IT WASN'T THAT long ago that 52nd and Market - once hailed as the "Main Street" of West Philly - seemingly had so much to offer.
Thanks to its state-of-the-art transportation hub, there was plenty of hustle and bustle as folks came from far and wide to take advantage of its unique shops, dynamite restaurants and classy nightclubs.
But like so many other once-proud sections of the city, the area has suffered a devastating fall from grace.
The formerly thriving thoroughfare is pockmarked with boarded-up storefronts, dive bars, careless drug dealers and roaming bands of lost souls who lurk in the shadow of the Market-Frankford El.
Over the last several months, violent crime and drug activity have spiraled out of control, prompting several cops to dub 52nd and Market the most dangerous corner in the city.
The numbers bear out the grim assessment: since Dec. 24, there have been 11 shootings, including three homicides, and more than a dozen narcotics arrests in and around 52nd and Market streets, police said.
Jeffrey Anderson, 23, was shot to death on 52nd Street near Filbert shortly after 4:30 p.m. Feb. 22. And Andre D. Johnson, 49, was fatally shot at 52nd and Market about 11:15 p.m. March 12. In both cases, police said the victims were the intended targets.
Many times, detectives have focused their investigations on violent episodes that have occurred inside the Corral, a notorious ramshackle watering hole.
"There seems to be a nexus of violent activity around the Corral bar. We look at the bar as a central issue," said Capt. Michael Sinclair, the head of Southwest Detectives. "The shootings are geographically linked."
Police said Brandon Reaves, 20, was shot to death inside the bar, on Market Street near 52nd, shortly after midnight Jan. 25.
Tyreese Williams, 30, was shot numerous times and critically wounded as he sat in his car outside the bar shortly after midnight last Wednesday.
Another patron was shot outside the bar Feb. 17, police said.
Besides the shootings, three people were arrested on narcotics charges inside the Corral on Dec. 2.
Another drug arrest was made inside the bar several weeks ago, and police said there have been 10 drug arrests within 500 feet of the bar within the past year.
"There are a lot of liquor joints out there. The fact that you have a lot of liquor consumption may play a role in the violent way people are dealing with their issues," Sinclair said.
Veteran cops have complained that the bar should be closed. Sinclair said the Police Department is working with the Department of Licenses and Inspections to "identify businesses that have an impact on violence."
L&I officials did not respond to several requests for details.
But the dive bars are just part of the problem in this struggling stretch of West Philly.
Drug dealers easily conduct sales on 52nd Street, thanks to the steady movement of pedestrian traffic that floods the sidewalk from the rusted Market El nearby.
And although 52nd and Market serves as a border for the 16th, 18th and 19th police districts, police officials were unable to provide information about whether daily foot patrols are conducted to deter the dealers.
"They can just make a sale and blend in," said a veteran cop, who declined to be identified. "They can see patrol cars from a mile away and just duck into a store."
The round-the-clock presence of drug dealers weighs heavily on the minds of people strolling through the neighborhood.
"It's rough out here. You can't walk down the street without someone trying to sell you something," said Robert Odom, as he surveyed the packed streets Monday afternoon.
"I remember the good ol' days, when it was nice around here," said Odom, 47. "Now, if you don't know anybody, you're taking a chance just coming around here."
Odom's concerns were echoed by a scruffy-faced, middle-age man who carried a yellow "Stop the Killing" sign as a train rumbled overhead.
"Me and my friend don't even come out here at night," said Eric, who declined to give his last name. "Young men are on drugs, shooting at each other left and right. It's like a damn Third World country."
Spend enough time in West Philly, and the gripes over crime and quality of life often lead to barbs directed at SEPTA.
In 2000, the transit agency began a $567 million reconstruction project to upgrade the Market-Frankford El, from West Philly to Upper Darby.
The 52nd Street station is being rehabbed, and although the streets are still open for traffic, the overall effect of the ongoing construction has been to hurt area business, said City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
"It's been a nightmare. It's disrupted everyone's life, and we've lost 30 businesses out there," she said. "When you have vacancies and blighted areas, it naturally draws crime."
Sinclair said the construction also had made it harder to carry out vehicle patrols of Market Street.
Any suggestion that SEPTA is playing a role in driving up crime is baseless, according to SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney.
"I haven't seen anything that indicates any kind of connection between street crime and the El reconstruction project out there," he said.
Maloney said that storefronts around 52nd and Market have been empty for many years, and that El reconstruction accounts for "a relatively small percentage" of them.
While the condition of the area - at least at this vital intersection - seems to be at its lowest point, hope is not entirely lost.
Lewis J. Williams, head of the 52nd Street Business Association's crime-and-safety committee, acknowledged that "it's never been quite this vicious or violent out here. There used to be a fabulous energy on 52nd Street, but a lot of it is gone."
But Williams, 59, said his committee plans to create a visible presence in the area - especially at night, when crime seems to spike. He said he hopes to weed out the drifters and drug dealers, and to encourage business owners to stand tall.
"When we tolerate certain behavior, it leads to certain insidious behavior. If we can get out here with a couple of police officers, we can create a physical presence that's a deterrent.
"I believe we can turn things around. We can make this a safe area again." *
Staff writer Dan Geringer contributed to this article.