Paul Tauber was sitting in the ticket booth of his Ontario Theater, taking money from some of the customers who decided to see his triple-feature horro show of the evening - a few bearded young professionals, couples with Spanish accents, young blacks from around the neighborhood - and warding off other youngsters who begged to get in for free, "just for the last few minutes, man."

In his spare moments he tried to describe for a visitor just what it is that makes his neighborhood, Adams-Morgan, a unique part of Washington. "It's like 76th and Broadway. It's the ghetto, it's the barrio, it's the upper middle class," he said. "I think you just have to look at it as an atypical neighborhood."

There is little about Adams-Morgan that is, in reality, typical. The types change with every person you talk to, with every face encountered on the street, every corner turned or store entered, opening up a maze of personal experiences. It is a city inside a city, a village, an independence movement - a place where change has become both the norm and the thing most fought against, where unity is the watchword, and diversity the term almost every resident falls back on to describe his neighbors.

It has become caught up in the paradox that afflicts any suddenly popular community. As more and more people are attracted to the area by its unusually heterogeneous range of life, it becomes more homogenized.

The same affluent young people who move into a newly renovated apartment for $450 a month are likely to tell you that it is a shame so many affluent young people are moving into the neighborhood and forcing out the blacks and hispanics - who are not only the spice of its life, but the dwindling majority of its population. They often say they feel guilty, but, then, they just love Adams-Morgan.

The area has become in part a community of activists that has tried periodically for the last 20 years to take its future into its own hands. It has been torn between desires for preservation and progress - though sometimes they come to mean the same thing - factionalized by decades of controversy. And yet, for a person walking the streets, it is one of the friendliest neighborhoods in town.

Tom Fox stood drinking a beer at the edge of the community vegetable garden he and his associates at the Institute of Local Self-Reliance started last spring. It is a strip of land hoed out of Community Park West, which is in turn a makeshift playground forged from a vacant lot.

"I like this area," Fox said, "because you can get involved in almost any issue you want. The people here are very politicized, but they put a lot the rhetoric behind them when they have to cope with common problems."

The fight for Community Park West, for instance, has gone on for almost 14 years, led by Walter Pierce, the organizer of the Ontario Lakers youth group. He believed that the vacant Shapiro Tract, as the land is called, would make a better park than a housing development. So he made it one.

After his years of petitioning and organizing, the District government and Congress finally agreed with him and appropriated the money this year to buy the property.

James (Buck) Contee was hot and sweaty from hours of construction work, but there was no mistaking his pride as he looked over the labor he and his neighbors are putting into their houses on Seaton Place.

Contee, who has lived on Seaton Place for almost 30 years, heads one of nine families that successfully fought eviction when a speculator bought the houses they rented in 1976. Seventeen other families left.

Now with the help of the Adams-Morgan Organization, community organizer Marie Nahikian, Councilman David Clarke, funds from the District government and Perpetual Federal Savings and Loan, they have been able to buy their homes and are in the process of rehabilating them.

Going through the houses, he pointed out the new walls and windows and doors, the new closets and bathrooms. "Now they have showers," said Contee. "You're going to have low-income people here who haven't had a shower in their house in 15 years."

There are still complaints that the litter is not picked up, that laws about noise and rowdiness are not enforced on this street, though it is only a corner away from the 3rd District Police Station.

But for many of the families, at least, there is a new sense of possibility in the neighborhood.

Contee looked at the high, elegant windows he has installed in what will soon be his new bedroom, filling it with light. "We call them the Georgetown windows," he said. "I saw them in Georgetown and that's what I wanted."

In spite of the contest over Moore's seat, most of the 15 Democratic and 12 Republican campaigns for seven County Council nominations in each party have been contests for name recognition.

Although the themes of schools, landfill sites and taxes are frequently cited by voters as their most pressing concerns, "usually we talk about our backgrounds," said Sally Kanchuger, an at-large candidate. "Each of us believes we have a lot to offer, and there still is a lot of bewilderment about who the candidates are and what they stand for."

Her at-large opponents are Rose Crenca, Scott Fosler, Mable Granke, Tom Hamilton and Nathan Wilanksy.

The one possible exception to this pattern has been the race between incumbent Esther Gelman and Alvin T. Schneyer, a tenant activist allied with Jane Ann Moore. "She alone (Gelman) is taking a lot grief" for the councils decision to end rent control last year, observed one party watcher. "There's been a lot of acrimony in that race."

Throughout Adams-Morgan there are block organizations, political groups large and small, lively art and dance communities, a contagious sense of movement and vitality.

It's this atmosphere that makes the area so comfortable for such a range of people.Again and again, as people tell you how they came to the area - you find that it was almost by chance - they also tell you they couldn't lave.

Ricardo Hernandez was taking a bus from Miami to New Jersey to visit his brother seven years ago. He got off in Washington because he ran out of money, looked for a Spanish-language newspaper but couldn't find one. He didn't know where to go. "Some lady put me on the Metro bus and said get off at 18th and Columbia Road. I've been here ever since."

"I came to D.C. on a two-week vacation in '68," remembers lawyer Petur Williams. "I never left Adams-Morgan. I had a brief interregnum across Connecticut Avenue, but it was so quiet I couldn't take it." Of course, things have changed. "It's not the same at all. It's a lot pinker now. There's an incredible amount of pinkness."

Avignone Freres, the catering firm that has been in business on Columbia Road just off 18th Street since 1918, is one of the oldest establishments in Adams-Morgan, a reminder of the neighborhood's past lives.

Before World War II the area was made up of many single families in elegant homes. The caterers also had a restaurant then, with marble columns and shelves full of elaborate pastries, serving the elite of the nearby embassies.

With the war, however, and the surge of government employes into the District, the neighborhood's population began to change. Many large houses became rooming establishments, more low-income people came to the neighborhood.

By the '50s there were rumblings in the neighborhood about the problems of "urban blight." Plans were begun for urban renewal in 1960, but no plan could ever be agreed upon by the community as a whole, and amid a storm of protests and community infighting, the plan was dead by 1964.

Still, much of the area's elegance remained. "There were limousines out front, The Garden Tea Shop out on the corner, Gartenhaus Furs," remembered John Orcino, whose father Pietro has owned Avignone Freres since 1937.

During the middle and late '60s, however, as more and more people fled the city for the suburbs, the affluence of the neighborhood plunged.

With the riots in '68, business after business abandoned the area, though Orcino's block was never burned out. "While the curfew was on we set up a buffet out on Columbia Road for all the national guardsmen and police, Cheap insurance."

Though the catering services continued, Avignone Freres closed its restaurant. "Nobody came down to this neighborhood anymore," Orcino recalled.

The return of affluence did not begin again until about five years ago. And in the last three years, according to Orcino, it has come back with a rush, doubling and finally tripling property values.

Last year Orcino reopened his restaurant, and now amid the marble columns, beneath the ornate iron balconies, one hears the voices of Ethiopian students weaving back and forth from English to Amharric. Spanish businessmen confer over a cup of coffee. A young, blond couple - she with an air studied insouciance, he with a gold marijuana pin in his crisp white shirt - have a late brunch of corned-beef hash and eggs.

A couple of polcemen sit at a back table where they can relax and watch the steps of the church across the street, a favorite hangout for youthful purse-snatchers.

At Millie and Al's bar on 18th Street, a right-wing Cuban is shouting with some friends, the juke box is thrumming with country music, a woman sits at the bar with her laundry beside her, the waitress wanders between the customers' advances to deliver a vast dish of arroz con pollo. Dick Eggleston, an Internal Revenue Service employe who has lived in Adams-Morgan for eight years, is just getting familiar with this particular bar. "I think Ernest Hemingway would like it here."

Some would say that the Ontario Theater's Paul Tamber, a 12-year Adams-Morgan resident, is responsible for the major transition in the neighborhood. It was Tauber who opened the Columbia Station nightspot in May 1975 after seeing the lines of people at nearby Spanish restaurants who had no place to go afterward.

