FOR NEARLY THREE DECADES, TOUGHTALKING columnist Jimmy Breslin, 61, the self-appointed champion of the poor and downtrodden, has prided himself on being able to venture into any New York City neighborhood without concern for his safety. "I could walk anywhere; they knew my face," he says. But while reporting for New York Newsday last month on the violent racial tensions in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, sparked when a Jewish driver lost control of his car and killed a 7-year-old black boy, Breslin got caught, much to his chagrin, with his pants down.

Breslin was on his way to cover an early evening speech by New York Mayor David Dinkins in Crown Heights when his taxi was surrounded by a throng of about 25 angry black kids shouting, "White man! White man!" While the black driver bailed out of the cab and ran, several members of the mob ripped Breslin's clothes off and robbed him of some $70 in cash and a credit card. Stripped to his skivvies, Breslin found himself on the street, staring at a youth who had already bashed in the cab windshield with a baseball bat. At that point the boy took a swing at the journalist's head. Luckily, he missed. "I'm not sure by how much," Breslin says. "In my mind, narrowly could have been a city block."

Eventually two black men rescued Breslin and accompanied him to a nearby police station. Since the incident, Breslin has returned to the station house many times to look at lineups. So far the police have identified six or seven suspects, including one 11-year-old boy. "I started a squawk in the station when I heard that," says Breslin. "For Chrissakes, it'll look like I got beat up by lilliputians, kindergartners."

Shaken by the whole experience, Breslin has begun to sound uncharacteristically pessimistic about the future of his beloved city. "I know I'm looking at the end of the city of New York," he says. "It's getting extraordinarily tough, and people will start to leave." But Breslin insists he is not yet ready to join the exodus. "What am I going to do?" he says. "I'm here. That's all."