Once, the area around Talbert Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE was the domain of community residents. They would sit on the sidewalks and play checkers. Greetings rang out on the streets as they darted into the corner grocery or dropped into Galloway's Liquors. They comforted each other when their dead lay in Magruder's Funeral Home. In 1967, when the Smithsonian established the Anacostia Neighborhood Museun there, the community rejoiced. The museum staff ate soul food at the colorful restaurant next door. Knots of men pitched horseshoes in the yard of the museum annex.

Today, it is an area gripped in fear. Local people scurry home as fast as possible. Churches shun night-time meetings. As for the museum, which once held such promise, people are now afraid to go there except in well-organized groups.

The neighborhood is paralyzed by the drug traffic.

In early May, a 12-year-old girl was arrested there and charged with selling heroin in the company of a man police described as "a friend of the family." Last Wednesday, a 24-year-old District Heights man was arrested on charges of selling heroin after an incident in which he allegedly used a 3-year-old child to hold his drugs while he hawked them on the street. This sordid use of children, in which they are subjected to the ugliest climate and the direst risk, tells us something about the corrupting influence of drugs.

It is sobering for a stranger to take a midday stroll in the block where, two days earlier, the 3-year-old was standing with what police said was more than $400 worth of heroin in her pocket.

There are men everywhere--standing and sitting in doorways and on porches, or just walking up and down the street. An unnatural quiet pervades. Where are the normal street sounds, the laughing, talking, yelling? Even children at play seem muted.

Walter Douglas, 52, a truck driver, allows as how "they ain't doing nothing now they didn't do 10 years ago," and explained the use of children this way: "Times are getting hard. They're less careful now . . . it ain't about morals. You're hungry, you gotta eat, and somebody gotta pay. Ain't no jobs."

A woman of about 40 who doesn't want to give her name says she is "scared for my children. I guess I could come home from work and they'd be gone. But I can't quit my job and I can't keep them locked up all the time. You gotta live with danger."

Debra Clifford, 23, pauses at the bus stop. "It bothers me that I'm not safe in my own neighborhood and it's less and less safe every day." But the drug dealers aren't afraid of the police. "Police don't stop them because they're back out here in a day."

The neighborhood has taken on a menacing aura. A man of about 30 seems to take a special interest in the stranger who's asking so many questions, and it seems a good time to board a bus and get the hell out.

"The people are unfamiliar now," a longtime resident (who didn't want her name used) told me later. "I see people paralyzed, not wanting to get involved because of fear of retaliation of the ugliness that could take place in their neighborhoods. Anacostia is in the grip of fear. Nobody wants to be identified."

The deadening drug traffic is most likely an outgrowth of the dispersal of the trade in Northwest Washington, and Martin Luther King and Talbert is but one of several intersections where the traffic now has relocated.

But that explanation does not answer the central question: What is the impact on the hundreds of children who must use that thoroughfare to go to the store for their mothers or go to school, who have to play on a playground no longer occupied by them alone but shared with drug dealers as well? What's going to be the effect on these kids five or 10 years from now?

I think it's time our elected leaders and city officials reclaim this neighborhood from fear and the assault against our children. It's bad enough that the good citizens have had to retreat behind their doors. But the most urgent concern is for the children. The saying goes that children are our most precious asset, but we're setting a hell of an example of adult leadership to leave them to be preyed upon by unscrupulous drug dealers at Talbert Street and Martin Luther King Avenue SE.