Most mornings, Gary Rucker starts his Chevy pickup about 7 a.m., drives around the corner from his Northwest Washington home and is met by heroin dealers plying their trade. The sales continue through lunch and after bedtime.
The day-long, open-air market near the Park Morton housing complex has been part of the routine along the 3400 block of Georgia Avenue in the Columbia Heights area since at least 1966, when Rucker was a boy walking to Park View Elementary School. Drunks, vagrants and drug addicts from around the city and the suburbs soon followed the pushers, Rucker said. They have not left.
"I'm not leaving my neighborhood," Rucker, 47, who lives on Warder Street, defiantly told police officials at a community meeting in September.
But the neighborhood's prospects may be looking up, as city officials prepare to open a police substation to target the drug market, prostitution and rising violence in the area. After a $1.2 million renovation, police expect about 85 officers to move into the old 10th Precinct building at 750 Park Road this week.
The facility will become the city's third substation -- joining others on Capitol Hill and in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Southeast -- and is one of several that Chief Charles H. Ramsey hopes to staff across the city. Officials said they have been scouting for locations in Northeast and east of the Anacostia River.
Larry McCoy, commander of the 4th Police District, said that for officers assigned to the Park Road substation, the deployment will eliminate a two-mile commute from district headquarters. Even more importantly, he added, he thinks the substation's presence will bring changes to the neighborhood.
"Once roll call takes place, you've got the beat right there," McCoy said. "There's work to be done, there's no doubt about that."
The neighborhood around the substation is a study in entrenched urban decay amid scattered signs of improvement. Nearby, the city has embarked on a modest plan to renovate the facade of Georgia Avenue businesses, and property values are rising among the renovated buildings that dot the aged community.
But sunny afternoons see few people sitting on porches and fewer children playing on sidewalks. Front doors remain closed and window shades drawn.
Park Road resident Walter Walden, 68, strung barbed wire atop his backyard fence to keep out crack addicts and prostitutes. But he can't move them out of the alley behind his house. One afternoon last week, a man stood bare-chested in 40-degree temperatures as another man jabbed a needle into the shirtless man's biceps. The men were less than 10 yards from the unopened police substation.
"Look at that, they're shooting up. That's my back yard," said Walden, a retired technician at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington.
"This is [a] war zone up here. We're right in the middle of it," said Daniel Johnson, a psychologist and director of Kids House, a nonprofit learning center for children at the Park Morton complex.
Since he started work at the center three years ago, Johnson has been threatened at gunpoint, and his three-day-old car was smashed with a baseball bat. Just this year, four people have died in a Lamont Street alley, a notorious stretch to locals, Johnson said. Some were homicides; others were drug overdoses from a nearby house abandoned by its owners.
Many in the community say they look forward to the increased police presence, though few are willing to say so publicly. But, they add, it will take more than an address change by police to clean up a Zip code where lethal dice games and drive-by shootings are a fact of life. Nine homicides have occurred in the patrol area surrounding the station, and at least 12 people have been assaulted with deadly intent this year.
"I'm glad [the police] are back; it will stop a whole lot of [drug] traffic around here," Walden said.
Other residents say they have doubts about how effective the increased police presence will be and about the logistical changes the substation will bring, such as the transformation of the 700 block of Park Road into a one-way street to make room for angled parking for police cruisers.
Darren R. Jones, president of the Pleasant Plains Civic Association, said he fears that the drug market near Park Morton will merely move a few blocks south once the station opens.
"The brass of the police department needs to have a vision," Jones said at a recent community meeting with police officials. "It's not getting rid of [the drug market]; it simply moves."
Others asked what will happen to the increased police presence when officers make arrests but have to travel to the 6000 block of Georgia Avenue to process the suspects at district headquarters.
Rucker recalled that the drug markets emerged in the late 1960s, when he walked to school and police were in the building they are now reclaiming. Back then, the city had more stations, each with fewer officers than under the current system.
Without more aggressive law enforcement, Rucker said, he thinks the substation will accomplish little more than earn political points for city officials.
"Yeah, that's a victory for Graham, sure, but that's not a victory for the community," said Rucker, referring to D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who led the effort to open the Park Road substation.
Graham lobbied for the restoration of the 19th-century sandstone building for more than a year before work began in March. Ultimately, he asked the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to vacate the offices of the city-owned building.
"This is not going to be a panacea, but it is going to help," Graham said. "Some of the immediate adjacent crime will vanish . . . to relocate," in all likelihood, somewhere else. But residents will now be able to walk to a police station for help, he added.
Other problem spots to be targeted by police at the substation include the robbery-prone area around the Columbia Heights Metro station at 14th and Irving streets NW and the area around 11th and Lamont streets, which has been plagued by muggings and shootings, McCoy said.
The substation follows the deployment in recent months of a vice squad and anti-prostitution unit in Columbia Heights, along with the introduction of canine and horse-mounted units. The major narcotics strike force has made about 40 drug arrests in that area in the past two months. The station should help maintain progress gained by those actions, McCoy said.
A 4th District captain will supervise the substation, which had its original brick and historic millwork restored, according to Eric Coard, senior executive director for the department, who oversaw the project. The station will house a community outreach program and resource center on the first floor.
The roll call room will be equipped with a video conference hookup, which will enable real-time briefings from the city's police headquarters on Indiana Avenue NW. The district commander also will have a satellite office at the substation, Coard said.
Graham said police will need to show results quickly to win over naysayers. For now, he said, he welcomes the increased police presence and hopes that the city eventually will fund a full-service station there, complete with a holding facility.
"We've got ambitions," Graham said during an inspection of the station last month. "We've got ambitions."