Tauber insists the change had a ready begun in the neighborhood. "You don't build the road if there's no traffic. The traffic was already there."

But there is no doubt that his bar, with its electric decor and rough-hewn floors, its religiously easygoing ambience, helped define and glamorize the flavor of Adams-Morgan. Tauber, who bought the building for $20,000, according to real estate agent, George Dravillas, sold it two years later for $225,000, putting him among the new breed of speculators.

Tauber hates to be called a speculator. "It used to be called investing. I mean, when you buy a building around herre, there's no speculation at all. It's sure thing."

"Continuously meetings, continuously meetings," laughed George Dravillas as he rocked back behind the desk in his Columbia Road real estate office. "It is beautiful to come to the meetings and see how we are fighting."

Dravillas has been selling properties in Adams-Morgan since 1953, not long after he emmigrated from Greece. He has seen all the battles and waged a number of them.

He has seen the houses he sold just four years ago for $30,000, selling now for $90,000. He has watched the price of a shell rise to six figures in some cases, and he has seen the white tide sweep into the area. "Probably there came not less than 400 families in the last few years, all of them with just some exceptions whites.

Now, says Dravillas, the area is ready for more commercial properties. He says he would like to see it rezoned so buildings could rise 90 feet. He is aware that any such move will bring storms of protest, but, then, he is used to that. What he is not sure of is the end result. "Yes, it would be destructive, but if you are a developer and you own certain land . . . It would look like K Street, but I would like to leave certain buildings there."

It's nine at night and a crap game is going on, with six or seven young men from El Salvador and points south laying out their money and drinking bee, moving slightly to the Latin rhythms blasting out of the speakers above Angelo's Seafood Carry-Out on Columbia Road.

Next door, Daniel Bueno is closing his Zodiac Record Soop for the evening. Bueno is talking about the music he likes and the music he carries. "Me, I'm from the Caribbean, so what I like is different than what she likes," he says, nodding to his Central American wife, "is different than what he likes," looking at the young man sweeping the back of the store."He's from Paraguay.

"The kind of business we have, it's funny, but it would go around this neighborhood." He pointed along the racks at rock-and-roll, reggae, soul and salsa, Haitian music and the Mexican big band sound, folk music from the Andes - music for the people of Adams-Morgan.

Bueno has lived along Columbia Road for 17 years and for a whole after he opened the Zodiac four years ago he lived above the shop, but when the baby was born he had to move to Georgia Avenue. He couldn't afford Adams-Morgan any longer.

Now he is going to have to move his shop as well. The manager of the building sent him a letter. "He said the community is changing and I don't fit into his plans.

Chauncey Lyles was having a drink with some friends in Columbia Station, trying to figure out the neighborhood. He used to live here, but moved to Southwest as Adams-Morgan grew too expensive for him. Now he has been asked by Hal Wheeler, one of Columbia Stations's new owners, to coordinate the Adams-Morgan Celebration, which will take place today.

Unlike the Spanish Heritage Festival, which has become a major annual event put on by the area's Hispanics, today's festivities are supposed to appeal to and represent everybody in the neighborhood, bringing everyone together for a celebration on Columbia Road between Mintwood Place and 18th Street.

But like so much else in Adams-Morgan, the celebration itself has become a divisive issue. Several major neighborhood groups, including the Adams-Morgan Organization, are resentful because they were not consulted early in the process of planning the festivities.

"It's a formidable event that did not have sufficient input from the residents," said Sam Stetson of AMO. "There's nothing to call attention to the crucial circumstances here in Adams-Morgan. What are your grounds for celebration? If diversity here and the character of the neighborhood are under assault, what is there to celebrate?"

Negotiations were held to try to bring everybody together, but they fell apart, each side blaming the other.

There is talk of counterdemonstrations, but those, as one longtime resident suggested, "would only turn it into a real Adams-Morgan Day."