Hyattsville is looking for its roots. It's not just nostalgia. With the help of the University of Southern California, of all places, Hyattsville civic leaders are seeking ways to make the town's past assure its future.

Only a year or so ago, there seemed to be no future for what was once described as "the beautiful metropolis of Prince George's County," seven miles from Washington.

The surroundings of "this beautiful village," said a newspaper account of 1892, "are all of the most delightful character, and as business or residential location it cannot be surpassed, nestling as it does on and around a beautiful chain of Maryland hills."

The town was founded in 1845 by one Christopher Clarke Hyatt on a parcel of land between the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tracks and the Washington-Baltimore Turnpike. Hyatt, it seems, wanted to get away from rowdy Bladensburg. His most conspicuous legacy is a continued ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Another legacy is a number of handsome Victorian houses along shady roads, and a few handsome commercial buildings,left from the days when Hyattsville was one of Washington's most plesant streetcar suburbs. In addition to the trolley, the B&O ran about 30 trains a day.

But then, as everywhere else in what a Briton once called "the mess that is man-made America," the "beautiful metropolis" was overrun by automobiles. The streetcar died. The railroad decayed. Route 1, which is also Hyattsville main street, became mostly a procession of used-car dealer lots.

A decade or so ago, hideous Prince George's Plaza shopping center opened just beyond the town's boundaries. That was the end of the "unsurpassable business location."

In the next scene of this American tragedy, the urban renewal planners appeared, like the snake oil salesmen ofold, and peddled their renderings of sleek high-rise offices and verdant plazas, lined with fancy stores. "Wheels started spinning," recalled Hyattsville's city administrator, Robert T. Johnson, "but nothing came of it. Theredevelopment plans did not meet our real needs. They would also have bulldozed much of what is left of the town's past and identity.

"after that, I'll admit, we became pretty apathetic."

Enter the Washington Public Affairs Center of the University of Southern California, headed by Arthur J. Naparstek, an urbanist long associated with the human problems of cities.

The center is part of USC's School of Public Administration and offers a variety of degree programs for public officials on all levels. It also conducts research and demonstration programs. That's where Hyattsville comes in.

Naparstek's idea is as simple as it is vital. As we all know, government alone cannot bring about the recovery of America's Hyattsvilles. The citizens must participate. To participate effectively, to work in tandem with an increasingly complex system of government, citizens must first of all know what they want for their community. Secondly, they must learn what is in their power to do or not to do, what they can control and what they cannot control.

Naparstek and his associates call this "capacity building." They obtained grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.s. Office of Personnel Management (once known, more happily, as the Civil Service Commission) to help small communities to deal with their problems by encouraging their citizens to talk sensibly to one another and to their own government officials. They chose Pittsburg, Cal. (pop. 31,000), and Hyattsville, Md. (pop. 15,000), as their guinea pigs.

A year ago, the center's Michael Marcus and Wendy R. Sherman presented the idea to Johnson and Hyattsville Mayor Thomas Bass. Both were skeptical at first but agreed to appointa "management team" of some 200 business and community leaders.

Discussing its city's woes, the groupdecided in a day-long session to work on four specific issues -- traffic and transportation, zoning changes, business revitalization and historic preservation -- and appointed a task force on each. r

The group also discovered that, for all its lack of physical identity ("there is no there there," as GertrudeStein once put it about Oakland, California), Hyattsville is still a community.

A lot of people know one another and feel attached to the place. There is a high percentage of elderly people who have lived in Hyattsville all their lives.

"That makes a difference in many respects -- juvenile delinquency, for instance," says Sherman, the project director. "Kids are less likely to get into trouble when someone can say to them, Don't do that or I'll tell your father.'"

The self-discovery and the challenge seem to have galvanized the community. Sherman and Marcus keep the momentum going, with Marcus coordinating the effort on the spot. There are visible results.

The traffic and transportation task force has worked out better traffic flow on Route 1 and is trying hard to get more commuters to ride the trains. Like passenger rail service everywhere in thecountry, it's a Catch-22 situation. Until the railroads provide better service again, people won't use them. the railroad can't afford to improve service. By beautifying the old station and by advertising, the task force has, nevertheless, increased ridership a little.

The zoning task force has recommendeda number of practical changes to project residential areas and to meet the challenge of the coming Metrorail station.

The business task force, for the first time in 20 years, has gotten the merchants to work together. They have agreed on expansion of the business district on the other side of the railroad tracks. They hope to gain access by extending Rhode Island Avenue. The task force is also doing some hard thinking about the blight of used car lots and billboards.

The Historic Preservation task force, however, undoubtedly did more than anything else to change the climate, to spark self-confidence and optimism. The National Guard Armory, a massivestone castle that is just too silly to tear down, is now a national landmark. Charles Yinkey, who teaches architecture at the University of Maryland and owns a turn-of-the century Hyattsville home, brought 50 students to survey as many worthy old houses.

The spacious Victorian houses and their streetcar-suburb ambience, in turn, begin to attract young families. You see tricycles under the shade trees again.

At the end of June, Sherman, Marcus and the California catalysts will pull out again, their project completed.The question is whether there will be more than Sherman's handbook on "partnership for Effective Action."

Johnson, Mayor Bass and other civilleaders are optimistic. It just may turn out that USC has demonstrated that we have more than the capacity to mess up our living environment. We wayalso have the capacity to make it livable again.

But even at best, that is going to bea long, hard pull.