What Rockville has riding on the Red Line is its soul.

Twenty-five years ago, conscious of the Beltway boom and its backward manners, the shy county seat enrolled in a crash course in development, and emerged with its head well above its heart.

In 10 years the population quadrupled; by 1980 it was near 45,000. Commercial square footage rose to 5 million in 1970 and has since passed 15 million. Increasing competition for space set housing costs rocketing. Strip zoning of Rockville Pike attracted chunky storefront discounters, although design-conscious developers were already pushing the unified supermalls.

But if beauty faded, the tax base ballooned, from $65 million to $530 million in 20 years. When selective prosperity raised the crime rate, the city created its own police force and dismissed it as an urban necessity.

And when outsiders drove the Pike and shuddered at its garish come-ons, Rockville revenuers merely smiled. The Pike is a retailer's earthly reward: "The Rodeo Drive of the East Coast," as a philosophical planner calls it, rakes in $450 million a year.

These days, though, mere boom is bust. Cities need love and money. Hominess and homilies are the hallmark of the age. So, halfway through the "Me Decade," and with the sleek, Italian-made subway cars poised to make their official first stop on Saturday, Rockville is struggling to rediscover its small-town spirit.

"Rockville is an employment center, and it's certainly emerging in that image," said city planning director James M. Davis. "But we're a mature community now, and we want to feature Rockville as a people place, too; with the residential neighborhoods protected, the town center as the social and psychological and physical focus, and Rockville Pike as Main Street -- the Main Street of Montgomery County."

Encouraged by the opening of the Red Line station, developers are remaking the vacant Rockville Commons on Hungerford Drive into the multiescalatored Metro Center. Two office complexes are under construction and a third is set for a ground breaking in a few months. Quality Inns has signed to run an 11-story luxury hotel, keying the long-looked-for N. Washington Street revitalization.

Rockville may be reconstructing the past, but it doesn't intend to repeat it. This time, urban renewers are out to be user friendly.

Chess tables have sprouted on the brick-cobbled curve that cuts through the judicial center. A very un-Currier & Ives swath of concrete at Montgomery County's Executive Office Building can be flooded for seasonal ice skating.

The old Commons has been split in half and given a precast concrete facade matching the studiously bland county judicial center. A pedestrian catwalk across Hungerford Drive into the Commons (completed but still blocked by construction) is designed not only to get Metro commuters across the street but to reel them past the retail lures of the renovated mall when it opens in March.

When construction is completed on the second section of Jefferson Plaza, a mirrored wingspread complex on the corner of Rtes. 28 and 355, they will be joined by a 14,000-square foot "pocket park" with two 65-foot waterfalls, bistros and seasonal flower beds. A stainless steel eagle, with wings spread 18 feet, will come to roost at the entrance next month.

And although Rockville has rarely been accused of a sense of humor, there is new comfort for the literary commuter: From St. Mary's Cemetery across Veirs Mill Road, F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave glitters in the Plaza's mirrored gleam -- at last, a diamond as big as the Ritz.

All these amenities may be therapeutic, but the major artery of Rockville's heart transplant remains the Metro Center.

Looking back, city officials can cite a whole list of psychological and financial reasons for the failure of the Commons: the choice of an absentee developer; the red tape involved with federal renewal funding; the inability of the city to attract a major department store, and the aura of downtown dilapidation that lingered long after the firetraps and winos faded away.

"It's an entirely different chemistry from the '60s," Davis said. "We have a good, local developer who's actively involved; we have the Metro station coming in, we have the centralization of the county government, which gives the downtown area the identity it needs; we have the public spaces, and we have a healthy, aggressive development climate in the city."

"I'm not sure office buildings add warmth to the town center per se," said former mayor Alexander J. Greene. "But it has near-human proportions; there's some bouncing down of levels . . . and the fact that the Metro station is there may make a lot of difference in the way people feel. They'll be walking through it every day: 'That's why I'm taking the subway to Rockville.' "

The proximity of the subway and commuter train stops (the 1873 B&O kiosk, auctioned and renovated, is no longer used as a station) may help Rockville revive its old crossroads image.

