WASHINGTON is Drugtown.

In at least 50 street markets across the city, anyone can buy whatever illegal high they want. For the past decade, the struggle of the D.C. police to keep a lid on the booming drug markets has been markedly unsuccessful. Only a year ago, Insp. Kris Coligan, head of the morals division, said of Hanover Place NW, the city's leading cocaine market, that the only way to close it down was for the police to camp out there. And, he added, that was too expensive.

But in a complete flip-flop of police policy regarding major drug markets, Isaac Fulwood, the number-two man in the city police department who, since January, has been the man in charge of the city's war on drugs, now says 60 officers will patrol Hanover Place per day, and they will stay there forever if necessary.

Moreover, he sees this force as an unprecedented vanguard that will hold the neighborhood until free-market capitalism, aided by city service departments, turns the entire neighborhood around economically thus encouraging gentrification that would displace crime from one of the bleakest areas of town.

"The idea is that for blocks, there'll be no drugs," said Asst. Chief Fulwood last week. "That people will move in there with families and the criminal element will no longer want to be there. It's more than just going up there and locking those (drug) people up and running them out of there. The idea of the program is to create a good quality of life and eliminate that urban blight. I think it can be done not in 10 years, not in a year, but in a six-month period.

"Law enforcement for a long time hadn't thought about how it relates to economic development. I mean, now that crime is going down in the city, you look at downtown and how it is growing. When those businesses come in there, one of the things that they always want to know is, 'Hey, how safe is it? Will my employes come to work? Will the customers come?' So it is critical to the economic life blood for us to have a safe, stable environment. The businesses are relying on us to make the neighborhood safe.

"It may take two years before businesses get (to the Hanover Place neighborhood) there and get stable," he said. "(But) businesses will come if they know the police are going to be there. If they see us there for the duration."

There is a certain irony in a black police official, who was raised in Washington, encouraging gentrification in a poor, mostly black neighborhood of the city. For years, black residents of the town have worried about "The Plan," a popular myth that holds that the tiny minority of white people in the city want to take control of the town and of a government dominated by elected black politicians.

For that matter, if successful, the project offers the startling prospect of the police's being able to pick and choose neighborhoods that they can subject to a real-estate boom.

But Fulwood is focusing on one thing: that urban decay is a nesting place for drug dealers. "The market places -- where the drugs are -- all of them are in neighborhoods where there is urban blight." And he says he has a clear mandate from the police chief and from the mayor to close down the Hanover Place market permamently. Fulwood recounts that Chief Turner told him "'Hey. The mayor's called me about Hanover Place. We are going to dry Hanover Place up. I don't care how you do it. We are giving you overtime. Do it.'"

It is difficult to envision dreary and shabby Hanover Place as Washington's next great neighborhood with real estate speculators tripping over themselves in the rush to show the tiny, two-story, brick houses to Washington Yuppies. The 30 houses left on Hanover Place, a block of few residents and no stores, are valued by the city tax assessor at no more than $25,000 a piece. Only six are owned by the people who live there. About 40 percent of them are abandoned.

Then there is the problem of the police simply keeping control of a block that they have twice in 18 months swept with well- publicized raids, only to see the drug dealers swiftly return. Skeptical neighbors have adopted a wait-and-see attitude on a program that practically promises heaven to an area long plagued with all the problems an inner-city neighborhood can have -- ranging from violent crime to a lack of trash removal.

Hanover Place is a one-block long dead- end street near North Capitol Street and New York Avenue NW. For five years, day and night, cars with Maryland, Virginia and D.C. tags have created traffic jams there as their occupants negotiated to buy $50 packets of exceptionally pure cocaine from the many willing vendors who lined the narrow street. In the past six months, nightly shoot- outs between rival drug dealers and between sellers and buyers were common.

Hanover Place met all of the requirements for a thriving drug market. Like many of the 50 other neighborhoods in the city that support such bazaars:

It is near major thoroughfares -- North Capitol Street and New York Avenue -- allowing quick and easy access for buyers from Maryland, Virignia and D.C.

Many buildings are abandoned. Therefore, there are fewer neighbors to object. Also, dealers have places to hang out, hide from police, and store the drugs.

Garbage is allowed to accumulate, attracting rats, and stray dogs and cats. This is at least partially because the average trashman is reluctant to drive his truck into a dark alley which, he has reason to be believe, is full of heavily armed men. The trash in turn provides thousands of hiding places for small quantities of the drugs the dealers are holding. Because it is an open-air market, the smell of urine finally permeates the entire neighborhood.

Hanover Place is typical of other drug marts, too, in that once the street and sidewalks of any neighborhood becomes the business address of drug dealers, the residents become hostages in their own homes. Hundreds of people who don't live on the block, occupy it. The view from the front window of homes in the neighborhood is of the backs of young men lounging against the resident's fence and gate.

It becomes impossible to park on the block because all the spaces are taken up by the customers anxious to make a connection. Friends stop visiting. Real estate values fall. And the police themselves begin to wonder how anyone could live in a neighborhood like that. As a result, they tend to disregard complaints from residents who, the police come to think, must have brought their problems on themselves.

