VIRGINIA BEACH, AUG. 31 -- This resort became a city in transition tonight, as a decidedly young and black crowd arrived for Laborfest 90, replacing large numbers of mostly white families who had spent the day leaving the city.

But many of the newcomers were discouraged to find fewer people than expected, stringent traffic controls and other crowd restrictions.

"It seems very dead," said Damon Beals, 26, of Jersey City, N.J., at 10:45 p.m. "There's not even a third of the people that were here last year. Last year you could barely walk the street."

This city has gone through a major soul-searching since last year's event, when about 100,000 young blacks crammed the beachfront area; looting broke out and police used force to clear the streets on three consecutive nights. A coalition of officials, merchants, students and others has worked to sponsor a 1990 Labor Day weekend event filled with entertainment, in part to try to reverse Virginia Beach's image as a racially insensitive community.

At the same time, the town's elaborate crowd controls -- including traffic checkpoints that allow only cars driven by hotel guests and local residents to enter the oceanfront area -- irritated many who arrived tonight. Many had to park in satellite lots several miles from downtown and ride in on buses.

"It's not right to block the beach like that," said North Carolina State University sophomore Dionne Robinson. "It's keeping the merchants from making money and the kids from having fun."

"Look at it now; it's a big difference," said A.D. Archibald, a restaurant manager from Norfolk who also felt that officials overreacted in their restrictions for Laborfest after last year's disturbances.

Joan Fitten, 25, of New York, wasn't pleased with the police checkpoints or the plastic band strapped around her left wrist to identify her as a hotel guest. "I don't like being tagged," she said.

Earlier, city officials and religious leaders said they had done what they could to prevent a recurrence of last year's violence, when an annual gathering of students and other blacks exploded and looting caused $1.4 million in damage.

"We have set the stage, now it's up to the actors," said Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera Oberndorf, at a conference of religious leaders and city officials that turned into a pep rally for tolerance and understanding. "We have a chance to make history," she said. "We can show a watching world that much is possible when people communicate and exchange trust."

The morning's keynote speaker, John Kinney, dean of the school of theology at Virginia Union University, declared: "Tragedy will not be the concluding chapter of this story."

But with oceanfront hotels and motels reporting that fewer than half of their rooms are booked for the Labor Day weekend, the summer's traditional last blast, merchants and officials conceded that some black students' threats to boycott Virginia Beach businesses -- in favor of alternative events in the District of Columbia, Baltimore and elsewhere -- apparently would limit attendance here.

Few people were willing to hazard a guess today as to how many people will show up this weekend. But it was painfully evident to local merchants that families -- the city's tourism staple -- were starting an exodus.

John Mills and his family planned to "get in and get out before the weekend" for fear of a repetition of last year's crowds and disturbances. Mills, who is black, said he and his family would be uncomfortable remaining in the area this weekend.

Tourists were not the only people expressing reservations about the weekend. Residents living near Red Wing Park, the site of two days of concerts, are angry.

"There is some concern that if things get out of control at the park, that trouble might spill over into the neighborhood," said John Grandfield, of Red Wing, a community of 558 houses about two miles south of the resort area. "The city is trying so hard to accommodate the Laborfest attendees -- they have put the residents on the back burner."

"There's still a degree of uncertainty in the air as to how things are going to turn out," said Bernard Holmes, legal counsel of the Virginia Beach NAACP. "I'm just going to wait to see how things turn out."