From a political dinner at the Omni Shoreham to the streets of Southeast Washington to the Reeves Municipal Center, the realization that the Barry era was ending swept across the city last night, evoking sympathy, satisfaction and, above all, relief.

Many of those who watched the mayor announce on television that he would not seek a fourth term or learned of it later asserted that the decision was inevitable, necessary and the right thing to do -- both for the city and for the man.

A few were elated, saying he had disappointed the city, succumbing to the very epidemic he should have been fighting. Others were saddened, speaking of the end of an era and the contributions the mayor had made. One man refused to believe it, saying he and others would draft the mayor to run yet again. And some grappled with the idea of the city without Marion Barry at the helm.

From the prominent to the not-so-prominent, the emotions ran strong.

At the Bethune-Du Bois Fund dinner, where New York Mayor David N. Dinkins was the keynote speaker, national black politicians took turns expressing their sense of relief as they ran a gantlet of reporters seeking their comment. In fact, most at the dinner were unaware of Barry's decision until Jesse L. Jackson announced it in remarks.

"Marion Barry decided to end the political chase and put his focus on healing himself, curing his family and healing the city," Jackson told reporters outside the dinner. "I think it would be in the best interest of all to cut the losses."

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) talked of harassment of black officials by the federal government, but said if the decision was Barry's alone, he would support him.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) spoke of personal sadness for the mayor, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) said the mayor's predicament spoke of the depth of the nation's drug problem.

"It really shows how large the epidemic is when they can wrestle to the ground publicly elected officials," Rangel said.

E. Faye Williams, a lawyer for the House Committee on the District of Columbia, said the mayor's withdrawal "is an indication of his love for the people."

Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of that committee, said he wasn't the one to ask. "You should ask the people who live here," Dellums said. "I only work here."

Throughout the city, as the news spread, residents spilled out their feelings.

"He's not trusted," said Yvette Meriweather, 25, as she fed her infant son on the front porch of her Southeast home. "Why run for something when you've got the cops all over your back?"

Meriweather said the mayor is viewed as a hypocrite by many in the community for publicly urging children to forsake drugs while allegedly using them himself. She recalls seeing him make such declarations at neighborhood block parties.

"If he were to run again, he wouldn't have the respect of the kids."

Evelyn Washington, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 6, said she cried as she watched Barry make his announcement. "It's very hard to believe it's ending," Washington said of the Barry era. "I was just trying to find {the TV station's} number in my directory, to {call and} let the mayor know that I support him and I'm very saddened."

Washington said the "media sensationalism" surrounding the trial had been a factor. She said Barry's announcement raised questions about whether fewer black politicians would seek elective office. "They're constantly saying, 'If I were to seek higher office, will I have to go through this?' "

L.E. Laurion, 50, an employee benefits consultant who lives in Palisades, said he was "absolutely elated" by Barry's decision "because he's brought disgrace to the nation's capital."

"I'm glad to hear you give me this news," Laurion told a reporter who called him at home. Saying the announcement was "certainly" an attempt by Barry to improve his chances for a plea bargain, Laurion said, "I don't really think he wants to go to trial and have all of his peccadilloes aired in public."

Patti Macie, 45, who works for the Arlington public school system and lives in Tenleytown, said her only disappointment was that Barry hadn't resigned. "I've just sort of felt trash about the city in the past four years," said Macie, who said she is a former chairman of the Democratic Party in Ward 3.

Macie said Barry's frequent references to religion and the Bible in his speech were an attempt to build sympathy for himself, because "how can you feel ill about a Christian man?"

"He's just using it because he could get a ton of play out of it," she said.

R. Robert Linowes, a District and Montgomery County lawyer who has been active in downtown development, said the decision would liberate the city from a preoccupation with the mayor's problems.

"Fundamentally, I think the mayor cares for the city and is concerned about the city, and I think the decision is a responsible one that comes from his desire to let the city move foward," Linowes said.

D.C. Council member Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3) agreed, saying that Barry's decision clears away "the political turmoil that's out there."

"There'a cloud of uncertainty that's blown away," Nathanson said. "People will begin to feel differently, and this will be an issue that won't be in there dividing people."

Barry's entire Cabinet watched the announcement together, inside the Reeves Municipal Center, and then milled around the building's lobby, speaking in funereal tones about Barry's decision as the television lights glared down.

"It was something none of us wanted to hear," said Ray Alfred, the District's fire chief. "It hurts, and it's a disappointment. But I suppose life goes on."

Richard C. Siegel, the District's budget director, said the city will seem strange without Barry in charge. "I expect that the community will realize it misses his political leadership," he said.

Robert Hamilton, director of Ministers in Action, a group that represents 72 local religious leaders, refused to give up on Barry's political future and said he is beginning a petition drive to draft Barry as a mayoral candidate.

"We're willing to run the race for him," said Hamilton. "All he has to do is step in."

It was a night for empathy and charitable words, even from the mayor's detractors. Former council member Carol Schwartz (R) said it was a "good decision" both for the city and for the mayor. "Given his admitted addiction," she said, "he needs time to heal."

Former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova said the decision was "inevitable, dictated by the realities of the situation."

"It obviously relieves the city and relieves people of good will who are concerned about the city and him and his family."

And Richard Karel, 37, a Georgetown resident who works for a weekly newspaper in Virginia, said the announcement, while not a surprise, was still a little disconcerting.

"I'm used to thinking about Barry being there," he said. "He's like a fixture. He's part of the city . . . . But I'm glad he made the decision not to seek reelection. Regardless of how you feel about the man, it's a major change."

Staff writers Steve Twomey, Rene Sanchez, Ruben Castaneda, Stephen Buckley and Stephen C. Fehr contributed to this report.