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NY Cast Includes Castro, Potentates, and 'Big Cliff'

180 world leaders gather for the United Nations'50th anniversary celebration

AS home to Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Broadway, it should come as no shock that hyperbole is seldom in short supply in New York City.

Without even a tinge of modesty, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani calls the Big Apple the ''Capital of the World.''

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But this week, the braggadocio sounds almost accurate.

The greatest concentration of dark-suited and white-gloved prime ministers, presidents, and potentates in history has come to Manhattan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

Limousines arrive and depart the Waldorf Astoria Hotel as often as trains at Penn Station, whisking global leaders to high-powered tete-a-tetes and diplomatic to-dos. Teams of burly bodyguards scurry about, whispering into their lapels. NYPD's blue are everywhere and bomb-sniffing dogs pace the sidewalks of some the best-known streets in America.

Even Manhattanites, usually nonplussed about chaperoning mega-events, are impressed.

New Yorker Kathy McBride watches the police shut down Fifth Avenue before President Clinton hosted a cavalcade of dignitaries at a welcoming bash at the New York Public Library, and remembers other ''Big Events.''

''I've done it all: Times Square at New Years; the Village Halloween Parade; the Pope's Mass at Central Park,'' she says. ''But, this is the biggest.''

Undoubtably, this week will qualify for several superlatives in the the Guinness Book of Records. By all accounts, not only is it the largest gathering of heads of state (180), it is also the largest collection of police, security agents, and bodyguards ever assembled - at least on this island.

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Entire sections of the metropolis are cordoned off, elevating another New York art - commuting during gridlock - to new heights of ingenuity. But few are complaining. Instead, most people are simply staring.

On 42nd Street, Arne and Anne Marie Kverneland of Copenhagen, Denmark, are transfixed by the activity. ''No, no, we don't have anythink like this,'' says Anne-Marie. Hours before any of the dignitaries started sampling the goose liver pate, crowds of curious pressed against the police lines.

While tourists gawk, thousands of demonstrators - including Tibetans, Kurds, Pakistanis, and Tamils - chant their slogans and yell themselves hoarse outside the UN. On the East River, a flotilla of Cuban-Americans vent their wrath. Much further uptown, deep in Harlem, residents throng the streets as well. The mood is captured by one sign: ''Fidel Si; Rudy No.''

Fidel Castro Ruz, dressed in fatigues, is returning after 35 years to Harlem and a few residents want to let the gray-bearded revolutionary know that he is still welcome.

Fidel, of course, didn't need a sign.

Cuba's ''Jefe Maximo'' he felt right at home in Harlem. On first trip to New York in 1960, also on a visit to the UN, he stayed at the Hotel Theresa on 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. He moved there after getting into a dispute with the Shelbourne Hotel over a $10,000 tab. At the Theresa he entertained Nikita Khrushchev and Jawaharlal Nehru. After he went back to Havana, management had to clean up the rum bottles and cigar butts.

Just for old time's sake, Castro stops at the hotel. But time has transformed the Theresa. Where bellboys once shuttled luggage, teenagers flip burgers. The ground floor is now a White Castle restaurant and the upper floors are rented as office space.

Half a mile deeper into Harlem, Fidel's fans and curious residents gather outside the Abyssinian Baptist Church to hear him speak. A vendor hawks tee-shirts left over from the Million Man March. Saxophonist Fred Ho waits outside in his homemade ''Mau-Mao'' suit, a black suit with a ''Afro-Asian'' theme handpainted on it.

Solidarity is the buzzword in the ticketholders' line. While Castro arrives in fatigues, Communist Party member James Tyner, came dressed in a conservative business suit. Mary France, with a square African hat on her head, says Castro empathizes with the ''struggling people of Harlem.'' And, ''Big Cliff,'' with dreadlocks, a gold tooth and sun glasses, says he came because Castro is ''a strong guy.''

For all of its talent, Broadway would be hard pressed to cast - or hype - a more unique show than the one playing on the streets of New York this week.

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