Where America's cities are going, Newark will get there first.

Mayor Kenneth A. Gibson.

As civic mottoes go, and many of them overshoot the mark, the above should give anyone pause.

It may be a put-on, a mordant double-entendre, a sick joke or even a heartfelt belief in some quarters of this wounded city.

Laboring for nearly a decade to rid itself of the label of America's sickest city, Newark has detected lately signs of health within itself. Its boosters have begun to sing, "Hey, Look Me Over!" to a nation that pronounced the city dead in 1967.

Six days of rioting that year devastated Newark's downtown section, or Central Ward, leaving 26 dead and $15 million in property destroyed, and accelerating a decline in population and industry that continues to this day.

But the rioting at least caught national attention and loosed an avalanche, now more than $500 million, of federal aid.

Boosters already are saying that Newark turned the corner and began its climb to salvation in 1970, when personable, persuasive Kenneth A. Gibson was elected Newark's 36th, and first black, mayor. Low-keyed and unflappable, Gibson is credited by many with turning down the heat of ethnic frictions that earlier politicians had long manipulated to their own advantage.

But the more pessimistic are saying that Newark hammered home the last mail in its own coffin when the power elite reached a consensus that Newark's future lay with a different, "Our Crowd" population. The critics charge that Newark quietly wrote off the bottom socioeconomic third of its own citizenry, settling in and waiting for benign neglect to nudge them elsewhere, anywhere, like to many urban American boat people.

Civic leaders insist that Newark, with a shrinking a tax base, an alarming tax rate and a staggering 37 percent welfare load, is doing everything for its people that it can.

"Which people?" the critics reply, contending that Newark's leaders are playing a dangerous game by laying off police, by closing schools and firing teachers, by halving youth service programs that at their peak were unable to avert astonishingly high youth crime statistics.

Neither set of claims can be swallowed whole or utterly rejected.

Newark today is a nest of mutually exclusive, contradictory truths coexisting in a city that may be a model for the separate society toward which sociologists have for two decades warned us we are moving.

Newark, founded in 1666, is the third oldest of America's major cities and 35th in size. In a congressional study completed in August 1978 on the social, economic and fiscal health of the nation's 45 largest cities, Newark placed 45th in all three categories, just behind St. Louis.

Newark's population peaked at 442,337 in 1930. It has lost about 120,000 residents since 1950, and its population is estimated at slightly under 320,000 today, about what it was between 1900 and 1910.

This shrinkage brings with it no easing of strain or broadening of elbow room, however. Newark's population density averages 17,170 per square mile, but two-thirds of its 24 square miles are occupied by Newark International Airport, Port Newark on the Hudson River and the various government and church-owned lands that are not part of the city's property-tax base. The population is shoehorned into the remaining third, where the rate of new housing each year is more than offset by the rate of loss to demolition, fire and abandonment.

Paradoxically, in a city whose name is a metaphor for racial and ethnic strife and which since the 1967 riots was changed from 60 percent to 85 present black and Hispanic, the line of separation is not primarily racial or ethnic, but simply economic.

A shared adversity has fortered an unprecedented interracial, interethnic unity among the have-nots who lack the power to secure for themselves the city services for which they, as well as the wealthy, pay among the highest property taxes in the nation: $8.99 per $100 of assessed valuation, about $2,000 a year on a $20,000 home.

This shared adversity is broad-based -- high and increasing costs, low and decreasing incomes and a notoriously wretched public school system are major features -- but the linchpin to their common cause is crime.

The political scare slogan "fear in the streets" is not only a daily reality for most Newark residents, it has been fostered deliberately by elements in a police department so torn with internal dissent and reduced in manpower that only major crimes and crimes in progress qualify for police response.

Until this year, things had been looking up in Newark. The city's public relations machine produdly cited a 16 percent overall drop in crime from 1971 to 1977 -- since Gibson's election and the appointment of black Hubert Williams as police director -- and a modest rise of only 5.75 percent for all of 1978.

But last year, Newark lost $10.8 million in federal funds and, on Dec. 31, 1978, Gibson announced the layoff of more than 400 city employes, 200 of them policemen, most of the rest teachers.

The Fraternal Order of Police, bargaining unit for Newark's mostly white, mostly nonresident force, immediately attacked Gibson and Williams, demanding that the 200 officers be rehired and warning of a reduction in police efficiency and a climate of public alarm.

