Pubdate: Mon, 29 Apr 2002
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Robert Moran


In a neighborhood scarred by drug dealers, Operation Sunrise made all the 

A white sedan rolls to a stop at the corner of Ninth and Indiana in the 
city's Fairhill section. A man on the sidewalk approaches the driver's window.

"Don't do that no more! Don't do that no more!" Peaches Ramos, 41, barks 
from across the street.

Despite her protest, something changes hands.

"I'm sorry," the man says sheepishly before leaving.

"He just sold him a needle," Ramos explains.

Stray dealers and addicts pass through here, but Ramos, a mother of five, 
makes sure they don't get comfortable.

"Nobody stands at this corner," she says, "and it's going to stay that way."

On this corner, memories are still painfully fresh of the days when dozens 
of drug dealers, some seated on sofas, hawked their wares with impunity.

The addicts, or "zombies," would slip through the broken iron fencing of 
the trash-filled Fair Hill Burial Ground to sit on gravestones and inject dope.

Bullets flew and sirens wailed with numbing regularity.

"It was the worst drug corner in this city," Police Commissioner Sylvester 
M. Johnson said. "Even as a police officer, it was shocking for me to see."

Today, there's a community garden where a crack house once stood.

The historic burial ground, which had been littered with car parts, pet 
carcasses and syringes, is clean.

Children play outside with little fear.

"Now it's nice and quiet," said Hector Colon, 42, a block captain who lives 
at the corner.

Persistence by Ramos and other hard-working residents and volunteers 
supported by police is bringing a rebirth to Ninth and Indiana in this part 
of Philadelphia known as the Badlands.

Over several years, residents fought back against the lawlessness. 
Volunteers reclaimed the burial ground. And help arrived with Operation 
Sunrise, the police-led campaign against crime and blight.

It is a success story the Police Department hopes to repeat citywide 
starting this week with a major new campaign targeting open-air drug markets.

At Ninth and Indiana, a giant mural honoring a slain teen couple proclaims: 
"Together we stand, divided we fall."

But only a block or two away in any direction, the dealers and addicts lurk.

"You always have to be vigilant," said District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham. 
"If they see that you let your guard down for just a moment, they'll be back."


Elizabeth Washington has lived in the same house on Ninth Street for 32 
years. Washington, who is African American, said that when she first moved 
in, her block was lined with trees and her neighbors were mostly of Polish 
and Irish descent.

Germantown Avenue nearby was a thriving commercial corridor. People had jobs.

"It was a great neighborhood," she said wistfully. "There were no abandoned 
houses. No empty lots."

But the city's decline in manufacturing hit the neighborhood hard. Shops 
closed on Germantown Avenue.

Neighbors moved away, following jobs. U.S. Census tract data show that the 
population declined by more than 34 percent from 1970 to 2000.

Now, the families, mostly Latino and black, are poor. In 1990, the median 
income was $11,925 - half of what it was in 1970 when adjusted for inflation.

The decline of the neighborhood was reflected at the Fair Hill Burial 
Ground, which is bounded by Ninth and Indiana, and by Cambria Street and 
Germantown Avenue.

The five-acre Quaker cemetery, founded in 1703, contains the grave of 
Lucretia Mott, a 19th century suffragette and abolitionist whose home was a 
stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Quakers sold the burial ground in 1985 and it fell into disrepair, 
becoming a favorite for short-dumpers, drug dealers and junkies.

Punching another hole in the sense of community was the 1993 closure of St. 
Bonaventure Catholic Church at Ninth and Cambria.

"It seemed that people gave up on God," said Maria Santiago, 45, who lives 
on Cambria.

The violence at Ninth and Indiana grew relentless, reaching a crescendo in 
1994 with a series of slayings that rocked the neighborhood.

Rudolpho "Cholo" Rodriguez, 19, was shot to death in May of 1994, one short 
block east of Ninth and Indiana, in a dispute over $5.

Joimy Melendez, 17, was shot to death during a robbery two months later in 
the same area.

And Petra Yamira Vargas, 15, the girlfriend of Rodriguez and the cousin of 
Melendez, was gunned down in October outside her home near the corner.


The mid-'90s were dark years on the corner, but change was in the works.

In 1993, a group of Quakers bought the burial ground and began a campaign 
to restore it.

It took volunteers about two years just to clear the bulk of overgrowth and 
trash, said Mary Anne Hunter, president of the Fair Hill Burial Ground 
Corp., which now owns and maintains the cemetery.

The burial ground, shaded by oaks and gingkos, is now a gently rolling 
oasis of green rising above urban decay.

Activists such as Ramos, of the 3000 block of Ninth, led their neighbors to 
stand up and demand better policing.

Ramos, who would confront dealers with a baseball bat at her side, inspired 
city officials to act.

In June 1998, the city launched Operation Sunrise. The campaign, which 
included other city agencies cleaning up abandoned houses and towing 
abandoned vehicles, started in Kensington. But police began preliminary 
sweeps around Ninth and Indiana.

Since last summer, the city has demolished 58 abandoned structures in the area.

The crackdown clearly has had an impact. In the 25th Police District, which 
includes Ninth and Indiana, the number of homicides plunged from 81 in 1997 
to 26 last year - a 68 percent decrease.

Commissioner Johnson, the architect of Operation Sunrise, is particularly 
committed to the neighborhood. He frequently drives by Ninth and Indiana 
just to see how things are.

Sometimes, he parks and checks his watch, counting the minutes before the 
next patrol car passes through.

"I take it personal," he said.


In 1998, work began on a giant mural at the corner, depicting Ramos 
embracing a harvest of fruits and flowers and children.

The painters, needing to work at night with a projector, heard what sounded 
like firecrackers on the first night, recalled Jane Golden, founder of the 
city's Mural Arts Program.

"Then it was clear it was gunfire and it was really close," Golden said. 
"People were yelling, 'Get off the corner!' "

Golden then realized what the residents had to endure every day.

The Mural Arts Program returned the following year to paint another mural 
across the street - this one dedicated to the teen couple killed in 1994.

On the wall, Petra and Cholo sit on a bench, forever holding hands.

Sitting next to them is a soldier checking his pocket watch. Ramos has her 
take on what it means.

"Look what time it is. The war is over."
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