When the fires started, when looters filled the streets of Washington with furniture and televisions, young Christine Coghill sneaked out of her house on Fifth Street NW "for a chance to get something you didn't have."

The rioting of April 1968, Coghill says now, "was something to do. Nobody cared about the next day. They were trying to get back at the white man, but they hurt their own."

Coghill, now a 31-year-old, unemployed high school dropout, divorced and on welfare, rearing two boys by herself, has stayed in the District. Trapped by poverty, she dreads her sparse fifth-floor apartment at the Clifton Terrace complex in Northwest Washington, closing her eyes before entering once more the dark, narrow staircase fouled with vomit and urine, crowded with terrifying crack dealers and their stoned customers.

Twenty years ago, William Bell lived in the River Terrace section of Northeast. He got home from work the night the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and found his mother-in-law slumped in a chair, facing the TV reports from Memphis. She had had a heart attack. City ambulances were so busy with the riot that no one came for two hours. Bell's mother-in-law died.

Bell, now retired from government service, stayed in the city, and today he lives in the same house he did then. "We thought of going to the suburbs," he said, "but my wife said, 'Why should we run?' We were building. We could have made this city what we wanted. But most of the people who could help make lives better were on the outside. They left us with a weak core. We had a bit of togetherness, and it was wiped out."

Jeanne Chase, a third grade teacher in the D.C. schools, and her husband Irving, a Bureau of Engraving supervisor, were newlyweds living at 15th and Chapin streets NW when the riots occurred. She remembers confusion, flames, the National Guardsmen right outside their building, a walk the couple took past a burned-out shoe store. A looter sat calmly amid the rubble, picking through boxes of shoes.

"They just seemed to be so angry," Chase said. "We always wanted to move, but this just kind of firmed what we wanted to do. It was time to go." Within a year, the Chases purchased a roomy ranch house with a big yard in Seat Pleasant in Prince George's County. They have no regrets. They are relieved to be less threatened by crime, less burdened by taxes to support people on welfare.

Twenty years is a long time in the life of a city. Politicians, buildings, spirits -- all rise and fall with unseemly speed. In 1968, Washington was a very different city -- with a wax museum, a professional baseball team, 100 supermarkets, downtown movie theaters, a strong middle class and more than a smattering of white children in its public schools.

In the aftermath of a violent spasm of racial rage, Washington became polarized economically. One-third of the city's middle-class residents -- most of them black families -- bailed out. Finding success in a building bonanza that expanded the area's professional ranks, blacks created one of the nation's largest and most affluent black suburban middle classes.

That left the poor. The riots had riveted attention on the Washington beyond the marble monuments, especially the mostly black neighborhoods of rat-infested slums. In 1968, the District was second only to Mississippi in the United States in infant mortality. More than one in four families lived in poverty. Unemployment rates were low, but a disproportionate percentage of blacks had dropped out of the work force.

Twenty years later, the plight of Washington's poor has not improved appreciably. In some ways, life has gotten worse.

Even as the population plummeted by about 17 percent, from 756,510 to an estimated 629,200 today, the number of poor people -- blacks and an infusion of Salvadoran immigrants -- increased. From 1980 to 1986, the number of people living in poverty increased by 8 percent, according to a new study for the Greater Washington Research Center.

The city can now pinpoint with depressing accuracy the seven areas that have become home to an underclass -- the poorest of the poor, people with little hope of improving their conditions. They are in all four quadrants of the city, in inner-city places such as Shaw and on the city's fringes, in Washington Highlands SE and Lincoln Heights NE.

Many of those areas are ravaged by a drug epidemic and violence that make the heroin craze of 1968 seem innocent. Dealers have taken over some neighborhoods, infecting a generation with cynicism as they enlist hundreds of children in their deathly trade.

The contrast between that scene and the building frenzy that has given the city a new central business district is stunning. From the Kennedy Center to Union Station, an arc of development has spread from two new downtowns.

