On the main street of Rawlins, Wyo., a dozen businesses have closed in the past few years -- a shoe store, a drug store, a jewelry store and several clothing stores. Motel rooms go unrented, tract homes stand empty, restaurants struggle to stay open and the residents of the dusty little city watch their children leave to find jobs elsewhere.

"We have hit what we think is bottom," said city attorney David Clark.

In the past decade, Rawlins has ridden to the top of an energy and mining boom and skidded to the depths of a bust, watching its population of 14,500 drop by more than a third.

And so when the Census Bureau released preliminary 1990 population figures over the last several days, the columns of numbers confirmed what Clark and his neighbors see daily -- a city on the losing side of a dramatic shift in population. They know about the lives behind the sheets of data that have been spinning out of Census Bureau computers.

The dry tabulations conceal some of the dramatic developments of the last decade: economic decline and misery in some regions of the country and burgeoning development in others, a stunning wave of immigration, the movement of an aging population to popular retirement spots and the push of young families beyond the suburbs as they search for affordable housing.

The data are the first piece of what will become a mass of new information about the country, garnered from the laborious decennial census conducted this spring and summer. And while census officials caution that many of these preliminary national census numbers will change before they are made final late this year, the figures confirm that the heart of the country is hollowing out and the population -- expected to hit 250 million nationwide -- is concentrating on the two coasts.

The greater-than-expected population losses in Rawlins and other rural American communities reflect the economic hardship of farmers, coal and uranium miners, oil workers and small-scale rural manufacturers, including farm equipment and timber works. And the surge of metropolitan growth in the face of rural declines indicates an end to the "rural renaissance" of the 1970s.

Wyoming, for example, lost more than 4 percent of its population, while West Virginia declined 8.6 percent, and Iowa lost 5.1 percent.

"It clearly means there was a greater degree of out-migration than had been expected," said Calvin Beale, a demographer at the Agriculture Department. "Basically, it is economic."

The numbers also reflect the overwhelming significance of immigration, which accounted for as much as 40 percent of the nation's growth over the decade.

In Brownsville, Tex., for example, where census figures show a growth of nearly 13 percent -- local officials say it is closer to 18 percent -- the public school system cannot keep up with the flood of new immigrants.

"We take in over 2,000 kids new to the system from south of the border every year," said Alejandro Perez, supervisor for admissions. "It's almost a new school coming in per year. We're building all the time."

The numbers are felt in the everyday duties of Perez's colleagues: More and more bilingual teachers are hired, officials deal with the poor educational backgrounds of many of the immigrant children, and the city faces the costly proposition of supporting a quickly expanding school system.

Jeffrey Passell, a demographer at the Urban Institute, said that foreign immigration to the upper Midwest and Northeast also kept several states, including New York, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Massachusetts, from losing population or kept their losses at half of what they would have been without the new immigrants.

The census numbers reflect other human aspirations:

Population figures for Cape Cod and the Ozark Mountain areas of northwestern Arkansas grew faster than expected, demographers say, because the aging population in this country has become more attracted to retirement in resort communities.

And Washington state experienced growth of 16.8 percent, at least in part because of what one social scientist called "suburban angst" -- the movement of middle-class families disenchanted with the suburbs of California and drawn to the more open spaces of the Pacific Northwest.

The most dramatic growth occurred in California, where the population rose nearly 24 percent since 1980, more than double the national rate. The growth pushed cities like San Diego and San Jose into the ranks of the major metropolises. In some cases, the figures suggest the rise of a new economy built in near sweatshop conditions by immigrants willing to work for low wages in clothing and electronics factories.

The statistics for some Southern California communities are stunning. Cathedral City in Riverside County grew by more than 600 percent, from just over 4,000 residents a decade ago to nearly 29,000 today.

In Victorville, one of the new communities that has sprung up on the high desert 90 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the population has shot from 14,220 in 1980 to nearly 39,500.

Here, the census numbers describe an increasingly typical existence: A young family leapfrogs far out of the city to find an affordable house, then sets up life on a landscape of fresh-built homes and few trees and accepts a daunting commute of more than two hours each morning and night.

City planner John Hnatek described an army of crews laying sewer pipes and hanging traffic lights to keep up with the growth.

"We have people who come up once a month, and every time they come up they see something new they haven't seen before," he said.

With this extraordinary growth comes new political influence. California is expected to gain seven seats in the House, pushing the state's total to 52, and giving it more opportunity than any state has ever had to dominate Congress.

Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said the new seats may act as a "steam valve," releasing building pressure within California's ethnic communities by creating more opportunities for minorities to win elective office, at both national and state levels.

Heslop and others predict that, as ethnic minorities find representation in state legislatures and in Congress, they will focus more attention on issues they consider important, including education, access to the job market and immigration.

And new regional tensions may emerge. The debate over the nation's infrastructure, for example, could increasingly become a competition between the Sun Belt, which will need funds for new highways, and the so-called Rust Belt, which has long needed funding to repair old highways.

But historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. cautioned that such predictions are often overdrawn.

"As population goes, so do problems go," he said, predicting that the blossoming cities of the South and West will soon care about the same issues that predominate in New York and Detroit, including crime, education, solid waste disposal and welfare.

Also, the conservatism of these high-growth areas may be mitigated with a dose of reality, he said. "As these problems rise in the South and Southwest, the need for affirmative government to deal with the problems will also rise," Schlesinger said.

Heslop pointed to another result of the shifting populations -- a growing homogenization of the country.

"States that we thought of as western, to which we've given a kind of pioneer image are, as the census shows, becoming increasingly urban and populous," said Heslop. "I don't think you should expect a sudden dominance of those qualities that we associate with the Old West. The Old West is dead. The Old West has been killed off by these statistics."