ON HOT NIGHTS we'd sleep with the windows open. I could hear the clickety-clack of the El trains two blocks away at 52nd and Market streets.

Some nights I would slip out and walk up 52nd to Market. There were always people there. Horn and Hardart's on the northeast corner and the Holiday Store on the southeast corner stayed open until the last of the midnight-shifters came down the El steps.

If they were hungry, Horn and Hardart's, Deweys and Linton's offered a choice of inexpensive but wholesome meals. For those inclined to wash it down with something stronger than iced tea, there were a few watering holes in the shadow of the El tracks.

Yellow Cab operated a stand at the corner for those who didn't want to wait for the No. 70 trolley, which later became the route 52 bus. The corner was crawling with life.

I worked at the Market Street Beef Co. at 5216 Market St. before school, after school and on Saturdays, and made more money than I could spend.

If I wanted to take my girl to the movies, I could choose from the Capital, the Belmont, the Nixon, the State, the Rivoli or the Locust without ever leaving 52nd Street. Everything I ever needed was there.

The 52nd Street strip drew night-lifers from all over town. Cadillacs and Lincolns parked outside Mr. Silks, Coupe DeVilles and the 4-6 club. I caught Max Roach and Freddie Hubbard at the Aqua Lounge.

Seems long ago and far away now. Now I pick up the paper and read how the intersection that my life revolved around is considered the city's most dangerous corner.

How can that be?

The statistics seem to bear it out. There have been six homicides within four blocks of 52nd and Market in the last year. Several other victims are in varying stages of recovery from gunshot wounds.

The uncounted casualties are the people who are trapped in their homes after dark. If they run out of bread or milk, they have to make do.

That's how it is on 52nd Street now. People just make do. They make do with the grease joints and fast-food chains that replaced the restaurants and with the dollar stores and discount houses that replaced the specialty shops and haberdasheries.

Some of it is just reflects different tastes. There are more places to buy a cell phone or get your nails done now. Sidewalk vendors seem to do a bustling trade in fragrant oils and bootleg videos.

I don't want to romanticize it too much. There were always street hustlers and shady ladies. It was no trick to get your numbers played or to find an after-hours joint that operated just outside the law.

But homicides were rare. You didn't have to have your neck on a swivel.

One thing that has not changed: People who live and shop there and the people who set up their stands and sell their wares there deserve better.

If it means round-the-clock police patrols or closing down nuisance bars or L&I crackdowns, just do it. SEPTA police should step up their patrols.

SEPTA owes something extra to a neighborhood where local commerce has been devastated by a five-year shutdown for its Market-Frankford El reconstruction. SEPTA is spending a half-billion dollars along Market Street, virtually none of it going to local people.

Meanwhile, their streets grow darker and more dangerous as stores close, street lights get moved and auto traffic gets diverted.

I'm not making excuses. SEPTA didn't turn my old neighborhood into a free-fire zone or transform law-abiding citizens into gun-toting thugs.

I know we live in times where people get shot for stuff you wouldn't get smacked for when I was growing up in the '60s.

But people still climb those El steps to get to work in the morning, still pay taxes from the paychecks they draw. They're still abiding by the law.

People like that should be able to live free of fear. Times have changed. But they haven't changed that much. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith