One day, it was John T. Edwards, driven out after a dozen years by the wail of sirens and the spit of guns in the Southeast Washington night. Another day, it was Mary S. Johnson, fleeing the mugging she was certain awaited her if she clung to her River Terrace neighborhood.

One day, it was Esther Yeldell, abandoning Southeast after abandoning hope of finding a District home at an affordable price. Another day, it was Richard T. Mayer, who loved his Fourth Street NW neighborhood -- but his wife had landed a job out of town.

Edwards lives in Largo now, Johnson in Silver Spring. Yeldell went to Landover, Mayer to Michigan.

Whatever their impetus or destination, a city that opened the 1980s with 638,333 inhabitants closed them with 31,433 fewer as a river of exiting blacks more than offset the advent of new Hispanic and Asian residents, according to final figures this month from the Census Bureau's 1990 count of Americans.

That population shrinkage -- more than eight residents every day of the decade -- was part of a line of decline stretching to 1950, when the city peaked at 802,178 denizens. It has contracted 24 percent since then, to 606,900, as the rest of the Washington area has blossomed with growth.

"Everything began to deteriorate, the streets, the public services, everything," said Thomas Washington, 62, an operating engineer who moved to Temple Hills in 1989 after 40 years in the District. "This was not the city I came into."

There was some solace for the District. Although the population decline in the 1970s was 15.6 percent, it was 4.9 percent in the 1980s, and some demographers say the District might soon stabilize. "It is a much more attractive node than a lot of other central cities," said William H. Frey, of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.

Until the flight stops, though, District leaders must confront the city's growing problems with fewer and fewer taxpayers, many of whom apparently are leaving because of those very problems.

In interviews from their new residences in Maryland, Virginia and beyond, more than a dozen of the departed told tales of District woes that had finally swamped them: rampant violence, frayed neighborhoods, crumbling city services, rising taxes, unreachable real estate prices. They are issues that lie behind the shrinkage of many urban cores since World War II.

But the former residents left the District for reasons far less cosmic too: A job elsewhere or simple unease with a city, any city. As often as not, the ex-resident was propelled, not by one of those things, but by several.

Ellen L. Coren, for example, wanted a condominium with a balcony, and found one in Bethesda in 1987. But she also moved from Woodley Park because she was tired of Mayor Marion Barry, she said, and tired of lines at the D.C. Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services and the lack of a voting representative in Congress.

"It was definitely a bonus coming into Montgomery County and getting two senators and a congresswoman and an honest county executive," said Coren, 35, who now works for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

Often, though, the move was no angry rejection of the District. Many said they were very fond of the city and would have stayed, if only they could have found a way around their problems. Even now, some remain keenly interested in District issues and return often to visit friends and relatives.

"I love the District," said Arthur Gay, 54, who left in 1988 for Temple Hills. "I'd love to move back into it and be a part of it. I moved there at age 20 and I lived there 31 years. But there'd have to be a big change."

Gay said his once-pleasant apartment on Savannah Street SE passed to new owners who didn't seem to care. Maintenance went down. Crime went up. His wife was mugged. By the early 1980s, "All night long you'd hear shooting going on, sirens going on," said Gay, a retired postal worker.

Then one night in early 1988, gunshots awakened Gay at 2 a.m. Just outside his kitchen window lay a wounded 13-year-old boy. "He was shot by his 9-year-old cousin, who lived in the next entrance from me," Gay said. "What happened is the 13-year-old took drugs from the 9-year-old without paying, {the 9-year-old} chased him around the corner and shot him." {Police officials could not immediately confirm there was such an incident.}

It was time for Gay to get out. Unable to afford a home inside the District or out, he wound up in his daughter's apartment building, just 10 blocks from his old neighborhood but in Prince George's County.

He feels much safer, he said.

During the 1990 mayoral campaign, candidate after candidate spoke of the need not to exacerbate the outflow through higher taxes, because most of those leaving seem to be middle-class taxpayers. Their absence makes it even harder for the District to finance its services and care for the poor and the drug-addicted who remain behind.

"There are substantial incomes going out of the District, and that adds up after a while," said George Grier, of the Greater Washington Research Center.

Actually, more people left than is suggested by the gap of 31,433 between the 1980 and 1990 Census totals, which exclude D.C. residents overseas. The Census Bureau said, for example, that the District's black population dropped 49,302 in the last 10 years.

That loss was partly offset, however, by thousands of newcomers, many of them Hispanic or Asian, and by at least 25,000 more births than deaths. And the District contends further that the Census missed numerous Hispanics and poor residents, so the offset should be even greater. As part of a legal settlement, the federal government has agreed to consider an adjustment nationwide and must announce its decision by July.

"We feel the District has been grossly undercounted," said Nathan Levy, of the city's planning office.

Even so, the city's 1988 estimate placed the total population then at 622,600, or down 15,733 from 1980. And District officials would love to know why those people are leaving, because, they said, the city might be able to adjust or develop programs to slow the flow.

Yet they apparently have never systematically asked ex-residents why they left.

