Polish the apple

WHEN my friend Larry Eagleburger moved from the grand and spacious city of Washington to take up a big corporate job in New York, someone asked how he liked his new home. With that puckish irreverence that so enlivened his diplomatic career, he replied: ``If the world comes to an end, it will look like New York.''

There are, indeed, parts of New York City that look as though several waves of Beirut-style street warfare have just been waged across them. Buildings gaunt and empty have been put to the torch; the rusting skeletons of abandoned cars litter the sidewalks; piles of rotting junk and garbage climb ever higher.

But of course New York is also a city of soaring beauty, of eloquent architectural poetry, and penthouses atop shimmering glass skyscrapers.

Perceptions of New York are as diverse as its neighborhoods.

To the visitor hustling in from some orderly and well-manicured town in the hinterland, the impact is often negative. Should he be so crazed as to drive to New York City, he is confronted by a network of intertwining parkways that bemuse even a native New Yorker. Signposting these highways is seen by the New York authorities as a mark of weakness. That is why a newcomer trying to drive through New York spends an inordinate amount of time in New Jersey.

Should he arrive at one of the city's airports, the visitor is probably consigned to a unique experience -- transportation by New York cab, an unsprung Roman chariot driven by a gladiator with primeval competitive instincts. The chariot is flung full tilt at potholes and corrugations in the roadway, preserved affectionately by the authorities as a quaint metropolitan feature; if a hubcap goes flying, that adds to the zest of the race. Your gladiator exchanges dark glances with other contestants. Someti mes he threatens to ram them, and sometimes he does. All this is well worth the exorbitant fare he eventually charges.

To many visitors, New York is a city where you clutch your pocketbook or wallet. Harold Evans, a transplanted London editor, says you walk down a New York street with extra alertness. Your senses are assailed by accumulated garbage, pungent aromas, and endless graffiti scrawled on buildings, subways, buses. How, one might ask, do the citizens stand it, let alone the poor horses that tug tourist carriages up and down Fifth Avenue or the seeing-eye dogs that must lie all day on the concrete outside Saks?

But New York-lovers tell a different story of a city wondrous and exhilarating. It is a city of immense ethnic diversity, where commerce is exciting, where art and culture flourish, where audiences are thrilled by the world's leading singers and dancers and actors.

Edward Koch, a fast-talking New Yorker who features in a play and a best-selling book, seems set to preside over all this diversity for another four years. He has just won the Democratic primary for mayor, and in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1, that seems to make him a shoo-in in the November election.

We wish him well. He has beefed up the police, and many people think that has made New York less of a jungle. But it ought to be not just less of a jungle, but an urban showplace. It is still the first American city in which many overseas visitors set foot. One friend tells me that when his European relatives arrive, the first thing they want to see is Harlem. New York ought to be renowned for more than its poverty.

It is doubtful that Mayor Koch and his city government can by themselves make all the changes needed. There needs to be more civic consciousness -- and there are flashes of it. And the great power of American business should somehow be stimulated to refurbish and beautify a city, rather than to flatten and rebuild a city block for profit.

Even those who croon that New York's a wonderful town agree that it could be better.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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