MAPLEWOOD, N.J. (AP) _ Head west of Newark and the landscape changes from abandoned lots and run- down buildings to this quiet, verdant town and its quaint neighbor, South Orange.

The communities, with green parks, tree-lined streets and comfortable brick and Tudor homes, are havens for the upper-middle class and many New York City commuters.

But ethnic and racial vandalism has plagued the towns in recent years, raising fears that life is not as peaceful as it appears.

A task force investigation headed by the FBI has led to charges of racial vandalism against one person.

But residents and officials say the investigation has a long way to go in light of FBI statistics that show 56 residents of Maplewood and South Orange have been victims of 78 acts of racial vandalism, from cross burnings to graffiti, during the past seven years.

One morning two years ago, Ellen Greenfield discovered that someone had spray-painted racial and ethnic epithets on her white, two-story wood home.

The message read: ''Kike trash, you live with niggers. We won't.''

Ms. Greenfield, a Jew and president of Maplewood Friends, said the vandalism followed a published report about a reward fund the group had set up for information about previous ethnic and racial vandalism. About $15,000 in reward money has been raised.

''It didn't deter me,'' the travel agent said recently. ''My family felt a sense of disgust, but not fear.''

Ms. Greenfield since has joined with other Maplewood and South Orange residents to form the Coalition for Unity, which in June staged Harmony Day, an event that drew hundreds of blacks and whites for a day of ethnic food, music, and speeches.

''People who never have been involved in anything before came out to be counted. They were full of disgust and they wanted to show it,'' Ms. Greenfield said.

In July, an Essex County grand jury indicted a 21-year-old white Maplewood man on three charges accusing him of spray-painting racial slurs in 1983 on the home of a black family on his block.

Edward Davidson, who is to stand trial Jan. 5, pleaded innocent. If convicted, he could be sentenced to five years imprisonment.

Ms. Greenfield and others hail the indictment and police say more arrests probably will be made. But many agree racism is a fact of life and that the only way to keep it to a minimum is to foster goodwill among residents.

Catherine Sullivan, a librarian at the South Orange Library, said she helped found the Coalition for Unity because it sends a message.

''We will not rest until everyone knows that the fair-minded people far outnumber the kinds of people who are responsible for these acts,'' she said.

Although South Orange and Maplewood, with a combined population of 41,600, are predominantly white, Ms. Sullivan said, ''We like to think anyone is welcome here.''

A glossy brochure distributed by South Orange contains photographs of black and white children playing together, and touts the village's recreation facilities, public schools and art shows.

Ms. Greenfield takes pride that blacks and whites live side by side, rather than in pockets, in the two towns, founded in the 1700s. And she, Ms. Sullivan and others mean to keep it that way.

''Real estate brokers sometimes tend to steer black families to one area and white families to another area. But we've talked to them and we've made it clear we don't want that here,'' Ms. Sullivan said.

Why vandalism has dogged Maplewood and South Orange remains a mystery, but Ms. Greenfield said envy could be the cause.

A census report indicated that many of the blacks moving to the two towns are slightly more well-educated and earn a bit more than whites in some of their neighborhoods.

''Some whites, it seems, just are not doing as well and it could be jealousy,'' Ms. Greenfield said.