Rafael “Ralph” Moreno strides along a dingy Roosevelt Avenue sidewalk, his shiny black dress shoes more distinguished than their surroundings. A stout woman bundled in a North Face jacket thrusts a red flyer at him. “Immigration attorney!” she shouts in Spanish, loud enough to compete with the rumble of the No. 7 train above.
There was a different kind of solicitation on Roosevelt Avenue in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when prostitution and the cocaine trade were booming, according to news accounts from that time. Tired of headlines about Colombian criminals, Moreno enlisted in the fight against crime.
“To hell with this,” the Colombian immigrant remembers thinking to himself. “I’m going to clean up our name.”
He would wear sneakers as he strolled Roosevelt Avenue, to be “any guy,” he said. “Honestly, I looked like I wanted to go to bed with a prostitute.”
In 1957, Moreno moved to Jackson Heights with his new wife, whom he had met at City College. He wanted to attend Columbia University when he emigrated from Bogota three years earlier, but could not get in, partly because of language issues, he said.
Once in New York, he worked at a watch manufacturer and then as an electrical engineer for Con Edison.
In 1974, as the neighborhood began a decline, he formed the Jackson Heights Action Group. A few years later, he enrolled in and graduated from the NYPD Civilian Police Academy.
Moreno was not alone in his crusade. He used to meet regularly with Manuel de Dios Unanue, a crime-fighting journalist who was murdered in a restaurant just off Roosevelt Avenue in 1992.
According to the NYPD, Crime has dropped dramatically in Jackson Heights, like the rest of New York City, since the early 1990s. Major crime - including rape, felony assault and murder - fell nearly 80 percent from 1990 to 2008, according to 110th and 115th Precinct statistics.
Still, Roosevelt Avenue has a problem with prostitution, say local officials who last year announced a campaign against promoting sex for sale. Moreno, now in his 70s, said he went undercover as a “John” as recently as last year. It’s a personal battle - police officials say he has no official role in their vice operations.
Instead, Moreno said, he brings cops first-hand information about brothels.
“My friends on the Community Board ask, ‘Ralph, are you crazy?’ No, I’m doing good work for the community,” he said.
Grace Lawrence, Chairperson of Community Board 3, said that despite good intentions Moreno might be putting himself in danger.
“He’s a community advocate, a strong advocate,” she said. “But in my estimate that’s not such a good idea.”
Moreno said he has recruited members to act as fellow “Johns.” At their busiest time, Moreno said local police closed about 70 brothels in five years. Now, pimps have shifted their tactics and are handing out business cards, offering “free delivery,” he said.