The city is just waking up. Off to the northeast, its distant towers rise out of the murky smog into glinting sunlight. It looks so permanent and yet so new under a blazing morning sky. The Hudson River, catching the sun's early intensity, almost seems to be on fire. And, even at this hour, the traffic is starting to crawl through the narrow streets.

I had hitched a ride on WOR's Helicopter 710, which hovers like a dragonfly over the city traffic every weekday morning.

It is the hour when the city comes to life, "when million- footed Manhattan unpent descends to her pavements," as Walt Whitman once put it. But all that is visible at the moment are the towers, the spectacular sun-caught sky- scrapers crowded together in architectural profusion.

This rain forest of new office buildings is the centerpiece of New York City's much-heralded fiscal renaissance, and also the sore point in a longstanding debate over just how widespread and legitimate this economic rebirth really is. There is the distinct impression among many critics that New York is really two cities: the energy-charged, dynamic cultural capital on Manhattan Island, most visible to tourists and the city's well-to-do; and the grim, unrelenting, tedious, demanding place that offers its residents little more than a struggle to survive.

"In this great city of New York," author and literary critic Alfred Kazin recently told an assembly of cultural patrons and moral supporters of the decaying New York Public Library, "nothing is more obvious than the gap between the classes, the races, between the culture and expertise so glittering in midtown and the destitution, degradation, drunkenness, dope selling, and dope taking that have preempted many of our parks and slum streets. . . ."

Herman Badillo, a former congressman and deputy mayor, would add that the tax incentives given to real-estate interests wishing to build in Manhattan, as well as other accommodations, have helped to create a "fantasyland" of skyscrapers and tourist attractions in the Big Apple's core, and a sea of neglected lower-and middle-class living in the rest of the city.

"It's all baloney," retorted Mayor Edward I. Koch with characteristic bluntness during an interview. "If you had the whole city on the mainland . . . nobody would say a word. But when the central business district happens to be on an island called Manhattan, somehow or other people say, 'Well, there are two New Yorks.'"

"There arem two New Yorks," Robert F. Wagner, deputy mayor for planning, acknowledges. But he points out that this theory may have been "oversimplified" by some critics. And, he adds, this administration intends to "bring these two New Yorks together."

From 500 feet up, in a circling helicopter, the task of even governing this city, let alone bringing its haves and have-nots together, seems unimaginably intricate and imposing.

With its two mammoth airports, 51 waterway bridges, its 232-mile subway system, its water tunnels, its islands, its prisons, hospitals, schools, its 7 -odd-million people, and its 850,000 buildings, the city really a physical agglomeration of everything the planet has to offer in the way of man-made problems. All crammed into a river-centered geographical pocket.

In two hours, circling, traversing, and recircling the city by air, this incredible jumble and expanse of things that make up New York sorts itself out: the waves of construction from various decades dating back to the 19th century; the miles of elderly, tenement-style buildings; the stumps of ruined hulks breaking jagged through the earth; as well as the gentrified tracts of reborn communities.

While at first it all seems uncharted and trackless and chaotic, gradually the rhythmic order of the intricate patterns of neighborhoods and streets and devastation and rebuilding emerges. And it is in these patterns that the real life and hope of New York are played out.

They are played in Harlem's boisterous, steamy avenues, rich with sounds and smells and all the visual phantasmagoria of the ghetto; in Jackson Heights's interplay of middle- class suburbia with vibrant, Colombia-immigrant street life and the cocaine drug trade; in the row houses and tiny yards of Archie Bunker-land out in Queens; in the dark, narrow lanes of the bowery with the bitter men and women in shabby clothes wandering New York's seamiest dead-end streets; in the cloistered, sylvan surroundings of places like Riverdale with its charming, expensive homes.

Every morning, Manhattan's skyscrapers draw in streams of human life from such places through the stone arteries of the subways; and every afternoon they pump this "million-footed" mass out again to the suburbs and the far ends of the island.