Encircling that development is a ring of gentrification, in part spurred by Metrorail, stretching from the West End through Adams-Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Shaw and over to Stanton Park, Capitol Hill and Southwest.

These separate cities meet along the major riot corridors. Developers who once shunned Seventh and 14th streets NW and H Street NE are eagerly investing there again.

Now that money is finally coursing into these symbols of racial strife, will the neighborhoods simply flip from poverty to affluence? Or can current residents hang on to the coattails of development? And can Washington hope to regain any of the middle class that fled to the suburbs to fulfill dreams of yards and quietness, safety and quality schools?

The answers may determine the city's ability to bridge its economic gulf.

Twenty years ago, these questions could not be asked. "The city was not ours," said Mayor Marion Barry. "We didn't have home rule. I had no view about the future because I couldn't control the future." The riots were violent, and that was wrong, "but they certainly woke America up to the various injustices that were happening," Barry said.

Home rule as it exists today, with an elected mayor, council and school board, did not happen until 1975, when blacks asserted control over the city they had dominated numerically for years. But home rule stalled.

"Blacks in the District are all dressed up politically and there's only one place to go -- the mayor's office," said Dennis Gale, director of the Center for Washington Area Studies at George Washington University. "Whereas in Prince George's, there are new frontiers -- the county executive, judgeships, the legislature, even governor."

Despite home rule, the rise of prominent blacks in every civic field, and Washington's post-riot reputation as a mecca for black professionals, the city remains harshly divided by race.'Nobody to Blame but Ourselves'

But another divisive factor -- class -- has joined race in separating Washington.

"We're a race divided," said Dorothy Watkins, who lives with her daughter, a brother, a sister and her mother in public housing in Southeast. "Our young people are more obsessed with drugs than with helping to maintain their homes. Instead of trying to educate themselves, they're down here hanging in the streets, killing one another. There was a time when that couldn't happen. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves."

Watkins quit work as a teacher two years ago to care for her mother, Hallie Patterson, 77. They live in a rundown three-bedroom house on Eaton Road SE, in Barry Farms, one of the city's worst projects. Surrounded by vacant and boarded-up units, they survive on monthly payments of $702 in Social Security and Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits and $24 worth of food stamps. They have trouble making the $95 monthly rent. They always seem to be behind on the heating bill.

Patterson, a retired government cafeteria worker, spent the riot nights walking what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, trying to help restore order. Since 1983, when the D.C. housing department decided to renovate their home of more than 20 years, the Patterson family has been "temporarily" in this fire-damaged place with serious structural problems. The city is just beginning renovations to their house -- at least five years behind schedule.

Watkins said she believes that the division between poor and middle-class blacks is as deep as the split between blacks and whites. She told of being snubbed by a high school friend who moved up and bought a house. And she said Barry has lost touch with the poor.

"I remember when he was crying, 'Black power, black power,' " Watkins said. "He was for the black people being together. But now, it's more of the upper-class black thing. One time he was for the forgotten ones, the smaller people. Now, we're nothing."

As the city's poor have gotten poorer, Barry, who exchanged a dashiki and street slogans for suits and board meetings, has altered his philosophy, emphasizing economic development and minority contracting over traditional job training and antipoverty programs. The War on Poverty, he said, "did not significantly reduce poverty. In retrospect, I would demand less community organizing and more economic development."

The mayor has joined members of the city's business establishment in arguing that a booming downtown improves the lives of all residents by creating thousands of jobs. Barry trumpeted his trickle-down theory as "D.C. on the Grow."

During the 1982 mayoral campaign, Democratic challenger Patricia Roberts Harris won 36 percent of the vote after asking voters, "D.C. on the Grow, but for Whom?" Today, unemployment among young black adults runs at nearly 22 percent, about three times the citywide rate.

