HOUSTON, JULY 7 -- For Houston, a city shouting and pleading for recognition as a world-class metropolis, the perfect symbol of the 1990 Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations has nothing much to do with the summit. It is not the cowboy boots that the presidents and prime ministers will receive, or the Texas-made table they will gather around, or anything related to Rice University, Johnson Space Center, Texas Medical Center or any other Houston pride and joy.

This summit's meaning to Houston is symbolized instead by a mountain of blue tote bags -- thousands piled to the ceiling of Room 310B in the deepest recesses of the George R. Brown Convention Center. The tote bags are gifts, freebies, for the international news corps shadowing the politicians into town, and it is the posse of scribes and newscasters that Houston most dearly wants to impress.

All cities try to turn public events into public relations seminars, but few have tried as hard as Houston. The city's effort also includes: five pounds of reading material on the nation's fourth-largest city for each visiting journalist; free dinners for the out-of-town media featuring the many tastes of the Southwest; even 20,000 freshly planted flowers around town, put there by a citizen army of 11,000 residents who also helped clean the streets.

"It arises from a sense of deprivation," said Rice sociologist Steve Klineberg. "The city feels that it has come back from the depths of a recession and emerged as an international city, yet not enough attention has been paid. The big blow came in 1988 when it failed to get a {national} political convention. There was a feeling that the deck was stacked. Now the people here are putting forth an extraordinary effort to draw whatever they can out of a quick three days of quiet business work."

During its bleakest days in late 1986 and early 1987, when it was losing more than 1,000 jobs a day, Houston, a city that loves slogans, proclaimed itself Houston Proud. Now amid a recovery that has restored almost 80 percent of the 220,000 lost jobs, the slogan is Houston's Hot. Literally. The average temperature for this part of July is 94, and this coming week will probably exceed the average.

Whether the city is figuratively hot is another question. Unemployment is down to 5 percent from its high of 13 percent three years ago. Foreclosures are down 32.5 percent this year. Home values, which were dropping in 1986 and 1987, started to rise by an average of 5.4 percent in 1989. The "see-through" buildings that captured the essence of a busted Houston are now mostly leased and the office vacancy rate downtown is declining for a second straight year.

If one were to skip from the statistics of 1980 to those of 1990, it would be difficult to tell that a profound recession interrupted the decade. The metropolitan population grew 18.9 percent over the 10 years, from 2.7 million to more than 3.2 million. The number of jobs in the city rose from 1.35 million to 1.54 million.

And in many ways Houstonians say they are better for the recession: It forced the economy to diversify. Energy is still the fuel of Houston's economy, but with the share of jobs dependent on oil and gas having declined to 40 percent from 60 percent over the decade, major growth in technology and medicine made up the slack. It is still true, however, that an oil rig drilling almost anywhere in the world means 45 jobs to Houston.

Yet just as there are two summits in Houston this week -- the formal one for the industrialized nations, and an informal one, known as The Other Economic Summit (TOES), for various social, economic and environmental activists around the world -- there are two Houstons. And one is not so hot.

"The City of Houston, in terms of the environment and public health issues, is two very different cities," said Houston City Councilman Dale Gorczynski.

"On the one hand, we have tremendous educational institutions and one of the leading medical centers in the world. People come here from all over the world to learn about important environmental and health matters. It is a very cutting-edge kind of city. But on the other hand, when it comes to environmental enforcement and public health care, prenatal care, we in many ways resemble a Third World developing nation."

Gorczynski, who will be taking part in the formal and informal summits, said Houston parallels the differences between rich and poor nations within its borders.

"Our industry puts millions of tons of toxics into the air every year. There is a history of industry here being self-regulated," he said. "That's a characteristic of a developing nation. And in terms of infant mortality, we have many neighborhoods in our city that have higher rates than most developing nations. Nobody can deny it. This in the same city with the Texas Medical Center."

Such talk, Gorczynski said, "is not exactly what the Chamber of Commerce wants you to hear, but it's the reality." Another reality was brought home in tragic terms Friday. As the summmit's 4,000 journalists began arriving, local news was dominated by the Arco Chemical Co. refinery explosion that killed 17 workers. The Arco plant is on the Houston Ship Channel, which many journalists will see Sunday as part of a toxics and pollution tour organized by TOES environmentalists, who call the channel "George Bush's Boston Harbor," a reference to Bush's election-year attack on the environmental record of his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

George Greanias, the city comptroller, noted that every major city is what he called "a study in paradox." Houston, he said, has more than its share.

One paradox: Even while Houston became less reliant on energy, more of the nation's energy companies located here than ever before, part of a national retrenchment that brought more of their work forces here.

Another paradox: When Houston had the least amount of disposable money, from 1985 to 1988, it accomplished the most in terms of developing its arts district downtown and adding an aesthetic soul to a city of glass and steel.

But the paradox of poverty amid wealth is always the most troubling and visible. Sociologist Klineberg, who has measured the pulse of Houston every year for the past decade in a quality-of-life poll, said it is clear to him that Houston's recovery has not touched large sections of the city's black and Hispanic community.

If perceptions mimic reality, the lesson is in Klineberg's numbers. In 1989, 35 percent of Houston's Anglo community said job opportunities in the region were good to excellent.

In 1990 the number rocketed to 56 percent, a stunning indication that people thought the good times were back. But for blacks, the percentage who said job opportunities were good to excellent moved from 19 percent in 1989 to 20 percent this year, and for Hispanics the figure declined, from 34 percent to 33 percent.

Comptroller Greanias said that while the summit would be just "a fleeting moment in time," it is a moment that has brought a time of self-assessment. The motive was not entirely superficial, he said, as evidenced by the massive cleanup campaign that has been underway for weeks.

"The cleanup is more than an effort to put on a good face," Greanias said. "We are cleaning up a good part of the city that nobody will ever see. If we were simply involved in trying to impress visitors, we know exactly where they are going to be."