In 1944, the federal government built a 2 1/2-mile segment of Shirley Highway across the rolling hills of rural Fairfax County from the Pentagon to Rte. 7 to help wartime workers living in outer Alexandria get to their jobs in downtown Washington and the Pentagon.

Since then, the area's dairy cows and pig farms have given way to a world of dramatic contrasts, one that is still trying to find an identity among the high-rises and superhighways and the subdivisions clustered in their shadows. The area has come to be known as the West End.

The West End is home to young singles like Cathy Gore, 25, and her boyfriend and roommate, George Pitzer, 40, working professionals who gather regularly on Friday afternoons for the happy hour at the Bombay Bicycle Club, where they can sip rum and Tab, munch on fried "chicken fingers," and let the day dissolve in casual camaraderie.

It is also home to Miyoko Hoo, who lives quietly with her husband, a Defense Department worker, and two children in their modest house in a subdivision located behind 4600 Duke--a massive condominium whose name is also its address.

And there is Doc Brooks, co-owner of the Video Palace, a video cassette outlet in the area's newly renovated Foxchase Shopping Center, who sees the West End as a "throwback to the times when people walked the sidewalks with their children, eating ice-cream cones and taking in the day."

Today the West End's 7 1/2 square miles account for almost half of Alexandria's land area. Beginning just west of Quaker Lane and extending to the city's borders with Arlington and Fairfax counties, the West End has also become one of the city's most populous areas, home to almost half of the city's 103,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The 1960 census reported that almost 19,000 people, almost all of them white, were living in Alexandria's West End. By last count in 1980, the Census Bureau reported 48,258 people living there, including almost one-fourth of the city's 23,000 blacks and more than two-thirds of the city's 2,888 Asians and Pacific Islanders.

The median age of West End residents is 28, and the average household has no more than two people, according to census figures. It also contains most of the city's condominiums, garden apartments, hospital beds, major nursing home space and most of the city's 1.56 million square feet of shopping center retail space.

By virtue of its rapid growth, what was once Alexandria's frontier is quickly moving to the forefront in determining the city's direction, and ultimately, its future, city officials say.

"In terms of the city's fiscal future, the West End is crucially important and always will be," says Deputy City Manager Bradford Hammer.

He said older parts of the city are, for the most part, saturated with industrial and residential development. If there is to be continued growth in the city, it will likely occur in the West End.

One example of the area's growth potential is the $56 million Radisson Mark Plaza Hotel that is being built on a 14-acre site near the intersection of North Beauregard Street and Seminary Road.

"It's our single largest development," said Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. "There's nothing comparable to it in Alexandria."

"I've seen things change out here from when there were country roads," said Beatley, who came with his family to the West End 40 years ago, and lived at first in a log cabin he built on his property.

"There were some developments I fought and they were built anyway," he said of his early days of community organizing. "Now I've learned to live with them."

But many West End residents have not.

Shirley Zenith, a member of the Brookville-Seminary Valley Civic Association, which represents about 800 families living in single-family homes just north of Holmes Run, called the strip commercial development of Duke Street, a major West End thoroughfare, "a shame."

"I can hardly stand it," she said of the used car lots, discount stores, pizza parlors and bowling alleys that were permitted by zoning laws to be built along Duke Street.

Much of the area's troubles, its leaders said, can be attributed to the absence of political clout that the West End has in City Hall.

Bernard Brenman, a well-known West End community leader, said City Hall simply doesn't feel the same way about the area as it does about areas such as Old Town, where the city began 234 years ago.

"No one cares," said Brenman, secretary and founder of the Holmes Run Park Ad Hoc Committee, a civic group that represents more than 5,000 people in the far West End.

Brenman characterized the attitude as, "If it's ugly and misshapen, put it out in the West End."

Although the West End has 21,188 of the city's 46,000 registered voters, Richard Stickles of the city registrar's office said, "The voter turnout is not that good" in the West End for local elections.

To counter that trend, several voter-registration drives have started in the West End in preparation for November elections for state representatives and General Assembly delegates.

"We're telling them if you don't vote, don't gripe," Brenman said of a drive organized by his group. "I believe this election is going to show a new West End.

"Give us a few more years and we will have to be considered as part of this city."