Some blacks have benefited from the city's resurgence, but "I don't know of any blacks that have actually accumulated that much wealth" under Barry, said Calvin W. Rolark, publisher of the Washington Informer, a weekly newspaper, and president of the United Black Fund, a nonprofit philanthropic group. "We don't have a black business that can qualify in the top 100 in this city."

Barry's is an oddly Republican philosophy for a liberal Democratic mayor, but it was inevitable that he adopt conservative rhetoric, said Howard University political science professor Ronald Walters.

"This has been a period of political power without economic power," he said. "Blacks took over and they didn't have anything to work with. Successive Republican administrations meant very little new housing here. And we lost a generation of activists, people who could have shaped the new black city, but instead moved to the suburbs. Our talent pool was seriously depleted. I'm a good example. I'd be involved in city government, but because I live in Silver Spring, I'm in another state.

"Sometimes Barry sounds like Reagan. He's not totally free to do what he wants to do."

Barry and other politicians have found that the same messages can play to their black constituency and to the Republican administration that influences federal spending for the District. Last year, the mayor's criticism of a welfare mother who had 14 children drew cries of outrage, but also applause from part of the city's working population. Barry's get-tough approach found political dividends and reflected increasing hostility toward the poor from the middle class -- in the city and in the suburbs.

Richard Ford, a postal clerk who lives in Oxon Hill, said he senses growing animosity between the classes. He sees the poor "as almost a threat. Some of those on welfare put themselves there. They tried to make it a way of life."

The welfare system "got out of hand," trapping blacks, said Ford, 48, who grew up in Southeast Washington and studied at Howard University. "What you have is kids brought up in the welfare system, out in the streets, with no family background, no one to turn to, and they're just out there."

"I don't think you can say it's fundamentally the job of the city government to take care of the poor," said Malcolm Wiseman, a marketing executive. Wiseman recently moved from Gaithersburg to Northwest Washington, in part to help poor blacks. He teaches a weekly reading class.

Even the working poor, especially in drug-plagued neighborhoods, have become more callous in their approach to the needy.

"If you have a problem, get rid of it," says Rosa Dixon, a hospital worker who moved to the Clifton Terrace Apartments from Mount Pleasant eight years ago, when that neighborhood was getting too expensive. "Get rid of the people in this building. Now all the good people are trying to get out. But it's the don't-care people on public assistance and drugs who should be thrown out."Finding Reasons for Hope

Nevertheless, there still is optimism in places such as Clifton Terrace, where a police van sits parked outside 24 hours a day to deter drug dealers. (Dealers can traffic in symbols too: They tried to burn the van.) Here, where half the apartments on some floors are burned out and where elevators have not worked for years, people such as Dixon speak dreamily of a safe home.

They are talking about their own 14th Street area, still dotted with fenced-off squares, the empty legacy of the riots. But where a casual visitor sees evidence of two stagnant decades, longtime residents see reasons for hope -- the new Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW, construction of Metro's Green Line, the middle-class families, mostly white and Hispanic, buying and renovating row houses. Such optimism is tempered by the reluctant realization that current residents may not be around to benefit from the changes.

Frank Hilton has lived within a few blocks of H Street NE for most of his 42 years. The night the riots broke out, he joined the crowds in the streets.

"I was out there trying to get me something," said Hilton, a balloon vendor who supports seven children on about $5,000 in annual income and another $5,000 in welfare payments. "Now I see how long it took for this area to come back. It takes a long time for wounds to heal. Man, if you're a landlord and people mess up your place, why would you clean it up again?"

Hilton, who has flitted from job to job and served time in prison, said he feels like a stranger in his neighborhood. Standing at 14th and H streets NE, watching nodding addicts, he points to new shops, a small shopping mall, a gourmet snack shop. "This place isn't for me anymore. It's beautiful, they're finally doing something. I know what's happening," he told a white reporter. "Y'all are getting ready to move in here, so you've got to fix the neighborhood up."

Many H Street NE shoppers resent the gentrification, just as many black Washingtonians said in a Washington Post poll last year that they bristle at Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have taken over small businesses in black areas.