To date, only 29 officers have been rehired.

Through it all, the city continues to distribute promotional brochures that are airily detached from disagreeable realities.

"Your City Council at Work," bearing no date, but with photos of the current council and thus presumable printed this year, begins smoothly:

"The Newark City Council, in the past year, was responsible for funding new recreational facilities, a citywide beautification program, and the refurbishing of many parks. While sprucing up our city's physical image, we were able, through tight budgeting, to maintain a level of police services that would guarantee the safety and welfare of every Newark citizen. . . ."

A Lewis Carroll or a Mel Brooks might have penned those giddy lines, but it would take a Dostoevsky to revise them adequately in light of Newark's latest crime statistics, revealed last month.

The statistics, from three sources, do not agree, and no explanation of the disparity is expected. But the conflicting figures are all frightening.

The police department announced that crime in the first three months of 1979, compared with the same period of 1978, rose 25.4 percent. The Fraternal Order of Police, reporting only robbery, burglary and rape, cited a rise of 41.7 percent. And the FBI, noting a national average rise of 11 percent, pegged Newark's soaring crime rate at 35 percent overall, with a breakdown that reads like a bullish Dow Jones of doom: murder, up 14 percent; rape up 23 percent; robbery, up 71 percent; assualt, up 23 percent; burglary, up 23 percent; grand larceny, up 21 percent, and motor vehicle theft, up 67 percent.

An almost surreal quality permeates much of what is said and written about Newark, as well as what is seen in just a 20-minute walk through the beleaguered downtown area.

So much of the talk simply doesn't mesh, answers don't sit squarely on their questions, words simply slide past each other, wide of the mark in this separated society.

A civic leaders refers to a block of refurbished homes or a rehabilitated high-rise and his audience nods approvingly at the idea of "new homes." It is not pointed out that the previous residents, unable to accomplish the rehabilitation themselves, often lost those homes to high taxes and city condemnation and simply drifted elsewhere.

Art Thomas, a Methodist pastor who heads the Metropolitan Ecumenical Ministry, speaks bitterly of the process of "gentrification" that he says is being encouraged aggressively in Newark.

Despite its name, the ministry is chiefly a $350,000-a-year social service agency that expends most of its effort in feeding, housing, clothing, educating and counseling the poorest of Newark's poor. There are more than 100,000 of them below the poverty line, and as a partial consequence, Thomas looks, at 9 a.m. on one particular Wednesday morning, as if he hasn't been to bed for a week.

"You have to understand," he said, "that the business interests, especially the big insurance companies, and especially Prudential, are the real powers here in Newark. That's the bottom line.

"So about a year ago, Prudential's president, Donald MacNaughton, made a speech in which he lined out the agenda for Newark's future. He said the future of cities is in commerce, industry, culture and education, and that people who cannot afford to live in them, should be dispersed. And if the suburbs don't want them, he suggested that maybe the state legislature should take action to curtail home rule and force the suburbs to take them."

Gustave Heningburg, black president of the Greater Newark Urban Coalition and a frequent outspoken critic of the political and business elite, feels that the tenor of MacNaughton's speech, made June 1, 1977, at Rutgers University, was misrepresented in the Newark press and generally has been misunderstood since.

McNaughton developed the thesis that both business and government have tended to confuse equality or opportunity with equality of result, leading government to overstep itself in imposing an ideal of equal results for all. This, he suggested, has tended to dull and flatten some business' own sense of social responsibility.

There is no question of Prudential's own civic interest in Newark's future. Headquartered downtown for 103 years, Prudential has increased its real estate investments in Newark since the 1967 riots from $17 million to more than $80 million. Through its community affairs office, it contributes generously to Newark's citizens' groups. As Art Thomas himself concedes, "There's none of us in town that doesn't have money from Prudential."

One can remain unpersuaded by the publicists' writings about Newark's publicists' writings about Newark's miraculous rebirth, but one cannot deny that the city's power elite is doing many good things for many people, perhaps nothing but good things for as many people as possible. Its new business and new or renovated homes will provide jobs and homes for people who, after all, really need them.

The question among many citizens' groups, however, remains: how far down the socioeconomic scale will Newark's resources reach? Clear to the bottom, or only as far below eye level as civic leaders' vision extends?