Twenty-two years ago, when the body of exiled and discredited political boss Frank Hague was returned to Jersey City for burial, an elderly woman was spotted near the funeral, holding a hand-lettered sign that read: "God have mercy on his sinful greedy soul."

Today it is Jersey City itself, wracked by urban decay, a crumbling economy and racial tensions, on which the Almighty might well have mercy.

So embittered and disillusioned are the city's people that 51 per cent, in a recent poll, said they'd leave if they could. As cities across America begin to revive, Jersey City is likely to remain a forsaken backwater for years to come.

Five years ago, reform came to Jersey City. Mayor Thomas J. Whelan, a satrap of the machine of John V. Kenny, successor to Hague, was packed off to jail for extorting millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks from city contractors. Reform candidate Paul T. Jordan, a 30-year-old public health physician, won a special election.

"We're free at last," Jordan exulted. "Boss politics is dead in Jersey City."

Today, Jordan is out of office. His hand-picked successor, William Macchi, lost ignominiously in the recent election to Thomas Xavier Francis Smith, former city clerk and onetime campaign manager for Mayor Whelan (who's still in jail).

No one has accused the new mayor, a burly former basketball player who ran a folksy street-level campaign, for personal shenanigans. But Jordan suspects the worst: "Smith managed to keep all the thugs in the back room during the campaign. But now the people we haven't seen in five years - loan sharks, guys we know as hijackers or gamblers - are back in town."

If Jordan is correct, five years of reform is about all Jersey City can take.

But why?

Not, it seems, because Jordan failed carry out his promises. His record is impressive enough.

Jersey City got its first honest government in more than 60 years. Jordan abolished the notorious kickback system on city contracts (between 8 and 15 per cent, on everything from paper clips to major construction). Reform cleaned up the police department, which had previously ignored loan-sharking, hijacking, gambling and drug traffic (except for collecting protection money). A mayor's action bureau, receiving 15,000 to 20,000 citizen complaints yearly, replaced the favor-based political system citizens had been forced to use to get a pothole fixed, a sewer cleaned out. Multiple management reforms were instituted and the tax rate held stable.

But Jordan failed spectacularly in conveying his accomplishments to the public, in convincing citizens their lives had improved because of his efforts. A May public-opinion survey by John Kincaid of St. Peter's College found only 5 per cent of Jersey Cityites thought Jordan had done a good job; 50 per cent called his performance poor.

Even among early supporters, Kincaid found, the young, vibrant mayor had failed to live up to expectations. Some criticized him for building his own "machine" - and Jordan himself told me that in the bare-knuckled world of Hudson County politics, he'd resorted to some tactics he's "not particularly thrilled about."

Though Jordan can be an engaging man, the poll showed he'd projected an aloof image to some citizens. For parochial Jersey Cityites, there was a hint of elitism in his recruitment of administrators from outside. Jordan, in turn, told me that while the citizens "are good people," educational levels are low and "their ability to understand complex urban problems" is limited - and hardly helped by local newspapers "that play to the cheap, sensationalized stories."

Street crime is a salient Jersey City issue, and is most acute for the city's many elderly people, who consider themselves virtual prisoners in their homes, especially after dark. The fact that Jersey City's crime rate is actually low compared to other big cities doesn't seem to help.

Combating crime, Jordan said, is particularly frustrating. The police "make good, constitutional, professional busts; then you wait 12 or 14 months for the accused to come to trial, and soon they're back out on the street. The criminal-justice system has reduced our police to a glorfied processing agency, a toothless tiger. I don't have a law-and-order mentality, but some people cannot be rehabilitated. For the good of society they should be taken out of circulation for extended periods of time. We're not doing this. Crime literally pays."

Jersey Cityites' preoccupation with crime is connected to an even stranger phenomenon - nostalgia for the days of Frank Hague, which elderly residents remember as peaceful times "when I didn't have to worry about crime and drug addicts."

To many citizens it seens to matter little that Hague built a fortune of $8 million on political plunder or that he, Kenny and Whelan presided over the most continuous stream of political corruption America has ever known.

"I don't care if Smith makes a few bucks on the side as long as he does something for us," one poll respondent said. "I remember Hague. He was a thief, but at least he did a lot for the people."

It's true that Jersey City and Hudson County are scarcely "typical" America. But still, Jordan's experience may offer some pointers for reformers elsewhere.

Reformers need to keep up a drum-beat of attack on the corrupt "Old Guard" - people are more inclined to vote "against" than "for." They should become masters of the symbolic act, the dramatic gesture to underscore their accomplishments - otherwise advances will go unnoticed, and the press can't be counted on to help out. And finally, reformers must keep close to the common people. Without them, reform is a will-o'-the-wisp, here today, gone tomorrow.