No one knew it at the time, but 1990 would be the last good year for the District of Columbia's economy for almost the entire decade.

Now, however, the District has finally climbed out of that broad, deep hole.

When the capital's unemployment rate dropped to 5.7 percent in October, it was the first time that indicator had gone below 6 percent since the first month of 1990.

Although the District's October jobless report -- the latest available -- could be revised upward a bit later on, there is no doubt that employment is growing again in the heart of the Washington region.

"The District has been on the rocks a long time. Now the tide has risen enough to lift it off," said Joseph E. Cater III, director of regional economics for Fannie Mae.

It took a long time. Even as the region's suburbs were flush with new jobs, unemployment averaged nearly 9 percent in 1998.

The average could touch 6.5 percent this year, clear evidence of a broad recovery in the District's economy, and of the ability of more D.C. residents to find work outside the capital as well, according to economists.

Although the District's recovery has spread into most neighborhoods with a strong pickup in home sales, most of the job growth is still centered downtown.

The new D.C. Convention Center construction project is an important new source of jobs, and not just at the site, Cater noted. "Once you put a hole in the ground, you start adding laborers, engineers, truck drivers. A project like that creates jobs for semi-skilled workers in particular." The Clark Construction Group and the Sherman R. Smoot Corp., which formed a joint venture to manage the center construction project, agreed that 51 percent of new hires at their companies and their subcontractors will be District residents. It is also setting up a pre-apprenticeship program to help residents enter the construction trades.

The District's unemployment rate is determined by the number of working D.C. residents -- commuters aren't counted, since the jobless survey is collected by phone calls to District households.

When the surveyors called in October, 257,952 D.C. residents said they were holding jobs -- the first time that October's employment was higher than September's in 10 years.

In 1990, the District's resident working population averaged 307,369. By 1997, the number had dropped to 237,757, a plunge of more than 69,000 workers. That's roughly the combined Washington area employment of Mobil Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., US Airways Inc., Marriott International Inc., America Online Inc., MCI Communications Inc., Gannett Co., Giant Food Inc., Potomac Electric Power Co. and The Washington Post Co. that year.

Since that low point, employment among D.C. residents has increased by about 20,000.

Total D.C. employment, including commuters, reached 622,200 in October, an increase of 5,100 jobs over October 1998, with the biggest gains coming in legal services; a range of business service positions, from computer programmers to security guards; and engineering and management services, a category that includes many of the downtown consulting firms.

The metro area's unemployment rate dropped to 2.5 percent in October, from 2.6 percent the month before. Salaried employment in the region grew by 70,600 jobs, an increase of 2.7 percent, in line with the region's economic performance for most of this year.

A Jobless Decade

Though still far above suburban rates, D.C. unemployment in October this year was the lowest for that month in the 90's. In fact, October's unemployment rate was the lowest of any month since January 1990.

October unemployment rates

D.C. Metro

1990 6.6 3.6

1991 8 4.6

1992 8.3 5.2

1993 8.1 4.5

1994 7.6 4.1

1995 8.7 4.1

1996 7.8 3.7

1997 8.3 3.7

1998 8.3 3

1999 5.7 2.5

*D.C. rates are seasonally adjusted. Metro rates are not.

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics