Underground Atlanta, once a symbol of this city is rise from a country town to a major metropolis, has fallen victim to the problems confronting the cosmopolitan areas it so desperately wants to emulate.

Crime, neglect and the ultimate goal of many cities aspiring to major league status - a rapid rail transit system - have all combined to deal what may be a fatal blow to the nationally recognized entertainment center.

In May, Underground Atlanta, Inc., which owns most of the property in the complex, announced that it could no longer supply garbage, security and guide services it had contracted to provide.

Underground's plight is a major concern here, attracting more attention than the money struggles just about any other business would. It's a spiritual as well as a financial matter.

When the area was just beginning to be developed 10 years ago, the town had passed its "city too busy to hate" sloganeering, but had not yet reached "the world's next great city" level of advertising.

Underground filled a void then in what must be one of the most image-conscious cities in the country. During its development stages. Underground was compared with Washington's Georgetown. Chicago's Old Town, and even the French Quater of New Orleans.

At its peak, 68 shops, rightclubs, bar and restaurants - supplemented by a colorful array of freelance streets people - did a thriving business in everything from sex to ice cream.

As the idea for the complex was developing, a group of young men formed an umbrella organization called Underground Atlanta. Inc., and bought up most of the property to lease back to the individual shop owners.

In return, the firm was to supply a number of services such as garbage pickup, secuty, and hosteses to guide visitors to Underground, nooks and crannies.

But after two years of declining rent revenues and an inanirility to find new financing, the firm is now all but broke.

Steve Fuller, and executive of Underground Atlanta, Inc., wrote Mayor Maynard Jackson and informed the city his firm would no longer be able to provide any services.

Altough it has not filed for bankruptcy, that could happened any day, according to sources familiar with the company.

If history does repeat itself, the decline of Underground should have been expected. The area was started by accident just after the South had clawed its way out of the depths of Reconstruction.

The transportation hub of the Southeast, the city became crisscrossed with railroads, making passage along the streets hazardous for pedestrians, horsedrawn carriages and early motorcars.

As the population increased and business boomed, city fathers began building elevated streets, allowing passage over the dangerous network tracks known as "railroad gulch."

In the process, the elevated streets put customers of the city's downtown businesses at the second-story level, forcing shop and store owners to cut new windows and doors on upper floors.

The ground-level area was eventually seated over by streets and over-passes. In this process, however, the ornate store facades, the cobblestone streets and even the gas lamps were left intact and protected from the weather.

A decade ago, a group of young entrepreneurs made their way through the winos and the rats and saw the unused area for what it was: Atlanta at the turn of the century, perfectly preserved. All that was needed to bring it to life was a fresh coat of paint, some elbow grease on the price-less stained glass windows and fuel for the gas lamps.

Stores and shops, small and cramped by modern retailing standards were perfect for the new ventures of the 1960s which sought to cash in on the quaint amblence of many of the country's old sections.

For a time it, appeared Underground would be as successful as its older counterparts in other cities, but crime took its toll.

Although robberies are probably no more numerous in Underground that in other parts of the city, reports of street crimes frighten off the affluent suburbanites the complex needs to survive.

A simple mugging takes on more sinister tones in the minds of visitors when contemplated in the closed confines of underground: it suddenly becomes downright claustrophobic.

And the city didn't help matters when it decided last year to build a fence across the entrances and exits of Underground and charge a small admission fee to help pay for "added security."

In the minds of many would-be visitors, "added security" simply meant the place needed more policemen.

The first two times the city tried to build a fence, the bids were rejected. By the time the third bid was accepted and work on the fence started, the ominuous "Added security" story had been in the press several extra months.

Even if the crime problem - real or imagined - is overcome, the area around Underground presents another hazard.

Some of the approaches to the area feature dirty, unlighted parking lots and abandoned and boarded up stores, all of which have become the haunts of winos an other folks that people going out for a night on the town don't want to see.

In a vicious circle, UNderground claims it can't do anything about the neglected areas, since it doesn't own the property, while the property owners say there's little use in fixing up the area since no one comes to Underground anymore because of the crime.

Ever optimistic, however, the remaining merehauts in Underground say they will eventually overcome both problems, but there is one problem that just won't go away; the city's 2 billion rapid rail construction program.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority is big and powerful and visible, meaning some merchants have something to point their fingers at when they want to blame something concrete for Underground's problems.

Actually, the numbers of shops in Underground had already dwindled to 50 before MARTA turned a shovel in the area. It may have been the final straw, however.

The transit agency shaved off the rears of 13 stores fronting Old Alabama Street in Underground, leaving little more than the facades.

The complex might have survived that, but MARTA also sealed off the only northern entrance-way to the area, closing Underground to hundreds of office workers who ate their lunches or had their after work drinks there.

The subway construction is supposed to be finished in a couple of years, taking with it its dust and its noise, but Underground may not live to see the day.

Railroads indirectly created Underground Atlanta, and they may indirectly kill it as well.