On the night that 1985 was nudged aside by 1986, back when New Year's Eve brought tens of thousands of people to the Old Post Office Pavilion downtown to check out some tunes and some eats and each other, back when the District counted down the year's final seconds in a burst of urban togetherness, back then Marion Barry had a vision.

He saw New Year's Eve futures. And they would be big. As in Big Apple big.

"Times Square has more of a history, tradition, but we're gaining on them," the mayor said that night. "We're going to outdo New York. We think we might just take over and become the best single event."

Well, some year, maybe. But not this year, certainly.

Half a decade after Barry's boast, almost all of the outdoor New Year's Eve hoopla along Pennsylvania Avenue NW -- the big crowds, the music, the food, the countdown, the champagne -- has fizzled.

Even, now, the "Love" stamp.

It was intended to be the District equivalent of Times Square's falling orb: A giant, illuminated copy of the latest version of the U.S. Postal Service's "Love" stamp, descending the 310-foot spire of the Old Post Office as midnight drew nigh and the multitudes grew giddy.

But the Postal Service has dropped the outdoor drop for this New Year's Eve. It did so, said spokesman Jim Murphy, because hardly anybody dropped by last year's drop.

A smaller version of the new "Love" stamp will descend the atrium of the Old Post Office during a party for 2,500 sponsored by the Pavilion at the Old Post Office. But the Postal Service saw no point in spending big bucks to rig up the outside descent, said Murphy. He was unable to provide cost estimates, but last year's outdoor "Love" stamp weighed two tons, featured neon lights and stood 20 by 30 feet.

"It's always unfortunate to lose a tradition. That is why we're doing the smaller 'Love' stamp inside," said Seamus Houston, marketing director of the pavilion. "It was a nice feature to have here at this building. It was the highlight of Washington's New Year's Eve celebration."

What seems to have done in the New Year's Eve outdoor party was Barry's decision two years ago to cancel the city's participation. Given the rising problems with drugs and homicide, he said, "it's no time to celebrate. It's time to work hard and to pray."

Barry also blamed cost. Although the city was unable to provide totals, an official familiar with the celebration said then that the city had been spending about $100,000 each year for musical acts and promotion. That was on top of overtime paid to police officers and other city employees.

There had also been incidents of violence, including the 1986 strangulation and rape of an 18-year-old D.C. woman whose body was found in a rear stairwell at the pavilion during the New Year's celebration.

With the city a no-show, only 750 people were on hand to watch falling Love as 1989 began. Not many went to herald 1990, either.

"It's sad," said Patience O'Connor, who helped start the "Love" stamp-New Year's Eve tradition in 1983 when she was a partner in Evans Development Co., which rehabilitated the Old Post Office. "It was an event that really brought the entire city out, and brought the entire city out with a real kind of spirit of enjoying each other."

Such bring-out-the-city affairs have had a tough time in the District of late. Riverfest, an outdoor tribute to the Potomac and Anacostia rivers that had drawn hundreds of thousands of people in its first six years, was scrubbed last summer. Too costly, said the city.

And organizers had to sharply curtail last summer's 20th Latin American Festival after the District government withdrew most of its financial support and the National Park Service demanded $90,000 for security and maintenance costs on the Mall.

Yet, around the country, more and more cities are taking the plunge into big events, said Jim Andrews, editorial director of Special Events Report, the newsletter of the International Events Group. The reason: They generate revenue for local businesses.

But wait. The District still has plenty of public parties, said Brian Tate, of the D.C. Committee to Promote Washington.

There is, for instance, Adams-Morgan Day and Georgia Avenue Day.

There's the Black Family Reunion and the Fourth of July on the Mall.

And there's some big deal with cherry blossoms in the spring.

But alas, there's no Times Square South on New Year's Eve, at least not this year.

"I don't think it's a tradition that should die," said O'Connor. "Maybe it's in temporary hiatus in this very strange year."