Crime is down in a tough Central City neighborhood where faithful say an apparition of the Virgin Mary graces an old elm tree. The question for grateful residents is whether the change is divine intervention.

Police crime prevention statisticians claim the dope dealers and hooligans who once hung out on the corner have been driven off by the crowds of pilgrims who have come to pray, light candles or leave flower petals and rosary beads at the base of the old tree.The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City has rejected the sighting as an "unusual religious phenomenon" that deserves formal investigation. But those who have lived in the neighborhood welcome the change - regardless of its origin - and aren't so quick to write it off.

Milton Anderson, 72, bought a home in the neighborhood in the 1980s. He knows few of his neighbors, but he's becoming familiar with those who visit the tree.

"I feel complimented this happened next to my house," he said. "I've been real surprised about all the drive-by shootings in (town), and I was afraid (the crowds) might start some of that here, but it hasn't."

Anderson has grown familiar with regulars who visit the elm: The woman who brings a guitar, someone who stops to collect cans for charity and Graciela Garcia, the woman who said she first saw the apparition a year ago - a weeping likeness of the mother of Jesus on a stump where a limb had been trimmed. Garcia visits the tree almost daily, climbing steps erected to the limb.

Miracle or not, something has happened since then.

In May 1996, police received 27 calls for assistance in the area. Four of the cases involved drugs and robberies, and a woman was raped the next month.

From May 1996 to May of this year, there was an average of one assault and one larceny each month near the American elm.

Since March, when word of Garcia's claims became widely known, crime in the neighborhood has fallen sharply. Police have logged about 30 fewer calls this spring than they received during the same period last year - 45 calls vs. 75. There have been no calls for drugs, vandalism, and no sex offenses this spring in that area, and there were calls for those crimes last year.

David Doepner, a crime analyst for the Salt Lake City police department, says the reduction in crime likely has more to do with a phenomenon called "Crime Prevent Through Environmental Design" as it does with divine intervention.

"It's possible to add groups of people to discourage the ne'er-do-wells," Doepner said. "You tend to have less crime when you have a crowded room of people."

Thus, it is possible to decrease criminal behavior by adding lights and trimming overgrown shrubbery. Or by inviting a bunch of nice people to hang out near your yard 24 hours a day.

The Catholic Church seems more inclined to rely on a secular explanation as well.

"The Catholic diocese has no knowledge of any unusual religious occurrence at a tree on 700 South and 300 East in Salt Lake City," said Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, vicar general for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, which encompasses Utah's 100,000 Catholics.

"The church has a long process for investigating unusual religious phenomenon when evidence indicates such would be appropriate," he said. "We have no plans to pursue the reported happenings."