Antoinette Smith, a native of this city, lives near Mosby Court, a public housing development built here about forty years ago. She calls it the "unpromised land" because "there is so little hope" for the residents in its 458 apartments.

"There are good, hardworking people in this city. . . . The people of this city -- we need help," she said, referring to the high homicide rate and trash-strewn streets throughout the neighborhood. Two months ago, her grandson was found slain a short distance from his home in the housing complex.

"Our public schools need help, as do the people of this community -- to find jobs," Smith said. "And we need help in getting rid of the crime."

It is neighborhoods such as this, where some of the city's oldest public housing still stands, that former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder has targeted as he returns to politics by running to be his home town's first elected mayor in more than 50 years.

At forums and in interviews, he talks about the problems of such neighborhoods as Mosby -- 77 percent unemployment, most schoolchildren receiving free or reduced-price lunches -- and how those issues must be attacked if Virginia's capital city is to be revitalized.

Richmond, on the banks of the James River, continues to be a city rich in history and southern charm. But though the city has had some success in recent years in curbing crime, improving failing schools and reducing poverty, it is still a place where 20 percent of the residents are poor and where killings still are given much attention on television news. It also is home to about half of the 34 public schools in Virginia that the federal government recently designated as failing, according to recent state statistics.

How to solve those urban problems has been the talk of the mayoral election, which features the return of Wilder, the first elected black governor in the nation. All the candidates -- Wilder; Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum; Charles Nance, a former School Board member; and architect Lawrence E. Williams -- have said the city's fortunes depend on reducing violent crime and boosting educational achievement to inspire confidence in the city.

"Any talk about rebuilding this city has to start with reducing crime and improving schools," Wilder said in an interview last week. "People aren't going to come here if they feel scared."

"I can name any number of people -- young people with families from Henrico, Hanover, Chesterfield -- who have said that they would love to move here but still have concerns about the schools."

For years, Richmond, a city of 197,000, was the heart of its metropolitan region. It was where many of central Virginia's jobs, housing and commerce could be found. Until the middle of the past century, streetcars carried workers to Main Street commercial buildings that made the city one of the South's banking centers.

But for more than 40 years, the city has been losing population, and jobs have settled in the new office parks of surrounding Henrico and Chesterfield counties instead of the older buildings downtown. That has left the city without a vibrant middle class. David Rusk, a national demographer and planner, found that Richmond has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the nation.

The mayoral candidates are debating how Richmond can restore some of its glory, uplift communities such as Smith's and lure the middle class.

Since 1948, the mayor has been selected by the City Council, and the daily management of the bureaucracy has been overseen by a city manager. But in November, city residents voted by a 4-1 ratio to change the city's charter to allow a strong-mayor system.

The city manager's job will be abolished, and the mayor will appoint a chief administrative officer to supervise city departments. The mayor will oversee the budget and finances. Many hope this will bring new accountability to a government that has been racked with scandals.

There has been much discussion about how Richmond, once a major commercial hub of the Eastern Seaboard, has lost stature to other cities in the Southeast such as Raleigh and Charlotte in North Carolina. In the past half-century, those cities gained population while Richmond lost residents.

"We used to compare ourselves to Charlotte and Raleigh, but those cities have really left us in the dust," said John V. Moeser, a professor of public policy and government at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The modern city cannot expand its middle class base by annexing land from surrounding counties, demographers and city officials said. Richmond, with its 62.5 square miles, has one-tenth 10 percent of the metropolitan area's land mass and more than 70 percent of its poor.

It doesn't have the space for the sprawling campuses favored by many large businesses. Philip Morris recently moved its worldwide corporate offices to the area from New York, but it chose a suburban office park over downtown.

"One of the key issues with us is going to be: Where can we encourage businesses to move?" said John Woodward, the city's director of economic development.

He said the city was beginning to have some success with attracting small high-tech companies to the city. A biotech office park opened eight years ago in the city's downtown. But he added: "We have no place to grow, and very often, businesses like the types of office parks that we just have no room to build."

Now, planners and boosters are hoping to turn the city into the region's cultural El Dorado, with a $93 million performing arts center to open by 2007, and a revitalization of neighborhoods. Planners hope that this will add life to Broad Street, the city's old commercial strip where the city's new gleaming convention center sits.

"This city has come a long way," said McCollum, pointing to an $84 million mixed-use development as an example of revitalization. "There are lots of things that need to be addressed, including many of our neighborhoods, but we're on track and rebounding."

Wilder, who was the prime mover in changing the city's charter to create a strong mayor, has even grander visions.

"I go to downtowns all over this country, and they have department stores and commercial businesses -- Richmond can have those, too," he said. "The key is giving businesses confidence that they can come back into this city."

To address one of the pockets of poverty entrenched throughout Richmond, the city demolished a notorious south-side development known as Blackwell and is building a mixed-income community with the aid of federal grants. McCollum said the city plans to apply for more grants to raze other public housing developments.

Richmond has followed the lead of many cities, including the District, by embarking on a campaign to redevelop its neighborhoods to attract young singles and empty nesters to some of its historic neighborhoods.

Those neighborhoods include Shockoe Bottom and Churchill, where many are starting to buy single-family Victorians and condominiums in old tobacco warehouses.

Already, there has been some success: About 2,500 new residents, most of them young and single, have moved to Shockoe Bottom in the past several years, city records show.

But the fact remains that the metropolitan region -- including suburban Henrico and Chesterfield -- gained 80,000 jobs in about a decade while Richmond lost 16,000.

"There are broken people here who need help in this city," Smith, 64, said. "All we want from the new mayor, whoever he is, is for him to help all the people -- downtown, in these housing developments -- so we can have our city back again."

"The people of this city -- we need help," says Antoinette Smith, left, at Mosby Court. Granddaughter Kadijuh Taylor's T-shirt pictures a relative slain nearby.