Pearl Bailey will be mourned throughout America and the world, but her loss will be acutely felt here in Washington, where she was a lifelong resident.

Bailey clearly felt a bond with this city, and this city with her. She began her career here and went onto worldwide acclaim. But when she looked back at the days that brought her the most joy and excitement in her career, she looked back to U Street in Washington. In a 1988 interview with The Post, Bailey recalled her first job in a club called the Jungle Inn, located at 1209 U St. next to the Lincoln Theatre. The club, subsequently renamed the Casbah, still stands, shuttered and surrounded by Metro construction, but one need only close one's eyes to imagine a 15 1/2-year-old girl ready to take on the world. From there, Bailey went on to the Republic Gardens, one block west of the Lincoln and from there into history.

Not surprisingly, however, Bailey always came back to Washington, a place she called home. And even in her later years, when the finest avenues of the world would have welcomed her, she returned to look at U Street and to reminisce. What she saw disturbed her, and always one to speak her mind, she related in that Post article her feelings: "I drive a lot with {my husband} Louie these days, and I'll just make a turn down Florida Avenue or Rhode Island Avenue. At Sixth and M is the House of Prayer, where my Daddy used to preach. Then I drive down U Street. It's really a heartbreaker."

What caused Bailey's heartbreak was the decimation of what was once so grand an avenue that it was referred to as "America's Black Broadway." However, the flight of black businesses after the advent of integration and the 1968 civil disorders hastened an economic decline that continued into the 1970s. Adding to the economic instability and the area's overall general appearance is the Metro Green Line construction, now nearing completion. It's no wonder that Bailey was heartbroken to see this onetime jewel reduced to urban squalor.

But Bailey also had a vision. She once said that the U Street area could be a great cultural avenue again. "If this street was put back together with lights, with some style, you could have better acts booked here than at the Kennedy Center. What's wrong with fixing this place up?"

Pearl Bailey was right. U Street needs to come back and to once again provide the cultural excitement, inspiration and opportunity that it provided for her and others during the first half of this century. The opening of two Metro stations next spring on U Street will help, but the true first step toward the cultural and economic renaissance of U Street is already under way with the restoration of the Lincoln Theatre, scheduled for completion in late 1991. The Lincoln Theatre will seat more than 1,400 people and will again provide a place where young people with talent can get their start and where the young people of Shaw and the rest of the city can have a front-row seat on a world of African-American accomplishment in the arts.

The Lincoln Theatre Foundation has accepted its share of the challenge to rebuild this important section of the city, but others need to make their commitments also. The next mayor of this city must find the money to restore to operation the Howard Theatre at the other end of U Street so that these two great sister theaters can operate in tandem. Partnerships must be developed to build affordable housing in Shaw. Entrepreneurs of every type should begin laying plans now to serve the thousands who will attend the theaters and who live in the neighborhood.

My greatest regret is not knowing whether Bailey had the opportunity to see the temporary marquee lights at the Lincoln Theatre. Perhaps in those lights, she would have seen a glimmer of hope that U Street is on its way back. We're going to do it, Pearl. And that will be the most significant tribute this city can pay to you.

-- Delano E. Lewis is president of C&P Telephone Co. and chairman of the Lincoln Theatre Foundation Board of Trustees.