The apparent success of the immigrants masks a new facet of poverty in the District. Hispanics, many of them undocumented Salvadorans on the run from oppressive conditions, often live in illegally crowded apartments and work for less than the minimum wage in a struggle to send money home to relatives.

In fact, Hispanics generally do little better than poor blacks. Census figures indicate that nearly 19 percent of D.C. Hispanics live in poverty, compared with the 22 percent of blacks with incomes under the poverty line.

Many Hispanic immigrants benefited from the rapid expansion of the District's service economy, taking low-paying jobs that otherwise might have gone begging. Similarly, earlier in the century, the availability of federal jobs made Washington a mecca for blacks. Segregated Washington was home to a black society with an elite high school, hundreds of businesses and an intellectual class centered around the Howard campus.

In the past 20 years, the District has been plagued by a rapid increase in teen-age pregnancy, a high rate of juvenile delinquency and a breakdown of the traditional family so severe that three-quarters of families in the city's poorest sections are headed by single women.

Today, the District ranks first in the United States in infant mortality; public housing is older and more decrepit; student test scores have improved only slightly; murder rates and drug trafficking are at all-time highs. From 1970 to 1980, the percentage of black men ages 20 to 24 who worked full time dropped from 61 to 44, census figures indicate. An estimated 7,000 people in the District live on the streets.

The result is the underclass, "a group now that is truly stagnant," said Audrey Rowe, the mayor's special assistant for human resource development. "There is a core of people who have not benefited from any of the growth."

Washington has done better than other cities. The District has a smaller proportion of poor families than Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Louis or Boston. Even today, the District does not rank among the nation's 15 cities with the most underclass neighborhoods, according to a 1986 Urban Institute study.

And the number of District residents on welfare has plummeted; the caseload has declined by about 38 percent since 1981 -- from 80,312 people to 50,000 today.

This startling drop remains a mystery, however, because the number of poor people has increased. The mayor said that when the Reagan administration tightened eligibility requirements, thousands of poor people dropped off welfare rolls. But welfare officials said the decline stems from new jobs, more efficient administration, and poor people who joined the exodus to the suburbs and elsewhere.

Whatever the reason, the combination of leaner welfare rolls and more poor people indicates a hardening of the underclass. These people, a new city study said, "are faring much worse than they have in the past" and are more likely than other poor people to remain in poverty for years to come.

Of course, several thousand Washingtonians lived in poverty in 1968. But those who stayed and those who left agree that the quality of life in the ghetto has deteriorated sharply, mostly because of one culprit -- drugs.

The impact of drugs stems not simply from the number of people who use crack or PCP. What changed the character of some neighborhoods were the methods dealers adopted in a largely successful effort to maintain a flourishing trade despite massive police response.

Dealers discovered that they need not endanger themselves by handling drugs or money. They could get children to do it for them. Lured at first by money, then by drugs and the fashions and status of dealers, hundreds of youths have become the footmen of the drug trade, tearing apart families and reversing values.

Barry said that drugs have taken over sections of the city for two reasons: profit and pleasure. Drugs "are pleasurable," he said. "It makes you feel good. Hopelessness doesn't have much to do with it."A Challenge for Education

At 15, Craig McCree started hanging out at the go-go, often until 5 a.m. Over the next two years, his grades dropped, he ran away from home, he got caught driving someone else's car. Finally, he was arrested for possession of PCP, and then of cocaine, family members said. His parents found out he was running drugs for a dealer.

His mother, Mildred McCree, a baker at a D.C. school, blames peer pressure and the lure of money. "If your child can pay the rent for you and buy you food and you're hungry, you accept it," she said.

McCree never took Craig's money. Over her husband's objections, she did buy her son the expensive fashions popular among drug dealers -- $135 Air Jordan sneakers, $200 Troop jackets, alligator shoes.

