You can never really know Adams-Morgan. You can only watch:

Beneath McDonald's golden arches at 18th Street and Columbia Road, a dark, leathery-faced man in grimy workboots orders "un Grande Mac, las papas fritas y un batido chocolate" -- a Big Mac, fries and a chocolate shake.

At the neighborhoodd food co-op, Fields of Plenty, where a handpainted sign advertises that the store is "an alternative to capitalism . . . a worker cooperative," a young, wispy-haired blond woman in a peasant shirt scoops out a bag of sesame sticks, her baby, holstered at her chest, feeding at her breast.

Under an umbrella at Columbia Station's sidewalk cafe, six men and women from a Capitol Hill softball team down beers and Perrier and debate Mid-East policy as a fashion show of drunken neighborhood mutterers, kids with blaring boogey boxes and evening-dressed diners parade by.

"Though I clearly recognize the nuances of what has become a very sensitive situation," slurs one clean-cut man in a Harvard T-shirt and a baseball cap flipped back catcher-style, "I think we should drop a bomb on them all."

There is nothing typical about Adams-Morgan, tucked as it is between gritty Florida Avenue and lush Rock Creek Park. The last vivid vestige of an American melting pot in Washington, it is a city within a city, an independent movement, a village crossroads where different races, ages and economic groups mix together in a cultural stew.

A place where change is both encouraged and battled, Adams-Morgan's uneasy watchword is unity and diversity is the paradox that both makes and threatens its identity.

Adams-Morgan, celebrating its pride with Adams-Morgan Day festivities today, has become, in part, a community of activists who have fought for the last 30 years to take the future into their own hands. As more and more trendy young whites move into renovated basements and $150,000 condos, the area has become torn between its desires for preservation and progress -- though sometimes the two have come to mean the same thing. Residents here have thus continued to move headlong on instinct, hoping for the best all the while.

"There is a spirit in Adams-Morgan and it's attracted people there," said City Councilman David Clarke. "People don't assimilate in Adams-Morgan. They integrate, but there is an aggressive desire to participate and yet be different. The people there love its diversity, but diversity has brought it's own destruction.

"Very quickly, Adams-Morgan is becoming the place to go, like Chinatown was 10 years ago here or Greenwich Village was in New York in the 60s," said Jose Gutierrez, acting director of the D.C. Office of Personnel and a prominent member of the city's Hispanic community which is centered in Adams-Morgan.

It's not to the point where you find the guy in a Hawaiian shirt and Panama hat with an Instamatic, but I think that will happen," he says.

"There are very mixed feelings about that in the area. It's not bad from the point of bringing jobs into the neighborhood and revenue that can be put back in the form of low-and moderate-income housing, but it has to be planned. Otherwise, it will become another Greenwich Village, where the business community took a nice scene, rebuilt it for their own purposes and drove away all the charm," Gutierrez said.

The real problem, some residents and neighborhood leaders say, is that so many people have tried to plan Adams-Morgan in the last few decades -- from block-breaking speculators to starry-eyed Peace Corps liberals, Hispanic leaders, preservationists and city planners -- that ideas for the future swim around in chaotic disarray.

The plans began flowing in the urban renewal days of the 60s, when, said area advisory neighborhood commissioner and long-time resident Ann Hargrove, "the mentality was to take care of social problems with great big projects."

It was about this time that the the Kalorama Triange, parts of Columbia Heights, the U Street mid-city area and the Temple Heights area -- once the proposed site of a Masonic Temple and now the home of the Washington Hilton Hotel -- were grouped together in a governmental master plan that would have closed off 18th Street in favor of huge apartment buildings and cleared out the north side of Columbia Road between 18th Street and Ontario road for a large commercial complex. The name Adams-Morgan came from the two elementary schools whose districts the redevelopment would have included. The Adams School in 19th Street and the Morgan School on 18th, now rebuilt as the Marie Reid Learning Center.

Soon, the idea of building the Innerloop Expressway arose, a massive freeway that would have completed a circle around the city when combined with the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. Once completed, it would have virtually obliterated the U Street corridor, replacing thousands of people with cloverleafs.

Responding to what they saw as bureaucratic sacrilege, the residents of these diverse areas, the remaining prominent families, middle-class boarders and pioneer homeowners, artists, the black intelligensia of U Street, Pakistanis, Asians, and poorer blacks and Hispanics, took up a heated battle to fight off the projects. They eventually won, but they had been so busy fighting that no clear conception emerged of what the area should be.

Throughout the 70s and into this decade, Adams-Morgan became the site of a kind of halting capitalization and continual struggle, as some residents once more fought against Mayor Marion Barry's Latin Quarter concept and the Hilton Hotel's continuing attempts to expand. Diversity was and is articulated in store windows on a casual stroll down a friendly street where people still say hello.

All the while, affluent young whites have flocked to the area. Ask them about Adams-Morgan and they will likely complain about other whites who have followed them into the neighborhood, forcing out blacks and Hispanics, the dwindling majority of the population. They often say that they feel the guilt of returning inner-city pioneers everywhere, that it is the miniorities that give the area it flavor. Yet, their coexistance with those very people is an uneasy one.

They feel safer with bars on their windows, and they smile at strangers, asking, in a friendly manner of course, what their business is the neighborhood is. And, when the constant specter does materialize, they shake their heads fearfully as they sit on a front stoop, listening to a neighbor recount his experience with a crime on their very own street, sympathetic yet appalled when he shows them the cut on his neck left by a mugger's six-inch knife.

And so, the informal debate goes on. Hispanic leaders like Gutierrez say that would like to see Adams-Morgan develop and grow.

And the others, the middle-class homeowners like Civil Aeronautics Board lawyer Larry Meyers and his wife Brooke, a real estate agent, say they would like to preserve the uniqueness that has brought them here but that "as middle-class people, a lot of our needs aren't met here . . . There's no bookstore, no clothing store we would shop in," Larry Meyers says.

"We have to make tradeoffs, but we have to be careful too."