Richard Cohen's "Cities at Risk" accurately described the American city's decline and, with it, the irreplaceable loss of a vital part of our society {Magazine, Sept. 30}.

Having lived in several European cities, I have seen how cities can be. Despite problems, these cities work as organic units, functioning and thriving as intended. They balance the needs of work, residence, culture and recreation.

They don't need a Union Station or a South Street Seaport (admirably well-intentioned but ultimately artificial environments) to draw people, because they haven't permitted inhospitable office blocks to dominate city centers. They haven't abandoned entire neighborhoods or yielded their streets to criminals. Nor have they allowed sections of the cityscape to be dominated by abandoned cars, litter and graffiti.

American travelers visit such cities -- Copenhagen, Stockholm, Brussels, Munich, Zurich, etc. -- and marvel, then come back home and docilely accept living patterns by which cities increasingly are places to be avoided, not cherished.

Having grown up in an authentic New York neighborhood, I know there is no substitute for the sense of community it fosters, the exposure of children to a genuine cross section of life and the identification with place.

But like many other ex-urbanites, I eventually succumbed to the lure of safer suburbs with better schools. I wish it could have been otherwise.

DAVID A. HARRIS Potomac