Koo said. “They can always call us, we have many, many resources for them.”
Richards, who chairs the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, recalled that when he and Koo toured the district months ago, they saw prostitution happening “in plain sight.”
Richards emphasized that all of the groups involved should help connect the women to the services they need, including housing.
“If you are one of those young ladies, please reach out to our offices,” he said. “We want to get you the assistance you need.”
As for the pimps, Richards said he wants them to know that they “are going to jail.”
“We have a zero tolerance for this activity in our city,” he said. “You must go to jail if you are preying on vulnerable young ladies who may be undocumented.”
Lisa Lou, management agent for 135-20, 135-24, 135-28 and 135-32 40th Road, all buildings connected to prostitution, said the owner of the properties, Jentai Tsai, did not previously know about the activities happening in his buildings.
Tsai, 85, owned Asia Bank before selling it to Cathay Bank in 2006. Lou said he never received the legal notices about illegal activity until this past February.
“We only rent to four restaurants, the first floor-restaurants,” she said. “What happens upstairs, we really don’t know.”
Tsai hired Lou, a real estate agent, to manage the buildings and collect rent from tenants in August 2018. She replaced the locks on the four buildings to prevent the sex workers from entering.
Lou said she has given the legal notices to attorneys to handle. She warned the tenants that if there are more problems, she will terminate their lease.
“Whatever we have to do, we have to do,” she said. “The owner has a very good reputation, this has ruined it.”
In October 2018, the New York Times published a story about Yang Song, an immigrant sex worker who jumped to her death after being chased by police officers inside a massage parlor on 40th Road.
Critics have noted that many of the women face human trafficking and immigration problems, which an arrest would further complicate.
When asked if the 109th Precinct would continue arresting the women, Commanding Officer Keith Shine said they will continue to do enforcement in the area. He would not specify further than that.
“At this time, we’re going to keep moving in the direction that we have,” Shine said.
Advocacy groups leading a push to decriminalize the sex trades responded negatively to news of this new effort.
Nina Luo, a steering committee member of Decrim NY, a coalition of organizations that wants to decriminalize and destigmatize sex work, said in a statement that this approach shows that Koo has “never spoken to a single person who works in the massage parlors he wants to shut down.”
Luo referenced the death of Song after months of NYPD “surveillance, harassment and sexaul assault by police officers.”
“He is proposing NYPD do the same to more Asian women, he will have blood on his hands,” Luo said. “Policing is not outreach. You cannot ask the same people who arrest and terrorize our communities to turn around and offer us services.”
Homelessness, which would happen when the massage spots shutter, is a leading cause of trafficking, Luo said.
“Sex work is work, it is not necessarily good work for everyone,” Luo said. “But it is a means of survival, and criminalization means the end of that survival.”
In Albany, Democratic lawmakers, including state senators Jessica Ramos, Julia Salazar and Brad Hoylman, are introducing a bill that would end the criminalization of sex work.
Assemblywoman Nily Rozic commented that while she respects any efforts to regulate businesses operating outside of the law, she urged her colleagues to “do so responsibly and humanely.”
“Many sex workers are undocumented and living under circumstances that keep them from trusting or approaching government,” she said. “We need to continue partnering with community organizations and advocates to help navigate and build trust.”
Red Canary Song, a member of Decrim NY and a grassroots group that organizes sex workers in the Chinese community, said in a statement that the proposed measures are harmful, and will endanger the immigrant women.
“From our outreach efforts in the neighborhood, we see that women in these massage parlors are simply trying to make a living to support their families,” the statement read. “Police raids often destroy the lives of people caught up in arrests, court cases and subsequent deportations.
“Businesses also do not disappear, but rather relocate to other places that are more hidden away,” the organization added, “where workers may face more precarious and isolated working conditions, breaking their connections to the support networks they've built in Queens.”
A spokesperson for Red Canary Song said that the laws that treat the massage parlor workers as criminals, and the community that wants to make them invisible, are “forms of state violence and community violence.”
“We want Peter Koo to recognize the humanity of these workers and protect them, rather than do violence to them through sweeps, evictions and surveillance,” the spokesperson said. “We want the people of Queens to stop looking away in shame, and recognize that these people are part of our communities and they deserve to be treated with compassion and respect.”