NEW YORK (AP) _ At first glance, Puerto Rican mountain music, break dancing, and the house under the roller coaster at Coney Island don't have a lot in common.

But to Steven Zeitlin, director of City Lore, all three pieces of the city's folk culture are worth preserving.

City Lore documents and promotes ethnic traditions and neighborhood pastimes - what Zeitlin calls ''the artistic genius of the average person.''

''New York has always been regarded as the cultural capital because of the opera and the ballet and things like that,'' he said. ''We say, it's also the cultural capital because of the enormous diversity of the population.''

Artists showcased by City Lore range from Afghan immigrants making rugs to women from Senegal braiding hair in traditional, elaborate designs. The Afghans live in Brooklyn; the Senegalese, in Harlem.

''By presenting these art forms at our annual summer festival in Central Park, in museums, at concerts, in the schools, we give these people a reason to keep their art form going,'' said Zeitlin.

''It's not something they have to give up to become American.''

Other artists featured by City Lore have included Papa Manteo, a Staten Island puppeteer whose Sicilian marionettes enact the legend of the ninth- century Roman Emperor Charlemagne, and Shenaz Hooda, who uses crushed henna leaves to paint lacelike designs on the hands of Muslim brides. If the dye left on the hands fades too quickly during the first weeks of marriage, the husband is said to have forced his wife to wash too many dishes. Hooda brought the tradition from her native Bombay.

City Lore tries to preserve the best of pop culture before it gets repackaged by Madison Avenue and the media.

''There's so much pressure in New York for things to be commercialized that something like rap music gets picked up immediately and becomes a national phenomenon,'' said Zeitlin. Neighborhood break dancers and rappers were featured at City Lore events long before these genres became staples on the rock video channel MTV.

Musicians with roots in Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Latin countries are given a forum in City Lore's Musica Tradicional concert series, held each summer.

City Lore, which started out 10 years ago, has a $300,000 annual budget funded by private and government grants. Students, writers and artists use the group's archives; folk artists come looking for a place to perform and for help with grant applications. Neighborhood storytellers are featured on City Lore's monthly radio show on a public station.

City Lore also is concerned with preserving the city's past. A project is under way to compile an oral history of the men who built the subway. And the organization is mounting an effort to save what it calls ''Endangered Spaces'' - sites like the old-fashioned merchant stalls in the Essex Street Market and the house under the roller coaster at Coney Island.

Immortalized in Woody Allen's movie ''Annie Hall,'' the house is in danger of being demolished. City Lore wants to save it, although the woman who lives there, the widow of the man who ran the roller coaster, ''was just as happy to move out,'' said Zeitlin.

City Lore is hoping the house can be preserved in a form that will please developers as well as Coney Island-lovers: a restaurant.