The commuter train system between West Virginia and Union Station still carries 3,500 riders every day. Train buffs have voiced concern that more Metro service means fewer rail subsidies, but state railroad administration specialist Joe Nessel believes that the apparently competitive systems could be complementary.

"There may be a whole new market that commuter rail and Metrorail together can attract," Nessel suggested, "people for whom public transportation hasn't been an option before. For example, people who have been driving down to the Bethesda Naval Hospital could board the train at Brunswick, swap to the subway at Rockville and ride down to Medical Center."

"We expect to lose riders to Metro, especially in the beginning," Nessel said. "But after the first year, we could be back where we were."

The junction of the old rail and the Metro, like the quirky cohabitation of Fitzgerald and the futuristic Jefferson Plaza, is just the kind of culture clash that interests planners now.

The statue of the Confederate soldier that, guarding the old brick courthouse, used to be the surest proof of Rockville's southernness, is back on lonely sentry after a brief revisionist itinerancy.

Nostalgic photos recalling the sepia simplicity of the old days are reproduced in glossy city brochures; and although restorationists managed to preserve the Victorian W. Montgomery Avenue neighborhood, most of the buildings are used as professional offices, peaky addenda to the flat-faced courthouse.

Rather than pass judgment on these conflicts of interest, city officials are talking up the coestablishment.

"Everybody was just impatient," said Davis. "The renaissance in Baltimore or Philadelphia -- those plans were formulated back in the '50s. It's no flash in the pan, it's a 20-25-year renewal process. And that's what we have now."

For some residents, "renewal process" rings a querulous note. Back when expansion dazzled local builders and boomsayers, a lot of people felt left out of the plan. Over a period of years, the segregation of community and commercial interests exacerbated the fears of minority residents that the city's financial resources were being poured into new concrete.

For the residents of Lincoln Park, an antebellum black community of about 400 families, the planning and political controversy over the routing of the Red Line took on an unpleasant racial resonance.

Although Rockville was originally envisioned as the western terminus of the Red Line, the city was reluctant to give up space for garage facilities (the Lincoln Park neighborhood, east of the train tracks, was one site suggested for paving over). With the help of the state, which turned over funds from the highway trust, the subway system was extended to Shady Grove, which had ample storage space.

Laying the subway track, with its electrified third rail, forced the closing of the old grade crossing at Frederick Avenue, Lincoln Park's major access to Rte. 355. Funds for a promised vehicular bridge were used instead to widen Park Road, a mile farther south along the Metro parking lots, and only a pedestrian overpass installed. As dead-end Frederick Avenue deteriorated into a local gambling and shooting gallery, neighborhood residents cried deliberate discrimination.

"They may have overstated it a little, but the closing did impose a physical and psychological isolation on Lincoln Park," said a former County Council member. "Looking back on it, it's the one decision that if we had it to do over again, I would."

In the new atmosphere of reconciliation, Davis said the city is making a special effort to demonstrate its commitment to preserving Lincoln Park. An abandoned market on Horner's Lane now houses a laundry and beauty salon. Bus service to the neighborhood has been improved. And although rescue and fire vehicles can't use Frederick Avenue anymore, Davis said the widening of Park Street has improved response time.

"Over a period of time, the state is closing all the grade crossings," Davis points out. "The truth is, Frederick would have been closed eventually."

In all the looking back, there is a sense of inevitability. John L. Westbrook, the planning commission's chief of urban design, said revival is a matter of shrinking spaces: "When you can't just keep moving to new frontiers of clean, green country, you have to make what we have more comfortable."

But there is also truth in Nick Carraway's farewell to Gatsby, cut into Fitzgerald's slab:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

NEXT: A boom in Shady Grove