Back in 1975, the citizens of Manassas Park may have had more pride than they had good sense.

It's been 12 years since this community, at the urging of strong-willed residents and civic leaders, broke away from Prince William County and became a city of its own. At 1.8 square miles, "The Park" in land area is the smallest independent locality in Virginia.

In those early years, however, Manassas Park's problems were anything but small. The city government was in disarray, the schools were in crisis, and many residents and officials were conceding that The Park was ill-prepared for the demands of independence.

Today, people in this tiny but fiercely self-reliant community, still wrestling with its share of problems, look back to the years of chaos and instability as benchmarks of the progress their city has made.

The era of revolving-door leadership is over at City Hall. Parents maintain that the schools are improving. And the city's tax base, once pitifully inadequate, has expanded dramatically.

"There's a sense of optimism -- people are beginning to have confidence that Manassas Park is able to function as a government," said Allen Newcomb, a former School Board member, who echoes the enthusiasm of many civic, business and government leaders.

Manassas Park is a city of about 7,/100 people, bordered by two much larger and better-known neighbors, Manassas and Prince William County. It is a community of small, Cape Cod-style houses built in the 1950s, and long rows of town houses of more recent vintage.

These homes are populated primarily by middle-class and lower middle-class residents, many of them skilled and semiskilled workers employed in Northern Virginia's thriving construction industry.

The Park is a worker's town. Its residents are proud, conservative, and, according to some, acutely sensitive to put-downs or slights. It was a suspicion among some residents that Manassas Park was getting short shrift compared with Prince William's more affluent residents that helped create the clamor for independence.

As it happened, the change to city status was carried out with all the careful consideration of a shotgun wedding.

Many leaders in Manassas Park said they knew the community was not ready to stand on its own, but they were racing a deadline. The Virginia General Assembly was about to impose a moratorium on new cities.

The Park, therefore, decided to seek its independence right away, and cope later with the consequences. These surpassed anyone's worst projections.

"The place was a mess," said Jerry W. Davis, city manager since 1981. "No doubt about it, in our case, it {city status} was a mistake at that time."

Roads fell into such disrepair that residents joked grimly that while most communities had potholes, The Park had canyons. There was such an extended parade of resignations from the City Council that promises by aspiring officeholders that they would serve their full terms were dismissed as idle campaign rhetoric. And while the city's property tax rate rose to the highest of any locality in Viriginia, the confidence of many residents in their community sank to a new low.

Aside from a lack of experience in self-government, leaders today recall that the hub of Manassas Park's problem was a lack of commercial and industrial property to buttress the tax base.

A strong balance between residential and business development is critical for any local government. Residences, particularly those with children needing education in the public schools, typically demand more municipal services than they return in tax revenues; the opposite is usually true of businesses.

In Manassas Park's case, there were no businesses, save one small shopping plaza. The burden of running the government fell almost entirely on homeowners.

Although the Manassas Park government desperately needed new money to make essential improvements in city services, residents were already suffering under a property tax rate that at its peak rose to a staggering $2.43 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The city's response to this dilemma was unique. While many Northern Virginia localities seek to attract commercial developers, Manassas Park decided in 1982 to get into the business itself.

The result was the Conner Center, a 300-acre commercial and industrial complex built and marketed under the city government's oversight.

City Manager Davis, who drove his sleek sports car and listened to a rock music station as he toured the city last week with a reporter, said the Conner Center was virtually an unalloyed success. Several businesses have made the Conner Center their home, building distribution warehouses or starting small industrial activities.

When the Conner Center is finished, it will bring about $1 million a year in revenue to the city, Davis said. Other commercial developments, including a new shopping center, are on the way.

This infusion of revenue has allowed construction of a soon-to-open fire and rescue facility and city hall, improvements that once would have been outlandish expenditures for the impoverished city government. At the same time the property tax rate, though still the highest in Virginia, has fallen to $1.69 per $100 and should continue to decline, Davis said. The city unemployment rate is 2 percent; the statewide rate is 4.6 percent.

Despite these successes, Manassas Park still faces serious challenges. Among the biggest is its schools.

Superintendent James Stuart points to recent improvements. Teacher pay rose by 10 percent last year, he said, adding that he hopes this will slow Manassas Park's high rate of teacher attrition. Last year 24 of the system's 93 teachers left Manassas Park for other jobs.

Stuart said the schools also are doing a better job reaching all their students, including potential dropouts who will likely never go on to college but need skills and a high school diploma to compete in the work place.

One problem that has plagued the school system from the beginning, however, still persists: underenrollment. While many Northern Virginia school systems are so overcrowded they are using trailers as temporary classrooms, Manassas Park has about 1,400 students, even though it has the capacity for more than 2,000.

The underenrollment is worst at the high school level, reflecting The Park's peculiar demographics. Many of Manassas Park's older residents, who moved to the area in the 1950s, no longer have school-age children. Many of the younger residents who live in town houses move from the city when their families begin to grow, leaving few families with high school-age children.

City leaders believe this problem can be solved only if Manassas Park diversifies its housing stock, providing more opportunities for growing families. That is one reason that city leaders are pressing hard to annex 400 acres of city-owned land bordering Manassas Park in Prince William County.

A developer has a contract to buy the land, contingent on the annexation, and plans to build a mixed-use complex that would include a large number of detached houses designed for affluent families.

Prince William County has steadfastly opposed the annexation proposal, meaning the issue may be resolved in either the courts or the General Assembly.

Given recent progress, however, Manassas Park can more confidently make its case than it could have during the dark years of the city's infancy in the late 1970s.

Stuart, the school superintendent, said: "People in Manassas Park are proud of their city -- and they'll fight you for it."