People in the District went to the polls yesterday to determine, for all intents and purposes, who will govern the city for the next four years. That's an important decision at any time, but it's crucial now that city leaders must act without the comforting assurance that, if worst comes to worst, the federal government will bail them out.

The urban landscape in this and other cities around the nation is by no means totally bleak. If you've lived in or around the District for the last decade or two, you've surely noted some major improvements. Strolling the downtown streets at lunchtime, you'll find a pleasant bustle of shoppers, walkers, street vendors and even performers. There are eating places to suit almost any taste, pocketbook or ethnic background. Traffic's bad, but it would be worse without Metro. Crime is as much a problem as ever, but you can go out at night to one of the ever-increasing number of theaters, restaurants or night spots and not feel as if you have wandered into no-man's land. Fine old structures are being rehabilitated and new ones built with a good deal more thought about how they will contribute to a varied urban scene in which people can work, live and shop comfortably.

City and business leaders have rediscovered their mutual interests -- local government no longer looks on business as just something to tax, and business no longer looks at the city as just something to get out of. Urban pride -- eclipsed in many cities by surburban flight and never a strong factor in this federal town -- has reappeared.

The down side of this picture is that for many city residents, things haven't improved at all. Urban jobs for the unskilled are scarcer than ever as industry has moved to low-wage, low-tax areas of this country and abroad. Although there are signs of recent improvement, it would be hard to say that urban schools, despite outpourings of federal aid, have been able to hold their own against the loss of middle-class students and the erosion of academic standards during the permissive 1960s.

Welfare and other benefits and a thriving illegal economy have kept the lid on in the ghetto areas of most cities, but the presence of a seemingly permanent "underclass" with little stake in, or benefit from the flashy accouterments of urban success, continues to threaten both the economic strength and social attractiveness of city life.

The "people" side of urban life, however, has had its successes as well. Much has been made of the "gentrification" phenomenon -- young couples and singles moving back to the cities with a trail of art galleries, boutiques and exposed-brick-wall housing in their wake. But the cities have also benefitted from a less trendy type of newcomer. Recent waves of immigration from Asian and Spanish-speaking countries have brought new problems, but they have also brought upwardly mobile, small-business-oriented citizens who are contributing to the economic vitality and social diversity of inner cities.

Despite this record of apparent success, urban governance has not yet been put to a really severe test. Much that is better in today's cities can be traced to the leadership -- and even more to the money -- provided by the federal government. City bureaucracies have multiplied in size and capability not only because federal funds have provided the financing, but because federal regulation accompanying that money has given localities new responsibilities. Even the healthy trend toward more involvement by business in local economic development was leveraged by federal urban aid programs.

Now, of course, the federal aid flow has been stanched. But dealing with federal cutbacks -- and the likelihood of continued slow economic growth -- wouldn't be so tough if cities had behaved more prudently when times were good: mayors and city councils throughout the country spent too much money on expensive new projects and programs and much too little money on maintaining facilities already in place. Now there is a huge backlog of needed repairs in streets, bridges, public buildings and transportation equipment. This city has the advantage that many of its public facilities are federally maintained, but the still incomplete Metro system has already fallen into disrepair.

Despite greatly increased budgets for municipal workers, cities haven't done as well as they should have in attracting qualified and dedicated workers. Public worker unions -- which exert a heavy influence in most big-city elections -- have used their greatly increased size and strength to push for improved compensation and greater security and to resist attempts to strengthen management control over performance. In this city, where the well-paid federal work force has tended to set standards for the city bureaucracy as well, worker salaries and benefits -- particularly pensions -- have been set with too little attention to the likely ability of future municipal resources to cover them.

All of the candidates in yesterday's election at least paid lip-service to the city's need to compete more effectively with other areas in attracting private employment. But doing that in a time when federal aid is declining and the national economy is flat means that the old-time remedies of new government benefits and programs can't be used. It will take strong leadership and tough management to keep the city lights burning brightly.