IT WAS EIGHT years ago this month that the Daily News branded 52nd and Market streets one of the city's most dangerous corners.
"Death Row" screamed the front-page headline - one part tabloid hyperbole, one part depressing summation of the crime, blight and poverty that had choked the life out of the once-proud business and entertainment strip.
Drug deals went down casually in broad daylight. Businesses collapsed, one after another, as a lengthy rebuild of SEPTA's Market-Frankford El turned the streets and sidewalks into a maze of construction equipment and debris.
But - there's always a but in stories like this - in the wake of the paper's coverage, city leaders promised that better days were ahead for the former "Main Street" of West Philadelphia.
What's the verdict, almost a decade later?
Valerie Brown, a lifelong area resident, mulled the question as a blustery breeze whipped across Market Street on a recent afternoon.
The El was doing its thing, punching through the air overhead like a rocket, leaving Brown no choice but to shout.
"My aunt calls it 'God's Pocket' around here," she said. "You ever seen that movie?"
The film was based on a 1983 novel, written by former Daily News columnist Pete Dexter, about lost souls struggling to make the best out of bad situations in a different hardscrabble corner of Philly.
As comparisons go, it's not perfect, but it's not entirely off the mark, either.
In recent interviews, residents, workers, local politicians and police all said the area has made serious improvements.
The renovated transportation hub is cleaner and safer, and the rebuilt El allows more light to penetrate.
The old El platform and stairwells used to be like an "outdoor bazaar," said SEPTA Police Chief Tom Nestel.
"People were hanging goods on the walls and railings, and commuters were getting harassed and pressured to buy things," he said. "There was a lot of entrepreneurial work being done, none of which was licensed or good for SEPTA's customers."
The sidewalks on 52nd Street are also brighter since the city decided four years ago to tear down grimy canopies that blotted out the sun.
Some storefronts have received face-lifts. Many of the unlicensed street vendors who harassed passers-by have been removed.
The Philadelphia Police Department and SEPTA's police force maintain a constant patrol presence in the area. Cops say violent crime has fallen.
In the four months leading up to the 2007 Daily News story, 52nd and Market saw three slayings and 11 shootings, a typical output for the area at the time, cops said.
From nearly a murder a month then, it's closer to a murder a year now. Inspector Verdell Johnson says there have been just four in the past three years that he has overseen the Southwest Detective Division.
There's a sense that the area could be on the cusp of generating real momentum, of finally coming back from the dead as so many other distressed neighborhoods have in recent years.
"But there's so much that still has to be fixed around here," said Thelma Peake, the president of the 52nd Street Community Development Corp.
"There are so many abandoned buildings, and there's trash all over the place," she said. "People are struggling economically. Maybe a new mayor would focus on this neck of the woods."
A rapid decline
Peake, 59, remembers 52nd Street's heyday well.
The strip was a clean hub of activity, filled with thriving locally owned businesses and nightclubs.
"There were a variety of good stores, two large movie theaters and a great library," she said. "You could get real food, too. Not like today, when you can only find grease and alcohol."
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a Democratic mayoral candidate, was a regular visitor in the good ol' days.
"I remember the Nixon movie theater," he said. "When I was a kid, families went there in suits and ties. I remember my father took me to see James Bond [movies] there."
Williams, 58, said the area began "fraying around the edges" when he was a teenager.
"It was the beginning of a rapid decline," he said. "But it was still a place you could go on holidays to buy your Buster Browns [shoes]."
Other pockets of the city deteriorated in much the same way as Philadelphia's manufacturing base vanished, giving way to a crippling rise in crime and poverty.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 19139 ZIP code that's home to 52nd and Market and its surrounding neighborhoods had an 11.9 percent unemployment rate in 2013. The city's overall unemployment rate at that time was 8.9 percent, while the state's was 5.6 percent.
"There's such a large rate of unemployment, and a lack of organized activities out here for our teens and our seniors," said Peake, who runs Peaks Little Angels Day Care at 52nd Street and Baltimore Avenue.
"That aggravates all of the other problems we have."
All together now
As the area's economy withered, so did its sense of community.
"We need more community meetings, more togetherness," Valerie Brown said.
