THE NEEDLES are gone from Needle Park.
The children are back, fearlessly running over McPherson Square Park's five green acres without fear of being stuck by a used heroin syringe.
The kids are hanging upside down from the new playground equipment, feeling the freedom of summer like they've never felt it before because the park - notorious for 30 years as Kensington's outdoor shooting gallery - is clean and peaceful for the first time in their young lives.
"That playground is always crowded like it's Kensington's Rocky statue," said Patty-Pat Kozlowski, whose second summer directing a Parks and Recreation Department day camp is so unlike last year's, when she called police to remove an unconscious, bleeding addict from the play area and confronted a drug dealer doing business next to a woman selling shaved ice to the children.
Awilda Ocasio, a community outreach worker for the nonprofit Impact Services Corp. and a warm "sun'll come out tomorrow" spirit in the park's rebirth, knocked on a lot of residents' doors during the Needle Park years, which wasn't easy.
"Every park should have a friends group, but we didn't because this park didn't have any friends," Ocasio said. "Now we do."
Her secret? "I talk a lot," Ocasio said, laughing. "So many people said,'Why should I care?' "
Ocasio brought her smiling face close to a Daily News reporter's, made intense eye contact and said, " 'How about if I care? Would you care, too?' "
Damn, she's good!
Both Ocasio and Kozlowski credit 24th District police for carving out a safe children's oasis in a Kensington neighborhood where, on a recent August night, three men were shot - one in the head - on Hart Lane near Cambria Street, four blocks south of the park. Another man was shot dead on Allegheny Avenue near F Street, four blocks north of it.
For more than 30 years, used syringes carpeted the grass of McPherson Square Park and the patio of the public library in its center. Addicts shot up and nodded off on its benches. Dealers sold drugs openly on its perimeter - Indiana Avenue and E, F and Clearfield streets.
And then, suddenly last fall, 24th District uniformed police officers - on foot, on bikes, in patrol cars and in a mobile mini-station parked near the library 24/7 - took back McPherson Square Park.
Like an occupying army in hostile territory, the police have held their ground, helped by SEPTA cops who shut down the open-air drug market at the Somerset Street El Station that sent a steady flow of addicts trudging up Kensington Avenue to the McPherson Square Park shooting gallery.
Here's the bad news for Kensington drug dealers: the cops aren't leaving.
"We have a constant 24-hour presence in the park itself," said 24th District Capt. Charles Vogt. "I'm holding on to that mobile mini-station there at all costs. I'm not giving that up. This is a long-term commitment."
Vogt said the 24th and 25th districts have joined forces to patrol the "East Safety Grid"- McPherson Square Park north to Tioga Street, from Kensington Avenue to C Street - with 22 cops on bikes.
"The bicycle officers are young go-getters, very active, lots of arrests," Vogt said. "Now, most of our drug issues are to the south of the park. Now, they're shooting each other on Emerald Street. The park itself is safe."
So is SEPTA's El station at the longtime drug corner of Kensington and Somerset avenues.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III said that since his uniformed officers occupied that corner last November, then extended their presence in May from Boudinot to Cambria streets along Kensington Avene, arrests have skyrocketed and crimes have plummeted.
From late November 2012 to late July, SEPTA police patrolling Kensington and Somerset made 551 arrests on the street compared to 10 the previous year, and 430 arrests in the Somerset El station compared to 198 the previous year.
"In the past eight months, although we arrested a lot of people and issued a lot of citations for quality-of-life violations, we've only had one complaint against the police," Nestel said. "A man claimed he was being harassed by police, and he was right. That gentleman is now in jail for dealing drugs."
The police occupation, Nestel said, is permanent.
"Over time, the bad guys will realize we're not going away," he said. "We're keeping that stretch of Kensington Avenue. That is our home for as long as I'm at SEPTA."
'I don't get random hugs'
The war against drugs, as every police officer knows, is a war of displacement. The dealers just move a couple of blocks away and wait for the chance to reclaim former territory as soon as the cops leave.
"It's a cat-and-mouse, Tom-and-Jerry thing," SEPTA Police Inspector Steve Harold said. "You have to have a consistent, visible, uniformed presence."
Long-suffering Kensington residents are no longer afraid to show their gratitude to the cops.
"I go out there every other day," Nestel said, "and people come up to me and say, 'Thank you' or 'God bless you.' I was at an event where a guy hugged me. Generally speaking, I don't get random hugs. He said, 'Thank you.' I said, 'You're welcome. What did I do?' He said he was from Kensington and wouldn't let his wife and kids go to Kensington Avenue before the police took over. Now he does, because it's safe."
But the hard-won pockets of police-patrolled safety around SEPTA's Somerset El station and in McPherson Square Park are surrounded by reminders that police can't be everywhere.
Kozlowski recently parked on Indiana Avenue near F Street, walked through McPherson Square to the day camp, took the kids on a three-hour field trip to the Walnut Lane Golf Course, in Roxborough, and returned to find her car stripped.
"It was a 2005 Chrysler Pacifica nicknamed 'The Patty Wagon,' with 130,000 miles on it, but I loved it," Kozlowski said. "On super hot days, I'd turn on the air conditioner and let eight kids at a time sit in there and watch a cartoon on the DVD player."
The thugs failed to pull the DVD player out of the ceiling but they cracked open the gear shift box, broke the steering column, hacksawed through electrical lines, stole the starter's copper wires.
The Patty Wagon is sitting in front of Kozlowski's house with a $2,300 repair estimate that she can't afford to pay. It's dead.
"I'm really pissed off that we're out there every day taking the kids swimming, playing ball, doing arts and crafts, putting Band-Aids on their boo-boos - and the hood rats do this to my car." Kozlowski said. "Bunch of crap. Of course, nobody saw anything. I feel like a jackass, like I was set up."
Kozlowski, who remains fully committed to helping the children of McPherson Square, knows that what happened to her car is part of the neighborhood's ongoing plague of drug-dealing, addiction and violence.
"The park is very safe - probably one of the only places around there that is," Kozlowski said. "But it's like a tropical island surrounded by sharks. Don't even dip your toe in the water."