MANILA -- When American troops landed here more than 40 years ago to retake this city block by block from its Japanese occupiers, Manila gained the dubious distinction of becoming one of World War II's most devastated city.

From the looks of the city today, it appears that, in four decades, not much has changed.

Many parts of Manila are despairing, depressing, confusing collections of dilapidated shacks, vacant lots strewn with garbage, and abandoned buildings newly adorned with political campaign posters or graffiti urging a communist takeover. Said the Rev. John Carroll, an American-born Jesuit who has lived in Manila on and off since the end of the war, "Manila was allowed to grow up as one big slum."

Much of the problem rests with the influx of squatters, tens of thousands of migrants from the countryside who have taken shelter on unclaimed land. Families live destitute on the streets, often huddled in doorways or packed together, five people to a cot. Legions of deformed beggars occupy curbs and median strips, hoping to catch a few coins tossed from the window of a passing car.

Street crime is rampant -- unusually violent murders and muggings dominate the front pages of the city's popular tabloid newspapers. Most notorious are the car thieves -- "carnappers," they are called here -- whose favorite method of operation is to shoot a driver stopped at a traffic light, push the body out of the car and drive it to the northern expressway out of the city.

With crime spiraling, Manilans have armed themselves to the teeth. Blue-uniformed security guards with crude, homemade shotguns are a fixture here, standing guard at public buildings, restaurants, apartments -- even at the McDonald's. Most hotels now have security checkpoints, with body frisks, and some post signs that tell patrons, "Please Deposit Your Firearms."

The wealthy minority, like the foreign community here, can escape the city's mayhem behind the high brick walls of posh housing subdivisions, like Forbes Park in Makati, where virtually every tree-shaded house has a swimming pool and a driveway long enough for a fleet of Mercedes.

Manila's crime and general urban blight are stunning when compared to the other large cities of Southeast Asia. Bangkok has more traffic congestion, but its streets are generally tidy and its skyline is alight with new construction -- attesting to Thailand's continuing economic boom. Jakarta has its slums, but Indonesia's oil wealth has fostered a booming metropolis.

Manila is closer in appearance to the slums of Calcutta or Bombay in India than to the capitals of its more prosperous -- and safer -- neighbors.

The decay is saddest for old-timers who remember a quaint city that combined Spanish old-world charms with Asian mystique. People who lived or visited here before the war say it was proud and picturesque, with a gracious tree-lined esplanade alongside Manila Bay and majestic theaters and department stores.

"Avenida Rizal was like Nathan Road in Hong Kong, or like the Ginza in Tokyo," said Lito Atienza, a Liberal Party candidate for mayor. Now, he says of the city's once famous shopping street, "it's filthy, it's dark, it's crowded, it's dirty, it's dangerous. You can't go there after 6 o'clock at night because it's just not safe."

Former first lady Imelda Marcos, who served as governor of the Metro Manila region, was criticized for trying to whitewash Manila's problems through her "beautification program" -- planting trees, erecting high-rise hotels and hiding the poverty and decay behind a gleaming facade.

Authors Fred Poole and Max Vanzi, in their recent book on the Marcos-era Philippines, describe Imelda Marcos' Manila as "a crazed modern Oriental version of something that Louis XIV, as played out by the Marx brothers, might have created."

Now that glittery facade is beginning to crumble.

Traffic is cluttered with colorful but crowded "jeepneys," pushcarts, bicycles with sidecars and even an occasional horse-drawn carriage. Taxis and buses belch out choking smoke. Drivers routinely rush through red lights with horns blaring.

Potholes have made some side streets impassable and turned some main thoroughfares into lunar landscapes.

Even walking is hazardous. While avoiding pungent piles of garbage, pedestrians must be on the lookout for open manholes. Scavengers have stolen most of the manhole lids to sell as scrap metal.

Piles and puddles of human waste foul some streets. Columnist and opposition politician Kit Tatad devoted a recent column to the problem of public urination. In 30 years in Manila, he wrote, "I have not seen so many people at any time of the day emptying their kidneys on concrete walls . . . . Is a renal disorder sweeping the nation? Or are they simply trying to reestablish their links to the underclass of the animal kingdom?" Tatad warned that all Manila may soon be "transformed into a real public sewer."