It's a little past 1:30 a.m. Saturday, the time when the streets in Old City start to teem with alcohol-soaked bargoers headed home. Women in minuscule skirts and teetering high heels scurry along the sidewalks, laughing loudly and clutching the arms of friends or boyfriends. Men with gelled hair and suit jackets eat pizza and smoke on street corners, enthusiastically recapping the night's adventures.

On Second Street halfway between Market and Chestnut, a young man in a collared shirt and sweater vest collapses in a patch of snow and is too drunk to make it back to his feet. By the time Philadelphia Sgt. Dennis Vest walks up, the man's friends have hoisted him up under his arms and are trying to drag him away to get a cab. "Don't arrest," one man yells, half-joking.

A man passes by with his girlfriend and glances at the commotion. Suddenly, the man in the vest perks up, though he's still being propped up. "He's got a problem with us," the man tells Vest urgently, pointing.

Vest waves the bewildered couple away.

"Go on," he says to the man, who slows down and starts to protest. "Just go on home." The whole scene, Vest said later, was almost comically familiar. "That's how it goes around here every damn day," he said, shaking his head. "Because someone's looking at him, he's ready to fight."

Bar town

Bordered by Walnut, Spring Garden, and Fourth Streets and the Delaware River, Old City has at least 80 bars and clubs packed into a sixth of a square mile - making it possibly the city's most bar-saturated neighborhood. The area is a draw for college students, young adults, and visitors from across the river in New Jersey.

When all those doors close at 2 a.m., the streets are flooded with thousands of people, and, fueled by hours of drinking, revelers start fights and try to pick up people to take home.

The Police Department receives one or two reports of minor assault each month, and officers make a few arrests for disorderly conduct. Last year, Old City had one fatal shooting, and another shooting resulted in a minor injury.

"Two years ago, it seemed like we were breaking up a lot of fights," said Philadelphia Capt. Brian Korn, head of the Sixth District, which includes Old City. "Things have really died down a lot since then."

Officers like Vest who patrol Old City spend most of their time stamping out meaningless disputes before they get out of control. Left to work things out on their own, the area's bargoers are often inclined to do things they'll regret later. But since police are such a visible presence, the neighborhood is, for the most part, safe.

The police cannot be everywhere at once, though. On Jan. 17, Vest was a block away when Temple University law student Gerald Ung opened fire on Villanova University graduate Edward DiDonato Jr. about 2:30 a.m. The shooting unfolded in front of security cameras outside the Fox29 studio at Fourth and Market.

Ung, 28, and DiDonato, 23, were each walking with friends to find cabs home when someone bumped into someone else. A fight began, then escalated. Ung fired six shots at DiDonato, injuring him critically. DiDonato, of Blue Bell, has had several operations, infections, and pneumonia and is in recovery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Ung, of West Philadelphia, is charged with attempted murder. He has told police that he fired in self-defense.

Old City's turn

The area's growing popularity has led police to assign extra patrols at the end of the night. Between 1 and 3 a.m., police appear on corners and at major intersections, blocking off traffic except for taxis and valets. In the summer, bicycle cops circle the area.

When bargoers pick fights, officers can usually defuse the conflicts without arrests, Korn said.

"You get your share of guys with beer muscles," he said. "You get men trying to talk to women, they can get aggressive. The officers have the routine down. They'll tell the guy, 'Hey, you haven't gotten a number yet. Maybe it's time to call it a night.' "

The city's neighborhoods take turns as hot spots, said Dominic Verdi, the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections liaison with the police. For a while, the South Street area was the busiest, followed by the Delaware Avenue clubs, and then Manayunk's Main Street. Now, he said, Old City seems to be the place to go.

Korn said he believed that as Old City became a hotter neighborhood, people learned, for the most part, what police would and would not tolerate.

"I think they've got the hang of it," he said. "Most people, they get out of the bar or the club, they find a place to get something to eat, they go home."

Vest said most of the people who start trouble aren't from the area and more likely visiting from New Jersey or the Pennsylvania suburbs.

"We try to tell people to look out for their friends," he said. "If your friend is falling down drunk in the street or saying something to a police officer they shouldn't be saying, you need to get them out of the situation."

Early yesterday, Vest made his rounds to Old City's regular corners and bars. It was a relatively quiet night, with the usual crowds and the usual issues. One man asked for help finding his hotel. Several women slipped and fell in the slush. A man walking with his friends kicked a trash bag full of bottles, earning him a sharp warning from Vest. Two men started trash-talking, then backed away from each other when they saw a police officer nearby.

"Tonight's nice and calm," Vest said. "Some nights, they're just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs out here."

On a nearby corner, a group of friends stood eating pizza after a night at the Khyber on Second Street.

"I see a fight every time I'm here," 26-year-old Matt Sims said. "It's always a group of guys starting something stupid."

Kevin Walck, 21, agreed.

"It's like a lot of guys have to prove something," he said. "They're not manly unless they punch someone."