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At first glance, James Walton's family grocery store seems to be in a choice spot along a busy street, surrounded by a boutique, a salon, a couple of restaurants and other shops.

But hang around awhile and it's soon apparent why Blue Hill Avenue is considered one of the toughest streets in Boston. Some storefronts stay hidden behind steel gates, even in the middle of the day. Others remain locked, forcing customers to ring a buzzer to get inside.For Walton, all the talk by politicians about entrepreneurial spirit and the country's nascent economic recovery doesn't mean much as long as customers are scared to leave their homes.

"What you see now is the drug dealer, walking back and forth," Walton said. "We're not being given a fair chance."

Other merchants in the neighborhood describe similar frustrations and complain of not enough cops on the street, even though a police station sits in the heart of the neighborhood.

At Brigette's Beautique salon, owner Virgie Moses recently installed a new front window, replacing one pierced by a bullet in December.

"We're scared to come in here and scared to go out," Moses said. "Your life is in danger."

Across the street, service station manager Oree Rawls recalls a recent evening where young women were fighting on his lot, and one threatened another with a knife. Police broke up the dispute.

Police Capt. Thomas Lydon Jr., who oversees the station, admits to a "shortage of personnel."

Nonetheless, he said police have tried to compensate by running "saturation patrols," temporarily targeting areas with extra officers.

"We've made numerous arrests," Lydon said. "We want to instill the idea that we're constantly monitoring."

But merchants say they need patrol officers routinely walking the streets to feel safe.

Decades ago, Blue Hill Avenue was a thriving middle- and working-class neighborhood, inhabited mostly by Jews. But around the late 1960s, social and economic forces transformed the area in a way that's become familiar in America. White residents moved to the suburbs, leaving behind a community in decay.

There are some signs of hope.

A Greek developer rehabilitated a burned building, which is now home to a restaurant, a fish market and a beauty supply store.

"It's all right here," Walton said. "We just want an opportunity."