From the closed second-story window of the Upper Room, a coffeehouse ministry at 41st Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, the pavement below seems to glitter as if speckled with thousands of tiny diamonds. The sidewalk’s sparkle is in keeping with the reputation of the New York theater district that surrounds it; the area is a colorful cornucopia of bright marquees, sequined gowns, and long, black limousines.

But cautiously descend the cracked, cement stairs, push open a heavy, metal door, and harsh reality roars in your face. The “diamonds” on the sidewalk are, ironically, another kind of treasure: crack vials—hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny glass containers that, moments before, held one of America’s most dangerous drugs. Look up from the sidewalk, and there, amid New York’s glamorous night life, one meets the denizens of the city’s seamy side.

In a nearby corner, a man urinates, then walks away, pants still unzipped, eyes glazed and wild. A stooped, wispy woman with a shiny, black rain hat smashed down over her ears paces while mumbling incoherently about welfare and someone named Ralph.

Across the street a teenage boy, wearing baggy shorts and a ripped, red T-shirt, slumps against the wall of the Port Authority bus terminal. He is sitting beside a piece of soiled cardboard, scrawled with a message: “AIDS—Can’t Work—Help Me.” Exhaust fumes from exiting buses and taxis swirl around him. He gags and retches.

No Strangers To The Heat

This is “Crack Alley,” crossroads of America’s drug traffic. Only the brave—or the addicted—dare tread here. It comes as no surprise that the pastor who cooked up the idea of a coffee house set in the middle of this frying pan in Hell’s Kitchen is no stranger to the heat.

The Upper Room was one ...

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