It is this blanket of drug sellers and customers that not only alters the life style of the residents but also forces businesses to close because customers will not wade through a crowd of junkies to buy a loaf of bread. And the store owners can't afford to stay open after repeated holdups.

But Hanover Place didn't commit suicide; it was helped to its death bed by an indifferent city government including the police department. Residents of the area are quick to list the number of phone calls and letters they have written in an attempt to get help during the past five years. They collected signatures for petitions and they visited city council members. Meanwhile, they say they got nothing but the runaround while the drug dealers made millions from the Hanover market.

But Fulwood, a 45-year-old graduate of the District's Eastern High School who often sounds more like a city- planner than a cop these days, flatly states that this time, the cops will hold onto Hanover Place.

"We got to take this one marketplace and win," Fulwood said. "We have to win. I mean, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it. This is the kind of thing we can't afford to lose."

This is the first time that the police department has been the leader of an assault on a high-crime neighborhood that includes other city agencies such as housing and public works. Several years ago, the police department was one part of a multi-agency attack on the deteriorating neighborhood around the muncipal building then under construction at 14th and U Streets NW. That operation was called Brightside. Fulwood said that his new program, called Operation Avalanche, is drawn in part from the Brightside program.

Fulwood's plan is to have his police officers secure an 18-block buffer zone around Hanover, so that the surrounding neighborhood is not destroyed by dealers simply moving their business a few blocks away. The buffer zone is bounded by First Street NE, Fourth Street NW, Florida Avenue NW and New York Avenue NW.

This zone is inhabited partly by long-time homeowners, predominantly black, who survived the downturn their neighbood took after the riots of 1968. It has a sizable community of newcomers both black and white who have renovated the turn-of-the-century rowhouses. Yet it is also an area of cheap rental apartments, corner mom-and-pop stores and vacant buildings.

What is striking about Operation Avalanche is its simplicity. Once his police have secured the neighborhood, all Fulwood wants to do is force the delivery of city services to a neighborhood which had none.

The housing department is checking for code violations. If the owner -- who is usually an absentee landlord -- does not fix his place up, he can be fined. If the problem is that the house needs boarding up, and the owner does not comply, the city will do the job and tack the cost onto the owner's tax bill.

In some cases, the city may end up as property owner on Hanover. The police department is considering seizing several houses on Hanover that were used as distribution centers for drugs, or that had been bought with proceeds from the illegal trade.

Meanwhile, the Public Works Department has recently taken 18 tons of trash out of Hanover Place and towed 14 abandoned cars. City-installed high-intensity lights now brighten the block like a movie set.

And, Fulwood said, Madeline Petty, director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development is involved. "We can try to stabilize the businesses that are there," said Fulwood. "And then try to get new businesses to move in. I think that's key to making the area a better place. It may take a year. It may take two years. But businesses are going to see that it's possible to make a profit. They're not going to come up here if they know that junkies are going to be out front and cut off the customers from coming inside. But if they see that the police are going to be there, they're going to come."

Fulwood is a tough, no-nonsense kind of cop. He is called a "dictator" and a "tyrant" by his detractors, and a "fair and upfront administrator" by his fans. Physically imposing, if not intimidating, his style is very direct, almost brusque. Of Project Avalance he asks, "If I don't take the lead, who will?" and waits for an answer to the question. When none is forthcoming, he continues "Why should I sit back? I am a risk-taker. There is no question about that. If I lose on this one, I lose big. No one will ever believe me again. But I believe I will win. And I will bring pressure to bear on other people to make sure we win. Because I don't think we have any choice."

Flat statements like these are unusual for high-ranking police officials. Such comments -- that could come back to haunt him -- are even more interesting given that in the police department and the District Building, Fulwood is widely regarded to be the shoo-in candidate for police chief when Maurice Turner decides to retire.

But middle-of-the road is not Fulwood's style. A fondness for his native city and an interest in the "little guy" comes through all his comments. He worries about people not being able to sit on their front porch or let their children play on the sidewalk. He sees the police department as having a duty to insure people's rights to feel safe in their neighorhoods.

"To me, drugs are personal," Fulwood says. The fact that this is happening in a town that I grew up in is a personal thing with me. It's more than just that I am a police officer. I mean, deep down inside of me I resent it. And I resent people who talk about it as recreational drugs. Because I see so many damn people out there dying from it. It's like the MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) lady. Her daughter got killed by one of those drunk drivers. When it became personal to her, she took a stand and she's made it a part of her. And fighting drugs is part of what I am as a person."

So what made Fulwood choose Hanover Place over the other 49 recognized markets as the staging ground for his new offensive against the drug market?

It was partly the publicity given the problems of the block in the news media. "Hanover Place was just a place that had become a thorn in everybody's side," said Fulwood. "We started to get complaints from a whole bunch of people, including the mayor, who said people were complaining to him."

And what about the residents of the other drug market areas?

"I've been hearing from them too," said Fulwood.

Linda Wheeler is a Washington Post reporter who has been covering the illegal drug trade in Washington for three years.