IT was a typically chaotic Friday evening Manhattan rush hour, compounded by steady rain and thousands of Haitian demonstrators marching down 42nd Street. New Yorkers on foot tried with little success to make their way across gridlocked intersections as cars honked and sirens wailed."I know why Mayor Dinkins wants to visit Africa soon - this is unbelievable!" said one exasperated pedestrian. * On what appeared to be a quiet Sunday afternoon, a commuter from New Jersey drove to his New York City office. The traffic was so thick it took him an hour and a half to get through the Lincoln Tunnel rather than the usual 10 to 20 minutes. At several points in the city when traffic stalled, jobless New Yorkers eager for small change tried to wash his windshield or threatened to dirty it by rubbing crumpled newspaper across it. "Getting in and out of this city by car is a nightmare," he says. * Another New Yorker recently attended a bar mitzvah for a friend's son. A woman barged into the synagogue off the street, interrupting the ceremony by carrying on in a loud voice. Church leaders tried to show her the door. "You can't throw me out - this is a democracy," she protested. Dull is one thing this teeming metropolis of immigrants, blue collar workers, and well-to-do professionals is not. All of the old vitality - and more - is still there. So are many of the great landmarks, from Central Park with its 58 miles of paths to Rockefeller Center's skating rink to the theater district's glittering marquees. Yet by almost any measure these days - including public opinion polls - the city is not working as well as it should. Intensified by the recession, New York's problems - increasing poverty, crime, drugs, homelessness, racial and ethnic friction, noise, AIDS, potholes, and decaying pipes - have combined to leave many residents with a shorter-than-usual fuse. Mayor David Dinkins, who heads off Nov. 10 on a week-long trip to South Africa to build economic and cultural ties with black political leaders, has his hands full just dealing with daily crises. Yet the Big Apple is rapidly changing. Many New Yorkers occasionally wonder if anyone is thinking seriously about what such changes mean for the future of their city. "I really don't get the feeling that anyone in New York is thinking in a visionary way about how the city will work in another 10 years," says an Indian immigrant who runs a Manhattan newspaper and candy shop. The point is crucial. When businesses weigh expansion in or departure from New York City, it is not the economy of the next six months or even of the next two years that drives the decision, says New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Ronald Shelp. "The question is, 'Will this city ultimately work? The last major attempt to look at the Big Apple's future was a 1987 report by the Commission on the Year 2000, chaired by Robert Wagner Jr., son of the late mayor, and initiated by former Mayor Ed Koch. The study, done when the local economy was thriving, zeroed in on the problem of growing poverty in the city and the importance of decent housing and better schools. It concluded that if the growing gap between rich and poor were not addressed, New York City in the 21st century would be not just divided but polarized. The report was widely acclaimed, but little action was taken on its recommendations. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's (D) recent proposal to revitalize the Big Apple through a $7 billion package of redevelopment and public-works projects, and a state takeover of local Medicaid costs, is widely viewed as one of the most visionary plans for the city to come from any government in a long time. Some of the ideas include streamlining transportation in and out of the city by using high-speed ferries along waterways and light-rail links between area airports. But most long-range planning in New York has been left to the academic, nonprofit, and business communities. "Government really doesn't have the freedom to make long-range plans - it has too many constraints," says Richard Anderson, president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group that is currently drafting a long-range plan for the metropolitan region that includes open space, transportation networks, and capitalizes on potential economic strengths. The New York City Partnership, a group of business and civic leaders that grew out of the mid-'70s fiscal crisis to help solve the city's problems and influence public policy, also intends to take a comprehensive look ahead. "We've just decided that we must undertake this because of the sense that the city does not have a clear future that we're working toward," says Mr. Shelp, who also is president of the Partnership. Most who have spent time thinking about New York City's future say the greatest potential for growth lies in the international sector. They point to the UN headquarters here, to the growing number of overseas visitors, and to the fact that foreign-owned banks now account for 25 percent of all banking employees in the city. Some 400 foreign banks and 2,000 foreign companies now have offices here. One hope is that the city may become the chief American conduit for trade with the European Community. HOUGH New York City has lost 160,000 jobs over the last year, there are still more Fortune 500 companies here than in any other US city. Experts say that New York's traditional strengths as a center of financial services, communications, banking, intellectual activity, and the arts should hold and help the city's growth internationally. The Big Apple's ethnic and cultural diversity is also viewed as a major plus. More than one of every three New Yorkers was born in another country. Still, business leaders concede that quality-of-life issues play a key role in most business decisions to stay in or leave New York City. Education, public safety, and housing head the list, Shelp says. The most critical problem facing the city is the increasing isolation of those who do not make it into the city's economic mainstream, says Hugh O'Neill, a research scientist at New York University's Urban Research Center. Under an Andrew Mellon Foundation grant to NYU, he has been looking into the city's strongest prospects for future growth. As New York moves further into a service economy, the number of highly skilled jobs here is expected to grow. The challenge for city schools, where dropout rates are already high and an increasing proportion of students come from impoverished families, is formidable. "You have communities within the city where the educational attainment level is very low at a time when the economy demands higher skills," says Mr. O'Neill. Currently, New York City schools are trying to accommodate a net increase of 25,000 students this fall while taking a $430 million cut in the system's $7 billion budget. Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez is widely credited with giving the system more energy and innovation than it has had in some years, even as he has tried to decentralize more of the decision-making through his school-based management plan. Groups such as the New York City Partnership are trying to help give the city a helping hand in dealing with such social problems. In addition to placing more than 400,000 disadvantaged New York teens in summer jobs during the last 11 years, the Partnership since 1982 has built 6,000 condominiums and cooperatives on repossessed government land here for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. Other business groups - such as Grand Central Partnership, which funds a street and sidewalk cleanup operation in mid-town Manhattan - and thousands of grass-roots organizations across the city, which manage everything from anti-drug programs to soup kitchens, are also trying to improve city living and make up for recent sharp cuts in city services.Most New Yorkers agree on how they want their city to look in the next century. Streets with less traffic, less litter, and less air pollution, for instance, would do for a start. The hard part is agreeing on a strategy to get there. The Big Apple has so many strong special-interest groups, for everything from labor to the environment, that getting new projects past them all is sometimes regarded as a minor miracle. "It's not a matter of hard to get things through - it's a matter of whether we can think about what's really worth doing," says Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center. "Ultimately the way you make any city or institution work is through leadership," Shelp says. "I'm sure with all the talent we have concentrated here, New York can do it."