"The only time we get together now as a community is when you see those little teddy bear memorials," she said.
"Everybody gets together and grieves. They go back for a week, and then they forget about the person who died."
Brown, 36, jabbed her finger in the air, singling out the Tropical Heat bar at 53rd and Market.
Her close friend Melissa Thomas, 29, was killed in front of the bar's pumpkin-colored walls last February.
"It was a robbery," Brown said. "She gave them everything she had, but they still shot her. She died right there on the spot."
The case hasn't been solved.
Cornealler Burton, 20, echoed the need for more community involvement moments after she finished working a shift as a waitress at the 52nd Skyline Breakfast, at 52nd and Chestnut.
"A lot of young adults around here, including myself, are getting together to do things for the community so the violence stays down," she said, as an ambulance sped by, its sirens blaring.
"We need more youth centers and public gardens, so people can get healthy foods that don't have chemicals," Burton said. "We need to start living the way people did back in the day."
Bob Apelian is a site supervisor for Ready, Willing and Able, an organization that helps formerly homeless or incarcerated people to rebuild their lives. He is in the neighborhood every day, cleaning up trash.
"The biggest thing that's lacking here is a sense of community spirit," he said, gripping a garbage bag filled with several hours' worth of empty soda bottles and bags of chips.
"I've been out here for three years. Slowly but surely we're making a little progress, but people need to show a little bit more concern for their neighborhood."
SEPTA employee Bernard Norwood nodded in agreement. He's also spent the past three years at 52nd and Market, helping commuters on and off buses.
"We're stuck in a rut," he said. "I grew up in this neighborhood, so it bothers me to see people walk by and just drop their trash on the ground. When adults do it, kids do it."
Locals regularly stop and bend Norwood's ear about the neighborhood. "The common thought is that this area is moving upward because of Drexel and Penn moving this way," he said.
Although the universities are perpetually growing, their boundaries aren't close to touching 52nd and Market. But their students are increasingly turning to the neighborhood for cheaper housing options.
"Things are definitely changing," Norwood said. "We have a lot of different ethnicities who have taken over businesses out here, but a lot of black business owners have left. And that's depressing."
More can be done
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell thinks 52nd and Market is finally poised again for greatness.
The business strip is a "true melting pot," she said, home to local residents as well as African, Caribbean and Asian immigrants who have all carved out their own niche.
Vending carts officially licensed by the city will soon start popping up. And the Enterprise Center Community Development Corp., an organization that helps minority-owned businesses to grow in West Philadelphia, appointed a manager, Akeem Dixon, to keep all of the local businesses on the same page.
Blackwell counts the YMCA, at 51st and Chestnut, and the Malcolm X Memorial Park, at 51st and Osage Avenue, as other selling points in the area, as well as the new Philadelphia Police headquarters building, which is scheduled to open at 46th and Market several years from now.
"We've come a long way," she said. "You have to give it a chance to see the fruition of all of the work we've done."
Inspector Johnson said the biggest complaints he hears from residents concern panhandling and drinking on the street.
The streets are consistently patrolled, thanks in part to the fact that 52nd and Market serves as a border to the 16th, 18th and 19th police districts.
"It's not a utopia, but it's definitely way better than it was eight years ago," Johnson said. "What we want is to get more residents to come out and shop. I'd like to see the businesses unite and have festivals like you see in Manayunk and other parts of the city."
Peake said people want additions that could make the strip more inviting, like trees, benches and better lighting at night.
New and more diverse businesses would help, too. "How many nail and hair salons can you go to?" she said, referring to the current glut of similar shops. "How many cellphone covers can you buy?"
Sen. Williams said that if he's elected mayor, he'd double down on street cleaning and coordinating law-enforcement efforts in the area.
He'd also push for better marketing of the area.
"It's one of the most heavily traveled intersections in the city," he said. "But most people get off the El and get on a bus without even looking to see what's there."
Charles Outlaw, 46, leaned back on a cushioned chair inside his barbershop, Major League Cuts, at 51st and Market.
He waved off the idea of outsiders - the politicians, the universities - having to swoop in and rescue the area.
"Every neighborhood can be beautiful if people get involved and take responsibility," he said.