If they asked Esther Yeldell, they would find a simple reason: The kind of house she wanted was at least $40,000 beyond her reach in the District, she said. Several others who left also said that houses in safe neighborhoods were $60,000, even $80,000 too much.

If they asked Thomas Washington, formerly of Southeast and now of Temple Hills, they would find a grab-bag of reasons, with crime heading his list, as it did for many.

It was not that anything serious had ever happened to him in the 25 years he lived in a brick house at 42nd and Fort DuPont streets. It was not that the neighborhood deteriorated physically. It was this: "They started passing drugs right there on the corner."

There were neighborhood break-ins too, he said. There was a time when he was sure he and his wife only narrowly avoided a mugging. And the police seemed so preoccupied by slayings they didn't have time for smaller offenses, he said.

Moreover, Washington was unhappy about the cratered condition of streets and the slow death of neighborhood buildings. The District too seemed to be less diligent about licenses and inspections at construction sites where he worked.

"You just see the city go down," Washington said. "Have you ridden around the District of Columbia and noticed apartments that were just nice apartments closed up?"

Once he decided to leave, Washington had no trouble selling his house at the price he wanted. Nor did any of the five other homeowners among the former residents who were interviewed, an indication that while housing was out of reach for Yeldell and others, there were still buyers who had money and faith in the city.

The fact that each of the six departing homeowners was replaced, however, might suggest that the population should not have dropped very much. But demographers said that although the number of households in the District remained stable during the 1980s, the number of people per household declined.

Many District housing units are occupied by single people, childless couples or the recently divorced or widowed, demographers said. It is apparently families that are worried about schools and additional space that leave urban America, though the quality of the D.C. schools was infrequently cited in the interviews with former D.C. residents.

John T. Edwards, for example, had no complaints about the D.C. school system. His four kids did fine there, he said. But he had complaints about what was happening around his apartment building in Southeast, where he had lived for about eight years.

"It was closing in, drugs," said Edwards, 39, a machine operator at the Government Printing Office who repeatedly stressed what he saw as the clash between his own religious values and the street life around. "The neighborhood got so bad we couldn't let our kids go outside without a fight starting."

He could have afforded a less raw neighborhood in the District, he said, but there was another factor: He is from North Carolina and missed its green, open spaces. He found a substitute in 1986, a house in Largo where he has a half-acre replete with rabbits and deer.

The big city bothered Nancy Cherry too, and she left her Rhode Island Avenue NE residence in 1989 after 10 years. "The District was never me," said Cherry, 48, a senior accounting technician for the Metro system who grew up in Virginia Beach. "I just could never fit in."

But there was much about this particular city that made it especially hard to fit in.

"The drugs, the filthy people hanging around, just the uncleanliness of my surroundings," said Cherry. "Bang, bang, right outside your window . . . . It was awful."

Cherry moved to Landover, and indeed Prince George's County is the number one destination of migrating D.C. residents, as measured by changes of address on federal income tax returns. The next most popular destination is Montgomery County, which is where Iantha C. Winick went in 1989 from Shepherd Park.

She didn't go willingly, though. Her husband, Paul, had bought a house in Silver Spring before they were married because he couldn't afford what he wanted in the District. Nor could she. Nor could they together. So they live in a place they don't find comfortable.

"Every decision for entertainment is a major problem, whereas in the District we could walk to a lot of places," said Winick, 33, a systems analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency. "In spite of {its} negative aspects, the social value of living in the District outweighs."

She added, "If I win Publisher's Clearinghouse, we're moving back."

Richard Mayer said he and his wife are already thinking about a return from Michigan. "It's not that I went to the National Gallery every day," said Mayer, 45, a college professor, "but I liked to be able to say, 'Nah, today I don't want to go to the National Gallery.' "

Claudia Ottenstein, 31, who operates a computer company, said she "loved the atmosphere in the city, the excitement of living in the city." But she and her then-husband both had jobs in Virginia. And there seemed to be no day care convenient to their Northwest town house near the C&O Canal and no end to rising property assessments, which raised their taxes.

So, she's in Reston now.

"When you have to make your list of all the pros and cons," she said, "at this particular part of my life, it makes a lot of sense to stay out here."

WHERE RESIDENTS MOVED IN 1984-85

.......................................Percent of

Area..........................Number...Departures

Prince George's County ........6,413........28.9%

Montgomery County..............3,387........15.3%

Arlington County...............1,346........ 6.1%

Fairfax County.................1,158........ 5.2%

Alexandria...................... 613........ 2.8%

New York City................... 476........ 2.1%

Los Angeles..................... 300........ 1.4%

Cook County, Ill. (Chicago)..... 230........ 1.0%

Baltimore....................... 205........ 0.9%

Anne Arundel County............. 168........ 0.8%

San Francisco................... 164........ 0.7%

Middlesex, Mass................. 163........ 0.7%

Philadelphia.................... 158........ 0.7%

San Diego....................... 126........ 0.6%

Brooklyn, N.Y................... 116........ 0.5%

Other..........................7,147....... 32.2%

SOURCE: Donnelley Marketing, Internal Revenue Service