"The interesting thing about the people who come down here is that they believe in the good life and the American way of life and the American dream," said Rick Ryan."They want their single-family house, they want to belong to the Kiwanis Club, they want to belong to the Chamber of Commerce, they want to work hard and they want to get ahead. Houston still seems to hold that dream out to them."

Ryan himself is a newcomer to Houston, having arrived two years ago from North Carolina. He is a research psychologist, and as vice president of V. Lance Tarrance & Associates, a public opinion research frim here, he has spent a lot of time trying to understand what makes Houstonians tick.

One thing that surprised him most is that Houston's devotion to the work ethic is far greater than he had imagined. If Houston is America's city of the future, it is also filled with people anchored to the past.

"They are so startlingly different from the rest of the United States," Ryan said, "that it's as if you's carved out a little piece of the United States from 50 or 60 years ago."

Tarrance & Associates conducts a quarterly poll of attitudes in Houston, and one of the questions asked regularly is, if you want more money, what do you do; do you work harder or do you try to get more of your company's profits? The question has been adked by industrial psychologists for many years, and nationally, the answers divide roughly 50-50.

"Down here it's 7030 in favor of working harder," Ryan said. "The work ethic is very deep."

It's the sense that anything is possible that sets Houston apart from other American cities and draws northerners in droves. But the excitement that newcomers feel about Houston is increasingly tempered by fears that the city's growth is about to overwhelm them.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Ryan invited nine Houstonians to his office to talk about what they like and don't like about their city. All had come to Houston in the last decade and all of them now make their home about 20 miles north of downtown in an unincorporated section that will soon be annexed by the city. Today it is known only as the "FM 1960 area."

FM (as in "farm to market") 1960 is their main street. Ten years ago, everybody called it Jackrabbit Road, and it was then a quiet stretch of highway bounded by tall pines and the still night air. Today, it throbs with activity, with huge shopping centers under construction, with fast-food restaurants and health spas and stereo stores and low-rise office buildings, with rough-cut roads shielded by low brick walls that outline new subdivisions that will absorb the migrants who keep pouring in here. At one intersection, 11 billboards advertise new subdevelopments.

The FM 1960 area is a mecca for many of the conservative, affluent Yankees who arrived here after 1970, and it makes up part of Houston's outer ring, which grew by 71 percent between 1970 and 1980.

The nine people gathered together by Rich Ryan were a cross-section of the new Houstonians who have settled in the northwest suburbs -- an oil company executive, housewives whose husbands work for big oil, a nurse from Detroit via New Orleans, a small businessman who remarked that the postmark "Houston" was by itself good for business, a teacher and several persons in the music business.

They talked about the exhilaration of coming to Houston, the excitement of being there and the sense of freedom they felt living there.

"There is a lot of action here, a lot of people making a lot of important decisions," said a woman who came from Evansville, Ind.

A man who came here from Colorado said he likes Houston so much that he would quit his job before leaving. "Unemployment here is a joke," he said."Anybody can get a job here who wants to work."

But as the 90-minute session continued, Houston's underbelly began to be exposed: freeways clogged throughout the day; deteriorating city services; a police force spread so thin that it takes 45 minutes to respond to some calls; growing racial tensions; and conflict between the natives and the newcomers.

"This area's gone to pot in seven years because of the things native Tgexans want to preserve," said the oil company executive, who came from California.

The natives, he said, like having no zoning restrictions -- you can build a Taco Bell nextg to a house in Houston -- and they cling to their automobiles. The newcomers want some zoning, some controls on growth, more mass transit.

But mostly the newcomers seem to want the America of the Fifties, where neighbors know one another and the pace is not so frantic. They find that in Houston, that is less possible all the time.

"When I came here," said the woman from Detroit, "I thought this was God's country I wasn't looking for excitement, I just wanted something better for the family. But it is stressful for us. It's changing too fast. Each day it takes me longer to get home, longer to get to work. I would like for it to slow down."