On The Strip in Alexandria, business starts around suppertime and goes straight through until sunrise. Neighbors and police, the only people other than drug dealers who really know North Alfred Street, say it is the most frightening night shift in town.

"I was walking home from work and all of a sudden I hear, 'I'm gonna kill you.' And then -- pow! pow! -- guys are shooting at each other," said Jannie Terry, 23, recalling an evening several weeks back. "The thing that worries me is a bullet doesn't have a name on it. They could be aiming at Willie and hit Susan."

Night after night, the Alexandria Police Department and the city's drug trade collide on this three-block stretch of North Alfred that residents call The Strip, a busy and brazen narcotics shopping center. Less than a mile southeast is Old Town, and the quaint shops and trendy restaurants most people associate with the city. But on The Strip, the past few weeks have been a bad time for everyone.

The police have been pelted with rocks, bottles and bad publicity. Police Chief Charles T. Strobel stepped down Sept. 2 after an internal probe blasted the department's vice squad, which had assigned only two investigators to city drug crimes. And the department's tactical unit, known as the "jump-out boys," has met with flying debris when officers swoop in. A fracas on The Strip two weeks ago led to nine arrests for interfering with police.

The dealers have had their problems, too. The jump-out boys have spearheaded a crackdown during the past four months, making more than 600 arrests citywide, many of them on North Alfred. The City Council has lavished praise on the squad's work and has promised to keep the pressure on.

But it is the poor, predominantly black residents of North Alfred, people who make their lives in the squat, brick public housing units along The Strip, who have it worst. "The majority of these people are hardworking folks who want to enjoy their homes," said Lt. Kenneth M. Howard, who supervises the jump-out boys.

"I feel sorry for these people. I couldn't imagine living like that. They've lost their neighborhood."

On The Strip, the night has a rhythm all its own.

Six p.m.: Bobby Galloway goes to North Alfred when he gets off work. He doesn't do drugs. And though he doesn't live around here, he's not hanging out. He's come to chase the hustlers out of his elderly mother's yard.

Three a.m.: Dealers lounge along the sidewalks, spilling over to the front stoop of Luther Murphy's mother's apartment. "The police stop coming about 1, and it really starts up again," said Murphy, 38. When his mother tried to complain to police, Murphy says, dealers threatened to firebomb her house.

Six a.m.: Another night ends, and 52-year-old Eloise Madison begins her rounds, cleaning up the sidewalks near her home and struggling in her own way to reclaim her turf.

"They see me coming and they say, 'Aw, hell, here comes the sweeper,' " Madison said. "I'm raising a little grandbaby here, and I find dirty needles lying around all the time. That's what made me start picking up trash in the morning.

"I see these boys out here and I tell 'em, 'If {you were} a son of mine I'd break both your legs, and then I'd know where you're at.' It's bad when you have company that wants to come and see you, and they drive up here to this, and then they won't come in. But it ain't going to run me out. I'm picking up the trash. And I'm staying."

By all accounts, North Alfred Street has a short history as a haven for Alexandria drug activity. Only two or three years ago, according to resident Ruth Wright, 64, "this was a wonderful place to live."

Then the Police Department cleaned up an infamous, drug-infested corner a few blocks south. Residents of the quickly gentrifying neighborhood near Queen and Fayette streets cheered.

But the misery did not disappear. It simply migrated north.

"We saw it coming," said Lawrence (Lucky) Elliott, director of the city's Charles Houston Recreation Center, which borders on the southernmost portion of The Strip. "You could see the strangers coming in.

"The concern was that when it got up here, nothing would be done to clean it up. This is a poor, black neighborhood. We were afraid no one would care about it."

Elliott's sentiments reflect a longstanding mistrust of the police in the city's black community, feelings that stem from a day not so long ago when Alexandria was a segregated small town.

"I was active in the civil rights movement here in the '60s," said City Manager Vola Lawson. "I've been involved in pickets and have had experience with the police from that standpoint. There was a perception in the minority community then that the police were not sensitive to their concerns.

