The benchmark for Columbia Heights is 1968. Residents in that Northwest Washington neighborhood peg most of its struggles and many of its failures to that tumultuous year.

That was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was slain. The assassination sparked riots and looting in major cities throughout the country, including the District of Columbia, and Columbia Heights was one of the neighborhoods hit hardest.

Before the riots, it was a bustling area, home to many in the District's black middle class, and a thriving commercial center along 14th Street NW, where blacks patronized the many shops and stores when segregation prohibited them from spending their money elsewhere.

The huge, soldily constructed turn-of-the-century homes and the even ethnic mix made Columbia Heights a place that would have rivaled today's Adams-Morgan as one of the most trendy, conveniently located neighborhoods in the District.

But now, drug-infested and poverty ridden, the area is a shell of what it used to be, a sad testament to the destruction of the riots. Private investors are not knocking down the doors of city hall for building permits, and there is no mad rush by home buyers to join the 22,700 residents there.

The "pioneers," middle-class residents who have bought homes in Columbia Heights, are trying to hold on to the hope that it will someday bounce back. For some, years of hope have given way to frustration and finger-pointing, mostly at the District government, which some residents say has reneged on promises to help improve the area's housing stock and attract commercial development.

"People think the city has given up on them. They don't have faith in anyone anymore," said Leroy Hubbard, a community activist who has lived and worked in Columbia Heights for two decades. "The cityhas not made this a priority over the years ... . If I sound frustrated, it's because I am."

Soon after the riots, District and community leaders resolved to take steps to help Columbia Heights regain stability.

The comeback plan was simple: The District would provide seed money -- from Community Development Block Grants and other funds -- to help merchants restore some of the businesses that were gutted and closed during the riots. That, they hoped, would reverse the exodus of middle-class residents leaving the area, and foster even more private investment.

But the revival of Columbia Heights has not gone according to plans.

"The first three years after the riots, everybody was committed to rebuilding it. But development has been sporadic," said Hubbard, chairman of the 14th St. Employment and Economic Development Task Force, a community group formed to spearhead the comeback. "The city has not generated revenue and they have not marketed the land."

While Hubbard and others say the District government has not done enough, D.C. Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) said the District had done too much.

Smith, whose ward includes Columbia Heights, said officials went too far in their effort to fill District-owned vacated housing. Officials provided many subsidies for the poor, and approved some structures for use as group homes. The result was that it produced a concentration of low-income residents and an overabundance of inhabitants of homeless shelters and halfway houses, Smith said.

Most of the households, about 69 percent, have annual incomes below $25,000, according to District planning data. More than one-fourth of the 8,584 households are federally assisted and scattered-site public housing.

In recent years, Columbia Heights also has become home to a mix of transients and students who attend Howard University a few blocks away. And on some streets, drug merchants line the sidewalks, openly plying their trade.

There is hodgepodge of mom-and-pop stores in the area, but no major anchors to help boost its economy.

The broad range in prices of the homes in Columbia Heights reflects its instability. Between 1988 and 1990, single-family homes in that area sold for as low as $20,000 and as high as $300,000. Huge, nicely renovated homes often sit next to dilapidated, boarded houses and trash-strewn vacant lots.

"Almost everything that's been done has been done by the government," Smith said. "The problem is that there hasn't been a lot of private investment in there and we haven't been able to attract the middle class ... . That combination of things has served to depress the vitality of the area."

Despite its many problems, a cadre of committed residents has remained in Columbia Heights, convinced that it is what Dorothy Brizill calls an "undiscovered treasure."

"There are a lot of people in Columbia Heights who are committed to seeing something positive {develop}," said Dolores Tucker, a community activist who has lived there nearly all of her 61 years.

The large homes, many of which sell for under $100,000, would cost much more in other parts of the city. Bordered by Spring Road and Harvard Street on the north and south and 11th and 16th streets on the east and west, Columbia Heights is a stone's throw from downtown Washington and within striking range of key parks and restaurants.

"We have access to Adams-Morgan without any of the parking problems," said Brizill, who lives on Girard Street. "Basically, everybody is friendly with everybody, even the drug dealers."

Smith said he believes there is still hope for Columbia Heights, and he is pinning that optimism on the planned opening of a new Metro station on 14th and Irving streets. Officials say the new rail line will draw an estimated 15,000 commuters daily.

"There will be some dollars spent at commercial establishments," Smith said.

Smith said he also has proposed legislation that would stiffen requirements for homeless shelters and other group homes to operate. He said that over time, Columbia Heights should become less concentrated with such facilities.

"They need to be scattered throughout the city," Smith said.

Smith said that if the rail station opens in 1994 as planned, Columbia Heights will regain its appeal to home buyers and investors alike.

"I think in the next decade it's going to be one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in the ward," he predicted. "It's the neighborhood of the future."