At the end of the day, this stream of humanity presses together on a subway platform into an undulating mob, waiting for a delayed train. Loudspeakers overhead shatter the air with an unintelligible message about interrupted service. Finally, when the trains arrives, only half the doors open. Angry passengers have to hold them ajar, after the conductor tries to close them, just to squeeze inside.

There is an oppressive heat in the car. The fans are broken, and no one expects the air conditioning to work. Its windows are so covered with fraffiti that you cannot see out to tell when your stop has come. Sweaty, unsmiling passengers stare into the middle distance. The heat assaults everyone. The express train rockets up to 125 Street and beyond, the passengers swaying rythmically as the lights of local stops blinks past them. Finally, at 175th Street, the crowds struggle out of the underground arteries into their cement and steel neighborhoods in Washington Heights.

This is one of the regions of the city that officials point to as being reborn. While he acknowledges that "the only part of New York it would be safe to say there is a renaissance in is south of 96th Street [in Manhattan]," Deputy Mayor Wagner points to "many positive signs" throughout the city in places like Washington Heights which he says are "coming back."

It is a mixed neighborhood, with once-wealthy synagogues several blocks from Hispanic bodegasm (grocery stores). There is an easy mixture of black, white, and Hispanic residents in discrete, varied communities. It only takes a moment to walk from the boisterous, noisy avenues full of radios playing loud Spanish music and amateur mechanics juicing up their cars on the sidewalks, back into the sequestered quiet of a residential community.

In one of these quiet neighborhoods, an elderly woman sits in a small courtyard, her lined European face looking as if it were peering out from a faded photograph of Ellis Island immigrants. Above her, on a stone stanchion, a young boy wearing a yarmulke sits ramrod straight, still as a listening bird. There is an afternoon quiet in the air, undisturbed by the occasional sharp interruptions of city noise. Latecoming commuters amble home through the gentle sunlight.

Nearby, John Lopez, an electrician, stands with his toddler son, Darren Sean, and his wife, Ellena. Mr. Lopez, a short man with almond eyes, a soft mustache, and a heart- shaped face, wears a flowered shirt, jeans, and a buckle that spells out JOHN in brass letters. He talks about the city's rebirth and how it reaches into his family's life.

Mr. Lopez pays a combined rent and mortgage on his apartment and investment house upstate of $700 a month. He now pulls in about $26,000 a year, which -- with these expenses plus child support for two children from a previous marriage -- is barely enough to make it. Yet he feels he is seeing an economic recovery in the city around him, especially here in this neighborhood.

"I see my neighbors spending more money. A few new cars are showing up on the street. More people are taking vacations. A lot of them are looking out of the city to get a new place."

Still, he complains about the subways, crime, garbage. "I would like to see safe streets, and not to walk around at night in fear. The people who don't have anything rob from the ones who do. I want to get a house and get out of the city. I'm giving myself three years. I want to see if I can give my kids what I couldn't have when I was small.

"I never had anything. Never had a bike, never had roller skates. But I want my kids to have everything."

Probably for the first time in nearly a decade, Mr. Lopez feels that his goal of paying off a house in the suburbs and getting the things for his children that he never had in Puerto Rico is at least worth dreaming and planning about. And he gives a large measure of credit to the city's outspoken, controversial mayor.

He's not the only one who does. Ed Koch is considered so politically strong in New York right now that he will be running for reelection next fall with both the Democratic and Republican endorsements in his pocket and virtually without serious opposition. This despite the fact that city services have deteriorated, crime is on the increase while arrests have decreased, the subways are at a crisis stage in failures, and the city's infrastucture in crumbling, as evidenced by recent highway cave-ins and bridge cable failures.

But the prevailing attitude toward the mayor seems to be the one expressed by Mr. Lopez: "He's doing the best possible in a nearly un-do-able job."

The first person in the city to agree with him would probably be hizzoner himself. Never shy about proclaiming his own virtues as mayor, the lanky, voluble, energetic Mr. Koch is quite willing to go on the attack in defending both his administration and the city he governs. He is the city's resident defender, a cocky bantam rooster in an ostrich's body. His favorite expression is "Baloney!" And his favorite person, by his own admission, is himself.

During a 75-minute inteview in his spacious red-and- balck-toned office, he sits on the edge of his chair, gesticulating with his arms, as he cheerleads for the city and its progress under his administration with a nonstop barrage of facts and deeply held opinions.

New York is "the most livable city in the country," he argues. It offers you whatever you left from wherever you came. You can get "riparian rights on Jamaica Bay," or you can have "university living" near Columbia University, or you can "live near a golf course; we have golf courses in this city."

"We spend 56 percent of our budget on the 26 percent of the people" who happen to be living at or below the poverty line here. These poor people, he says, are well off in comparison with the rest of the world's poor. "If you tell me it's better to be rich than poor, I agree. But don't say we treat our poor worse than anyone else, because that's just not true."

On question after question about the city's woes, he fiercely returns the issue like some political John McEnroe lashing a serve back across the court, pointing up similar problems in other cities and showing signs of progress under his administration.

Judging from his replies, New York is a city on the rise, a place to live and work in happiness, and no one is happier here than the ebullient, feisty mayor himself.

And why not? He has managed to secure the confidence of a large sector of the electorate, earning himself the reputation in numerous quarters as a sort of resident folk hero. This, without reversing the slide of city services and the quality of life here for most New Yorkers, as he asserted in a recent interview with Bill Moyers on public television.

And he doesn't promise much improvement in the future, either. Asked if, at the end of the third term he hopes to complete in 1990, he will leave a city where the citizenry does not endure insufferable delays and suffocating heat on the subways, where the threat of crime does not shape the outlook of almost every citizen, where the cost of housing does not threaten to drive the middle class out of the city, he answers: "No, I won't make a promise like that . . . I'm not going to promise Nirvana."

Whatever failings his administration has experienced in rebuilding the city's decaying services and operations structure, the mayor is credited with balancing the budget, after years of deficit spending and near-bankruptcy, and helping to ignite a new spirit of revival in the city.

The place to witness this achievement is in midtown Manhattan, where new high-rise buildings are shooting up at an unbelievable rate, transforming the city's skyline.

This is "Helmsley Country," as the promotional posters proclaim.

Harry Helmsley stands to profit enormously from this construction boom. As the head of a $5 billion real-estate empire, Mr. Helmsley is reputed to own, or have an interest in, a quarter of Manhattan's skyline. He is the city's largest landlord. He holds a 114-year operating lease on the Empire State Building. More important, he is one of the handful of men who control the future of New York's construction boom. And, to Helsmley, that future is in hotels and high-rise office towers. He is responsible for a significant piece of the new construction in the city, and has erected two new hotels, the Harley and the Palace, which make him the city's largest innkeeper.

Sitting in his modest, sky-high office, with the Empire State Building standing outside like a giant, friendly tree in his backyard, he predicts that, despite runaway construction in the city, large corporations wishing to move here will have big problems. There simply won't be placed to house their middle managements. Or at least the places there will be will not, a $1,000 a room per month, be affordable on a middle- manager's salary.

He ought to know. In the past several years Helmsley has been busily shifting his assets into high-priced hotels where corporations lease suites to house their top executives and to entertain their best customers. These suites go for from $90,000 to $500,000 a year. And the most expensive are something to behold.

The "triplexes" in the 51-story Palace Hotel, for instance. These six-bedroom, three-bathroom, multilevel apartments can be entered from a balcony stretching around the cavernous living room, with its two-story floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the most gorgeous view of Manhattan imaginable. Towers rise around you at a respectful distance, but there are none that rise quite this high.

This triplex has already been leased by an unnamed corporation, even though construction crews are still busily putting on the finishing touches. And, if the circular staircase, lavish bedrooms, acres of living and entertaining space, cathedral ceilings, and inside elevator didn't sell them on this half-million-dollar apartment, the view from the private rooftop solarium certainly must have.

Standing up here, with the city spread out around you like a private playland , you could easily come to feel that you own the town. This is simply them most spectacular, the top of the cosmopolitan, New-York world. In this stratospheric place, staring out at the forest-top expanse of skyscrapers, you come to realize what New York has to offer to those with lots and lots of money.

It's a view most New Yorkers will never see. The more common view of the city lies down in the tangled streets with their throngs of traffic and rushing crowds.

On the sidewalk, a young man sells his religious philosophy, cutting the air with a flailing arm. A man stands practicing his trumpet in teh scorching heat. Two rapt students sit at a sidewalk chessboard. A tall, thin man with a narrow forehead plays a makeshift electronic harpichord made from an old keyboard and radio speakers. An old man, his mouth gathered into a petulant frown, looks on, unmoved.

In nearby Bryant Park, behind the public library, once the favorite gathering place of lunchtime sun-seekers, one runs smack into the drug dealers and drug users. It is a place too dangerous to enter by night and too unsavory for most people to dwell in during the day. Here, the traffic in drugs is almost on the level of a bazaar. And it is perhaps in the geographic and strategic center of the city's business district.

Hard by this park lies the garment center, one of the city's thriving commercial districts, and apparently a ready market for the drugs sold in Bryant Park.

Down here, the work in arduous and sweaty. In the doorways young men huddle around bags of marijuana or pass "joints" among themselves. The narrow, grimy streets are filled with the sleeveless, jacketless working poor and their bustling employers -- hard-faced men and women who seem in an endless hurry to get somewhere. You would only come here for one reason: to make a buck.

The lure of the hard-won buck has drawn Abraham Lawsen here. He sits in the open bya of an unloading truck, wiping his brow with a handerchief, waiting for his partner to return. Asked where he thinks the city is headed, he gives a thumbs-down sign and say emphatically:

"Straight downhill. You can see it easily. Too much taxes are running the businesses out of the city. There are no jobs. I know a lot of people who have no jobs. I'm not looking for no charity. Whatever I get, I earn. But I don't know how people are going to keep on earning here in this town. Those big high-rises bring jobs, but only for certain kinds of people."

His words are echoed in Harlem, later that evening, by a man sitting with his friends, sharing some beers on a street corner.

"Things are going downhill fast for the poor people of this town," he observes sadly. "Sure, there's a rebirth for the ones who've got money. But who is going to be able to live here? Poor people can't afford to live in renovated brownstones."

As he speaks, nighttime Harlem comes to life around him. Harlem, where you can drive for miles and never see a white person; where the burned-out hulks of buildings stare out at you through vacant windows. Harlem, with its beautiful, energetic, unadorned people, seems like it has been here forever. And while the outward thrust of real-estate values from the center of the city is making the geographical Harlem more attractive to investors, no one seems to want the psychic Harlem, the dead weight of poverty and despair that seems to crush everything in sight.

Sitting on this corner, at the end of a row of tenement houses flanked by vacant lots (the buildings themselves empty, except for the storefront Mt. Moriah Baptist church), one sad-eyed man who looks as though he has watched this scene for several lifetimes rattles on about the highways falling down and the crime in the streets, while another calmly and reasonably asks:

"Where are the poor people of this city going to live? People can't pay $500 a month for an apartment. Lots of folks are going back south where you can raise your own chickens and such. A body could live down there. But what about the ones who stay? Poor people don't have no money and no work. They are going to start going to the streets to steal. It's happening already."

But if you turn your car downtown and head toward Broadway, which cuts a swath across the city, from the shops and neighborhoods of the Upper West Side to the narrow cavernlike streets of the financial district, you can easily forget about Harlem and its desecrated streets. In minutes, you can find yourself in the heart of the city's thriving, energized theater district, which comes to life at night. You can see all the spectacle of New York.

And, in the evening, you can see the slanted rays of sunlight reach across the width of the island, bathing buildings in a golden glow.

You can remember that New York is still the city of dreams and dreamers, the city of poets, actors, dancers, painters, culture heroes; the city of the impossible.

And you can almost forget the other New York.

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