NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. -- The old Love Canal neighborhood is an eerie suburban ghost town. On tree-lined streets, rows of shoebox houses stand deserted, windows broken and aluminum siding curling off. Mailboxes are rusted shut, doors padlocked. Dead vines lace a broken trellis. A lost parcel-delivery man cruises block after block looking for somebody, anybody, to ask for directions.

A close look reveals signs of life. Every porch light is on, even in daylight, to deter vandals. A gardener mows the lawn of a boarded-up house. Roofers crawl about laying new tar paper atop an empty ranch-style home.

Love Canal, abandoned by homeowners more than a decade ago when it became the nation's most infamous toxic dump, is about to experience a rebirth. Within weeks, 70 of these empty houses north of the dump site are to be auctioned.

Remarkable as it may seem, people seem willing to move their families into a neighborhood whose very name is synonymous with chemical contamination. More than 200 families have applied for the houses, attracted by bargain prices and the suburban setting. Many said they consider Love Canal no particular risk because they already live in Niagara Falls, the state's dumping capital, or labor in its myriad chemical plants.

"Anywhere here in Niagara Falls is dumps, just about anywhere you go," said Delford Rowh, a prospective homeowner. "You've got the Forest Glenn, the Bloody Run, the S Dump -- we don't know what the 'S' stands for -- and now where the mall's going to go in, there's a dump in there. Either way you go, doesn't matter. Niagara Falls is chemicals."

Not everyone is moving in. On the east side of the dump, 10 homeowners who chose not to leave during the exodus were advised recently to evacuate because tests revealed high concentrations of chemicals in their area.

Unless environmentalists, including former Love Canal residents, obtain a court injunction to halt resettlement, families may be moving in late next month.

New residents technically will not live in Love Canal, however. The area has been renamed "Black Creek Village."

Twelve years ago, Love Canal became a national symbol of the dangers of toxic waste dumping and catalyzed establishment of the federal "Superfund" cleanup program. It began with the discovery that thousands of drums containing 21,800 tons of toxic chemicals were leaking from a 10-block pit in Love Canal into back yards and basements, through cinderblock walls and a schoolyard.

The pit was left from a canal dug in the 1890s by William T. Love, who planned a model city downstream. It was abandoned in the 1940s and became a waste dump for Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corp.

Among the leaking chemicals were PCBs and dioxin, which has been linked to cancer and until recently considered highly toxic. Some scientists are reevaluating its risk. State surveys in Love Canal found above-average rates of miscarriages, birth defects and other health problems in houses nearest the pit.

Families in these houses were evacuated, their homes razed and the dump covered with clay and planted with grass. Residents in neighboring blocks asserted that chemicals had seeped into their houses and yards too, and fought to have the government buy them out. Within two years, 1,030 families sold residences to the government for an average of $35,000. Only about 60 families remained.

The studies, cleanup and buyout cost the government about $275 million, part of which is to be borne by Occidental Chemical Corp., corporate successor to Hooker Chemical, which buried 22,000 tons of toxins at Love Canal.

The houses, ranging from 940 to 1,040 square feet, are to be resold for an average of $50,000 to $60,000, although a few choice parcels may bring as much as $100,000. James Carr, planning director at the state's Revitalization Agency, said the houses will be discounted 20 percent below area market prices for what he calls "Love Canal stigma" -- 10 percent for the dump's notoriety and 10 percent for agreement to live in a largely vacant neighborhood.

"We have a very desirable neighborhood, we feel," Carr said, smiling and assuming a salesman-like tone. "It has a lot of amenities. The trees are green, the street pattern is good, a major shopping mall is located a couple hundred yards away.

"I would live here. I wouldn't be working here -- there's the canal right out there," Carr said, pointing out the agency's large picture window, "if I felt like I was lopping years off my life."

Donna Baptiste grew up in the neighborhood and wants to move back. Her parents, Mary and Cecil Litten, remained in the family's blue-shingled two-bedroom house on the east side of the dump. It is now slated for evacuation.

"When I was pregnant . . . I was there a lot," said Baptiste, a supermarket meat clerk. "I never had a problem, so I don't see anything to be afraid of. My sister's daughter has asthma, but you can't say it was caused by Love Canal. A lot of kids have asthma."

Baptiste's husband, Levi, is a furnace operator in a factory where workers have been warned not to drink from the tap. Across the street is an enormous pyramid-shaped dump fortified by a continuous caravan of trucks arriving from throughout the Northeast.

"They have to dump it somewhere," said a tour guide at the Gray Line information station across the street from the pyramid dump and not far from the magnificent, roaring American Falls. "But does it have to be at the site of the eighth wonder of the world?"

Delford and Banda Rowh were the seventh family to sign a waiting list for Love Canal houses. Like many applicants, they have never owned a house. "It's been kind of tough for me to get a mortgage," said Delford Rowh, 43, a cab driver, as is his wife. He said he expects government help in buying a house at Love Canal, although William Broderick, executive director of the Revitalization Agency, said the only special assistance may come in the form of "slightly better" lending rates from the state's mortgage agency.

The Rowhs have driven through the neighborhood and are eyeing three houses that seem in better repair than others. "I don't want to be that close to the dump," Delford Rowh said. "I have a small son, and children -- you don't know where they're going to wander off to.

"I imagine by the time he's 8 or 9 or can wander around on a bicycle, it's all going to be taken care of," he said, explaining that he believes the waste eventually will be removed from the dump.

But the government has no such plans, Broderick said. A precedent-setting decision by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1987 to burn all of the contaminated soil around the dump has been abandoned. "They brought the incinerator here, and it never worked," he said.

Such governmental inaction has led several environmental groups to oppose the resettlement, said Lois Gibbs, a former Love Canal homemaker who led her neighbors in demanding evacuation in the 1970s.

"They have never done one thing to clean up that contamination that traveled" to houses farther from the dump, said Gibbs, who works with the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Inc. in Arlington, Va. "We were told at one time not to eat anything out of our home gardens. Well, what has changed? What kind of hocus-pocus has happened?"

Gibbs's group has joined the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club and other environmental organizations in notifying EPA that they intend to seek judicial action to block resettlement of Love Canal. They say the government simply wants to "erase the stigma of one of the most famous hazardous waste sites in the country," as NRDC attorney Jacqueline Warren said.

The "habitability study" that the government used to determine the area's safety was flawed, they said, because it compared soil and water samples from Love Canal with those from two other polluted sites in Niagara Falls.

"Just about every place is contaminated," Broderick responded. "If we shouldn't put people in here, then maybe the rest of the city should be evacuated."

Delford Rowh said he hopes that the legal wrangling is not lengthy because his landlord has said he must move soon from the downtown duplex he rents. "DuPont is buying this {neighborhood} just as fast as they can talk people into selling it," he said. The company has purchased all of the land in the neighborhood, several miles from Love Canal and across from its plant, and one-fourth of the houses, boarding them up.

"They had some kind of environmental testing going on down the block," Rowh said, adding that no one will tell him what is going on. "All they're talking is 'safe zone.' "