THE architectural splendor of Krakow stands nearly unrivaled in the former Soviet bloc.
The city, once the seat of Polish kings, escaped World War II largely unscathed. The medieval buildings of Jagiellonian University -- Central Europe's second-oldest -- appear today much as they did when Copernicus studied there 500 years ago.
Krakow seems to be operating in a time warp, and one can still see chimney sweeps dressed in black on the city's streets.
That they are still in demand illustrates Krakow's troubles. The city is choked in pollution, and its antiquated, mainly coal-fueled heating systems endanger its architectural beauty.
The shroud of soot often hanging over Krakow is generated not only by burning coal, but also by auto exhaust and the smokestacks of behemoth industrial enterprises that ring the city. A smog-friendly climate -- little wind and lots of rain -- accentuates the problems.
''When it rains, you can almost see the dirt in the air,'' says Professor Tadeusz Chrzanowski, leader of a citizen's architectural preservation effort. ''This is creating a terrible situation with architecture.''
Krakow may be unique in appearance, but its environmental plight isn't all that uncommon. Many industrialized areas once run by communist central planning -- Upper Silesia in Poland, and vast tracts of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia -- can be considered environmental disaster zones.
Just to clean up the environmental damage on what used to be Soviet military bases in Poland could cost $30 billion, about the same amount as New York City's projected 1995 budget, some experts estimate. Cleaning up all of Central Europe could run into the trillions.
Yet improvements are being made. Mr. Chrzanowski says: ''You couldn't believe how dirty Krakow was eight or 10 years ago.''
Especially in the five years since the collapse of Communism, local, state, and national officials have shown the political will to take on Krakow's pollution problem.
The city also has attracted the attention of the United States Agency for International Development (AID), which is conducting a $20-million pilot program in Krakow to facilitate the introduction of clean-air technology in the region.
''It's important that the pilot program is a success. It could provide an example that others can follow in the restoration of the environment,'' says Andrzej Pecikiewicz, AID's project specialist in Poland who is responsible for environmental programs.
But Poland simply lacks the capital needed to turn many projects into reality. ''Officials are sympathetic, but there's just no money,'' Chrzanowski laments.
When factories can afford them, they have made pollution-fighting changes, Pecikiewicz says.
Krakow officials, meanwhile, are modernizing the city's heating system. Eventually a law requiring all cars to be equipped with catalytic converters should reduce harmful auto emissions.
Nevertheless, much of the pollution reduction achieved to date stems from Poland's severe recession. The transition from communism to a market economy has forced many inefficient enterprises to close. Other industrial dinosaurs have drastically cut work forces and production schedules to survive. Meanwhile, the question of cleaning up environmental damage already done has barely been addressed.
Developing long-term strategies is hampered by the Soviet legacy, specifically central planning. Environmental protection and clean-up is now primarily a municipal responsibility. But for many local officials brought up under communism, taking the initiative isn't intuitive.
''Local leaders under communism only executed orders, they never had to take responsibility for themselves,'' Mr. Pecikiewicz says. ''They can do it, but they lack confidence. In Krakow, they [local officials] are coming to terms with responsibility, but in other places, that is not the case.''
Polish environmental officials, meanwhile, say they are grateful for foreign help but hint that it can be a source of tension.
An indirect aim of the AID program in Krakow, for example, is to promote the use of US technology. Polish officials, however, would prefer to use foreign know-how to develop their own solutions for pollution.
''Of course we support bringing in the best environmental equipment, but we don't want to do that by importing equipment,'' Kazimierz Chlopecki, head of the Polish National Fund for Environmental Protection, said in an interview with the Warsaw Voice weekly.
It would be a mistake to rely on the West to solve Poland's environmental problem, Mr. Chlopecki added.
''In the early 1990s someone came up with the bright idea: If we cast Poland as an environmentally devastated country, then the generous West will rush to help us,'' he said. ''But the approach did more harm than good. Western money never came, and Poland was stigmatized as a country fit only for tourists with gas masks.''