ANNAPOLIS -- Two blocks from the heart of historic Annapolis, a young woman in spiked heels leaned against a telephone booth and hitched her skirt higher.
Seconds later, she vanished into a car, just as two other women in tight jeans and thigh-high boots rounded the corner and stuck out their thumbs.
"You got hookers everywhere here," said Chris Crandall, a 20-year-old gas station attendant, shaking his head as he watched the hitchhikers.
Known as "The Strip," the five-block stretch of West Street leading from the city's manicured Church Circle has long been a hangout for prostitutes. But until recently, the ladies of the night only came out after dusk.
In the past six months, West Street residents and merchants complain, some prostitutes have begun soliciting business in broad daylight.
They walk past tourists and business travelers leaving Loews Annapolis Hotel. They hang out at the phone booth on West Washington Street, or stand in the alleys between vacant stores. Mr. Crandall, who watches the action between pumping gas at the Exxon station at West Street and Lafayette Avenue, said he sees prostitutes "almost every day."
At nightfall, the pace quickens as business people and tourists desert the blocks between West Washington and Monticello Avenue. A half-dozen prostitutes have been spotted on some nights when the traffic thins out, residents say.
"Not to say we haven't had prostitution in prior years, but there justhasn't been this degree of activity," said Officer Dermott Hickey, spokesman for the Annapolis Police Department.
Within five hours last Friday night, police arrested five women in the 200 block of West Street. The women were charged with prostitution after they offered to perform oral sex in exchange for money, police said.
Police are stepping up their patrols of West Street in response to complaints from nearby residents and merchants, Officer Hickey said. He did not rule out the possibility of another undercover investigation and said the vice squad wants to "nip this thing in the bud."
Residents of City Gate, an upscale town house complex behind the second block of West Street, were pleased to hear of the arrests. They complained that their quiet community has been troubled for months by prostitutes taking clients to parking lots there.
"The initial indication that we were having some problems with prostitution is when we kept finding condoms in the parking lot in the morning," City Gate resident Greg Masi said.
"A number of my neighbors came back to their homes late in the evening and found cars in the parking lots with people in them. It wasn't hidden. Everyone knew what was going on," he said.
A man who was washing his car in front of his City Gate home Tuesday afternoon said finding condoms became an irritating part of his life. "It's kind of bad when you would come out in bare feet in the summertime," he said.
Christa Kisser, another City Gate resident, said she was surprised to find so much prostitution in Annapolis, a peaceful town known for its historic charm.
The Rev. Charles Simms, who works with teen-agers in the Clay Street corridor on the other side of West Street, said he's been solicited standing in front of the teen center.
He blamed the increase in prostitution on drugs. While he worked as a cab driver for three months, he said, he often met women as young as 15 working "The Strip" to buy crack cocaine.
Prostitutes often solicit business in a bar on Clay Street and accost men driving down the street, said an area resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Many are known to perform sex acts in exchange for drugs, he said.
Although the activity has slowed down somewhat since Friday's arrests, a few prostitutes were back at work Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Masi and other residents said they're crossing their fingers that more police patrols will eliminate most of the prostitution in the West Street area and "make the streets a little safer."