The Fall and Rise of America’s Downtowns – Part1

What shall we build in any given place? … This question does not ask how it is organized … but simply the most fundamental question of all:  What is it? — Christopher Alexander, A New Theory of Urban Design. 

Urban centers don’t fill our needs the way they used to. A hundred years ago, traditional downtown were the center of commerce; today, most commerce happens in malls, along highways, and on the internet.  A hundred years ago, community life focused on downtown; today, our social interactions are dispersed and often electronic.  Our lives and our relationship to centers have changed dramatically.    How relevant are traditional downtowns really? 

Retail Lost. Once a primary destination, downtowns historically grew as centers of commerce.  They emerged where access for the exchange of goods and ideas was particularly good – at a crossroads, depot, wharf, or bridge.  Downtowns now compete among multiple commercial venues – most with greater selection and prices. 

Downtowns didn’t always have to compete like this.  It took less than two generations, or sixty years, for downtowns to lose their commercial dominance and strive for relevance. 

Many downtowns have tottered on obsolescence since highway commerce emerged with its in-out convenience, big-box inventories, and government-funded freeways.    The automobile changed our relationship to downtowns.  It is not that historic downtowns were inaccessible for cars, but that cars and highways made previously undeveloped locations easier to get to. 

Suburbs grew before the car but access to jobs limited suburbs to locations along railroad and streetcar routes.  A small downtown could often be supported around the train or trolley stop.  Not surprisingly, Chicago, the railroad hub of the nation, has several older suburbs where commercial and community life was focused toward a rail stop, including Lake Forest and Oak Park. 

Grocery shopping and other daily conveniences were the first type of drive-to retail to serve bedroom communities.   Most retail destinations remained in historic centers, and department stores and major retail venues were located solely in major downtowns, where they drew customers from throughout the region.  Meanwhile, suburban subdivisions (and the highways that made them possible) offered new opportunities to raise children close to the land and away from urban ills. 

As suburb communities reached a critical mass of consumers, major retail followed and market support for traditional centers declined.  The flight of affluent families from challenged cities to bucolic suburbs fueled this trend. 

Special advantages that were once unique to downtowns dispersed gradually but decidedly.  Growing up in the 1960s, my parents always traveled 40 miles to Christmas shop, taking a train from the western suburbs of Chicago to visit department stores along State Street – a tradition shared by individuals across “Chicagoland.”  By 1971, suburban malls had the same offerings and my parents saved themselves the trip. My home town turned suburb also saw an explosion of “neighborhood” shopping centers and trips to the historic and still-charming downtown became obsolete (until recently, see Part 2 of this article). 

Highway Retail c1960.

Shopping Downtown c1950.

Homes and Jobs. Downtowns lost not only retail, but housing as well. Residents who once supported shops and services — and brought activity downtowns – are far fewer in downtowns today compared with the past (see “Restoration in Holyoke”).    In addition, as suburbs attracted higher-incomes and a better-educated workforce, jobs migrated to suburbs as well.  Suburbs had become a suitable, if not preferred, location for commerce generally.     The decline of many American downtowns was precipitous. Commercial space built for a bygone era exceeded demand — and vacancy rates climbed. 

The Fabric of Community — Lost. Faced with this troubling new trend, the “best” thinkers of the mid-twentieth century took drastic action and bulldozed whole inner-city neighborhoods for “urban renewal.” Massive investments poured into multi-block development projects that were income segregated.  Private capital created urban enclaves like Dearborn Park in Chicago, which secured its perimeter like a fortress. Meanwhile, the poor were warehoused in public housing. 

Many downtowns avoided the destructive impacts of urban renewal but still faced decay.  Parking lots and barren landscapes deadened districts.  Office buildings and apartment buildings severed connections with their surroundings by facing streets with blank walls, fences, and other retreats from community life.  Simultaneously, a modern aesthetic pronounced that dwellings and offices should float above decaying urban detritus by propping many buildings up on columns. 

Downtowns fragmented incrementally toward an alienating collection of single-use silos – the antithesis of the commercial exchange and community focus from which they were born.   …Continue to “The Fall and Rise of America’s Downtowns – Part 2.”

Parking lots in downtown Bremerton WA.

Bremerton commercial buildings and parking lots.

One Response to The Fall and Rise of America’s Downtowns – Part1

  1. Mark McLeod says:

    I like your insightful analysis of how many urban U.S. downtowns have evolved over the past sixty years. As the “local living economies” campaign grows over the next decade, I think urban downtowns may well regain vigor, though it may be a vigor of a different nature than sixty years ago. To learn more about this campaign, take a look at the work being done by:
    1. BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) (
    2. Michael Shuman, The Small Mart Revolution
    3. SELC (Sustainable Economies Law Center — spearheaded by Jenny Kassan of Katovich Law Group — and by Shuman)
    I look forward to reading more of these pieces.

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