"I had to realize that there's more to parenting than just buying clothes and feeding them," said McCree, who lives in the Petworth section of Northwest Washington. "I found out when you don't talk to kids, they think you don't care. I think Craig caught me looking at TV too much."

Looking out her window at the Washington Monument at sunset, Gwen Gorham speaks of her warm feelings about the city of her birth and the streets of her childhood. But she is angry about changes around her Clifton Terrace apartment complex and the drug trade that tempted her son, Milton Butts.

"I was going to sell drugs," said Butts, a 16-year-old who was last year's Most Outstanding Member of the Boys Club. "But my mother told me not to be bothered. She said 'I'll kill you if you do that.' My friend, he's locked up for drugs. The jump-out boys {police} will get you if you're selling. But they won't get me, 'cause I don't sell."

Despite her love for the area, Gorham said she feels trapped amid the violence. "Well, if I have to go, I'll go to Maryland, but I won't like it," she said.

Moving to Maryland is not the answer, said Eugene Kinlow, an at-large D.C. school board member. "Our successes were the seeds of our failure. The decision of the upwardly mobile to be outwardly mobile meant that the relatively poor were likely to stay that way."

People decide where to live based in good part on school quality, Kinlow said. "But how do you make the schools better if you don't have the people who are generally associated with better schools, the white professionals? We've got to demonstrate that we can educate blacks and Hispanics who have very little."

For many area blacks, D.C. schools lost their luster after integration. Most whites who had stayed in the city through the white flight of the 1950s and 1960s pulled their children out of public schools after a 1967 court decision halted tracking of students by ability. The black middle-class exodus began around the same time. From 1970 to 1980, one quarter of D.C. blacks quit the city, while one in 10 whites departed.

"Our system of good solid education was gone," said William H. Rumsey, a former principal of McKinley High School and former D.C. recreation director. Test scores went into a free fall. Since the mid-1970s, when D.C. schools accelerated efforts to improve academics, elementary school test scores have risen. However, junior high scores remain stuck below national averages.

Changing the school system is the best way to lure a larger middle class to the city, Gale said. It is a tall order. The city's racial composition is changing, becoming more white, more Hispanic. But it is too soon to draw any conclusion on population trends, primarily because middle-class parents still tend to put their children in private schools or leave the city when children reach school age.

"Despite gentrification, I just don't see Washington being anything but a city for the fairly wealthy, a childless middle class and the poor," Gale said.

Steady jobs and home ownership do not ensure trauma-free lives, but a stronger middle class presence adds something to a neighborhood, said Bill Johnson, a 22-year resident of Monroe Street NW, just off 14th Street.

His neighborhood of busy shops and all-night eateries became a ghost town after the riots. Many of the folks who could flee, did. As the years passed, fear seized the street. Johnson, a bookkeeper, found himself going home late and leaving early in the morning.

Then, about two years ago, young couples started moving in, some black, some white. The block association met for the first time in years. Prices soared; houses whose values had sunk to $10,000 after the riots sold for $40,000 a couple of years ago and have gotten $150,000 this year.

"I must have noticed something," Johnson said, "because I started working out front and putting in shrubbery for the first time in 15 years." But the changes so far are cosmetic. Johnson said he still sees the drug dealers and users, whose presence makes families with children reluctant to move in. He detects a hopelessness that pervades the poor and feeds the drug craze.

In many cases, 1968's shouts of anger, the cries for attention, have been turned inward into a self-destructive rage of addiction and disaffection. A generation disenfranchised because of race erupted on a warm spring night, baring the divide between two Washingtons, one white, one black.

Twenty years later, there are three cities: one affluent and thriving, another gone off to the comfort of the suburbs, and a third culture symbolized by the children who lean into cars on street corners, making deals, then retreat into the go-go, the nonstop expression of the dreams and frustrations of the underclass. They hear Experience Unlimited, a top go-go band, sing of Reaganomics and the changing city: "No matter what they cut back, we're going to say 'Ooh la la la' to that."