RAYMOND "Ray of Hope" Gant spent the '80s dealing drugs and bribing cops on Strawberry Mansion's meanest streets, which landed him in prison for the '90s.

When he was released in 2001, he found God. And then he found a new way to deal on Frankford's and Kensington's meanest streets.

Gant, 57, has to be the most cheerful former menace to society in the city of Philadelphia.

He's a big man. Big smile. Big vision. Big nerve. Where most people see hopeless layers of blight - bottles, cans, used syringes, tires, construction debris, dead appliances, monster weeds, graffiti - Gant sees "what if?"

What if the filthy block were clean?

Commanding his armies of former inmates (whom he always calls "returning citizens") and hundreds of volunteers from churches, schools and businesses - the guy seems to know every living soul who can whack a weed or bag a bottle - Gant descends on blighted blocks like an avenging angel from Home Depot.

He flings open the rear doors of his severely oxidized, green '98 Dodge van, which seems to be held together by duct tape and fervent prayer, and hands out rakes, shovels, weed cutters and trash bags as if he were distributing muskets to a Revolutionary War militia.

Sweat pours. Hours later, a block is clean for the first time in years.

"First time I saw Ray, we were getting our supplies ready for a block cleanup in Kensington," said city Managing Director Rich Negrin, who spends a lot of his free time working hands-on with the PhillyRising neighborhood-revitalization programs.

"Ray pulls up in that van with these kids from a suburban youth group. Maybe it's their first time in an urban neighborhood.

"Ray flashes that million-dollar smile and makes them feel comfortable right away. They stand in a circle and he leads them in prayer. Then they get to work."

Negrin has seen Gant and his troops arrive at cleanups many times since. "It's a lifetime thing for him," Negrin said. "He's out there busting his butt, trying to make a difference. It fuels him."

Naysayers have told Gant that he's wasting his time, because things will go back to being dirty and hopeless.

Gant invites them on a ride through streets he has cleaned in Frankford and Kensington.

Recently, a skeptical Daily News reporter climbed into the van and headed up Ruan Street, where Gant lives, toward Frankford Avenue, where he rules.

He took the long way through his formerly blighted section of Frankford, slowly cruising down 22 clean, graffiti-free streets bordered by Adams, Kensington and Frankford avenues, and Unity Street, naming the block captains he works with along the way.

He praised the mother and daughter captains on both sides of Deni Playground, who helped him turn a trashed, syringe-strewn mess into a kids' oasis.

"Several years ago, you had a lot of drug dealing and prostitution in there," Gant said.

"Some people told us, 'You'll never clean this up,' " said Sharon Allen, captain of the 1400 block of Church Street near Leiper, who has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years. "Ray just went out and did it. He kept us going. Still does."

Her mom, Joyce Cross, a lifelong resident who is Gant's next-door neighbor and captain of the 1300 block of Ruan Street, said: "If it wasn't for Ray getting us together, none of this would have happened. It's not often you find somebody you can count on in that way. You can count on Ray."

After the tour of his clean neighborhood, Gant drove slowly up the Frankford Avenue business corridor under the El from Ruan Street to Bridge Street and back, where crowds of shoppers mingle with crowds of SEPTA riders every day and yet, the sidewalks and the roadway were shockingly clean.

Gant spotted Damien Carreras, 28, sweeping up a few cans and bottles by himself on the avenue near Filmore Street, and pulled over to tell him, "Man, just keep going like the Energizer Bunny." Carreras nodded, smiled and kept on sweeping.

The avenue used to be a pigsty, carpeted with thousands of cigarette butts and plastic bottles under the El and on the sidewalks.

After the Frankford Community Development Corporation hired Gant to be its commercial-corridor cleaning supervisor last year, he brought in his armies of sweepers and baggers week after week until the filth gave way to clean streets.

"Litterers can't throw it down fast enough no more," Gant said. "Business owners come out and sweep now, taking pride in Frankford Avenue."

Gant's personal transformation is as startling as his block-by-block revivals.

Before he finally heard and understood the Sermon on the Mount, Gant was lost on a Mount Everest of trouble in Strawberry Mansion.

"I worked out of 16th and Allegheny, 26th and Allegheny," he said. "The cops was down there doing their thing. At some point, I was giving them money to protect our drug business. But it was a sting. I got locked up for bribery and got charged with possession with intent. I did 10 years."

After his 2001 release, Gant's girlfriend brought him to Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Germantown on New Year's Eve.

"Clock hadn't struck 12 yet," Gant said. "Preacher was saying, 'I'm here to tell you that you ain't going to be able to straighten out without God. You will spend your whole life playing Russian roulette, playing Monty Hall - "Let's Make A Deal." God wants you with all your stains.' I heard that. It hit my spirit. I was done."

Gant has tried to live according to Jesus' teachings ever since. But he doesn't go to church.

"Christ didn't do no in-house services," Gant said. "He was out in the street, out among the people, walking around, doing things. The work that's being done in Frankford and Kensington is being done in His name. I am a walking miracle and I know that God is still in the blessing business. If it was left up to me, I would have been gone a long time ago."

So Gant spent the past decade cleaning up trashed streets in Kensington and Frankford.

"Some areas were so dead for so long," he said. "You'd come across Allegheny Avenue, and it was like a dark cloud followed you through Kensington. I don't care how bright the sun was shining, when you crossed Allegheny Avenue, it was like you was riding out of heaven straight into hell."

Gant and his volunteer crews were first responders at McPherson Square - the infamous Needle Park at F Street and Indiana - where dealers and addicts kept the five-acre green space dangerously littered with syringes.

Gant kept doing cleanups until the Philadelphia police took back McPherson Square last year and turned it into the safe kids' play space it is today.

"That dark cloud that used to hang over folks there is gone," Gant said. "It's a brighter day."

The same is true at Hissey Center playground, C Street and Indiana, where Gant's "Ray of Hope" crews joined the city's PhillyRising volunteers to turn an eyesore into a functional park.

"I ride by places where we've cleaned - McPherson Square, Deni Playground, Hissey Playground, Womrath Park, Frankford Avenue - and I see people shopping, people sitting in the park, people walking their dogs, people working in their communities, children playing, and that's a beautiful sight to see," Gant said.

"Why should people have to live in their homes like they're serving time in prison? Clean makes you feel so much better, man. It's like you been out scuffling and hustling and bustling all day, and then you come home and take a nice shower and put on your body fragrances, and you feel better."

For 10 years now, Gant has felt better. "You lay your head down in the night," he said, "and you know you just did a little something that turned the block into something else. That's a great feeling. So the show goes on."

On Twitter: @DanGeringer