"I think that has changed substantially. The police officers who have come here in the last 10 or 15 years reflect the fact that America has become more enlightened. I want people in low-income housing to be as comfortable with our Police Department as people in affluent neighborhoods."

Mayor James P. Moran Jr. agrees. "I think the Police Department deserves credit for working with the community," he said. "It is not a racist institution. It has evolved."

But for a while, the residents of North Alfred Street were not sure. They said drugs gradually took over their neighborhood and no one seemed willing or able to stem the tide.

"It was just completely out of control here last summer," Elliott said. "We had people who were literally prisoners in their own houses. We had some meetings with the community and began looking for ways to deal with the problem."

As it turned out, police officials had noticed, and they too were groping for answers.

The plan they settled on emulated a popular antidrug program in the District, Operation Clean Sweep, and a similar program in Montgomery County.

The police formed a squad that concentrated solely on the city's most troubled neighborhoods, repeatedly making arrests until drug traffickers gave up or went elsewhere. In April, the jump-out boys leaped into being.

Anyone who has seen them at work understands their name perfectly. A hidden spotter observes suspected drug transactions and quickly calls in several carloads of officers, who jump out and nab suspected dealers.

From the beginning, the "boys" have concentrated on The Strip and one other troubled neighborhood, in Arlandria, just south of Arlington. And while neighbors such as Jannie Terry are generous in their praise, the hustlers who have dominated The Strip have become increasingly edgy. In recent weeks, officers have found themselves engaged in an often tense war of nerves.

On Thursday, for instance, when the "boys" swept down The Strip toward what they thought was a PCP buy, a crowd of 50 quickly gathered. It was less than a block from the spot where, a week before, rocks had filled the air and nine people had been hauled off to jail.

Most of the crowd stood impassively on this night, watching officers search for money or a stash. But as minutes dragged by, one of the suspects began cursing loudly and the crowd stirred. When the epithets continued, Sgt. Mike Casey barked, "One more word and and you're gone." At the next syllable, the man was in handcuffs.

"It can get out of hand out there real quick," said Casey, a muscular, good-humored man who commands the "jump-out" operations. "But if you can't keep a handle on things when they get hot, you may as well turn in your badge.

"A lot of the good people here are afraid to call us. They see stuff, they want it cleaned up, but they're afraid. We want to give them their neighborhoods back."

Despite the squad's total of 600 arrests -- each of seven members is averaging about 20 a month -- even police officials admit that The Strip is a still a very mean street. "We've been frustrated by this problem for a long time," said Lt. Howard, Casey's supervisor. "This unit was born out of that frustration.

"This {jump-out approach} has to work. It has to. We can work whatever hours are necessary, wear whatever kind of clothing is necessary, do whatever we have to do. It's already succeeding beyond anything I've seen in my 18 years of police work. But we have a long way to go."

The drug trafficking is so entrenched that Elliott can explain exactly how the system works. "You go down the street and you got one man who's the crack man, one man who's the Boat {PCP} man, maybe one man who's the marijuana man," he said.

After a buyer has found the right supplier, Elliott said, a second man holds the money. And "there's a man with a gun watching him who's a bodyguard, making sure nobody tries to rip him off. After you pay, you go back to the drug man and get your stuff. The drugs, the money, the bodyguard -- it's like a triangle."

Ruth Martin never found a way to live with that triangle. She is moving to another neighborhood, driven off North Alfred by "three different radios on three different stations all night" under her window and "going out to pick up my paper at six in the morning and looking 'em right in the face.

"I know if I don't get my blood pressure down I'll have a stroke," she said. "My doctor knew I was under a lot of stress. But for a long time I wouldn't tell him what was going on because I didn't want him to know I lived in such a terrible neighborhood."

Luther Murphy -- younger, vigorous, proud and not a little stubborn -- will protect his mother and try to carry on.

"I was raised in this neighborhood. It used to be nice," Murphy said. "Help is on the way. Help is coming if I have to bring it myself."