In this languorous city, where the FBI reported 395 murders last year, one-fourth of the killings occurred in public housing developments with lyrical names like Desire and Lafitte.

Most of the remaining homicides occurred near the complexes, where about 10 percent of the city's residents live.At a time when many large cities are losing the battle over decay and violence in inner-city public housing, New Orleans has become a worst-case example. Spread throughout the city are some of the oldest public housing complexes in the country - poorly lit, begging for renovation and difficult to police.

Sherylnn Martin agonizes over the possibility of gunfire every time her children walk out her door in the St. Thomas development near the Garden District.

"I say, if y'all be out there, fall on the ground," Martin tells her kids. "Or you try to make it to a hallway.

"That's how a lot of my girlfriends' kids have gotten killed, 5 and 6 years old, trying to make it to their houses," she says.

New Orleans' 395 killings last year were more per capita than in the country's five largest cities; 99 of New Orleans' slayings were on public housing property. Even in Chicago, with three times the number of public housing residents, the housing authority recorded half as many murders as New Orleans did in its developments.

Housing authority officials and residents of New Orleans' developments agree that the design of the old public housing here is a magnet for thugs. There are a few high-rises and small apartment buildings, but most are densely populated, low-rise complexes set back from the streets and, therefore, havens from patrolling police cars.

"A lot of is individuals living outside the projects coming into the projects doing the shooting," said St. Thomas resident Jackie Frazier.

The old-timers, people who remember when public housing was safe, will tell you, too, that some of their neighbors have changed.

"I saw this kid last night, 11 or 12 years old. This little guy had a big old shirt with a whole shotgun under the shirt," said resident Grace Brown.

"Parents are not parents anymore," Frazier said. "An 11-year old, 12-year-old, 14-year-old has no business outside . . . at 1 o'clock in the morning."

Sheila Danzey, managing director of the New Orleans authority, grew up in the city's public housing developments. "When we grew up, we knew (living there) was temporary," Danzey said. "Now, we have generational residents."

But, she said, the housing authority shares the blame, because it "has never done a good job of enforcing its own lease."

New Orleans has been on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's "troubled projects" list for years, Danzey said, a designation that comes from high vacancy rates, slow modernization schedules for old buildings, poor maintenance and large pools of uncollected rent.

Danzey estimates that modernizing the complexes and eliminating easy hiding places for criminals would take $500 million. New Orleans' authority has begun some renovation projects that have eliminated shared hallways and given each apartment individual stairwells.

Woody Woodfork, the interim security chief for the city's housing authority, said adequate policing of the projects would take foot patrols. Woodfork, New Orleans police chief from 1985 to 1991, grew up in public housing.

But foot patrols and increased police attention are expensive. Christian Maerz, director of public safety for the Chicago housing authority, estimates that agency will spend close to $90 million by the end of the year on security that includes its own armed police force and security officers as well as contracted security guards.

The New Orleans' housing authority's total budget for this year is only $40 million.

In Chicago, housing authority residents have photo identification cards, and access to lobbies in troubled high-rises is restricted. Housing authority and Chicago police officers walk the hallways, knocking on doors to periodically check on residents and follow up on tips of criminal activity.

"I'm not going to say we're real happy and it's entirely effective, because it's not. But it's had an effect," Maerz said.

Murders decreased in the Chicago developments by 24.2 percent from 1992 to 1993. Crime overall dropped to levels not seen since 1988.

Newly elected New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial came into office with a highly touted crime-fighting plan and imposed a juvenile curfew that housing development residents applaud. But even 100 officers citywide, spread over three shifts a day, doesn't add up to the kind of police presence it took to improve safety in Chicago's public housing.