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Is the 'traditional' downtown a thing of the past? Is that OK?

Kaid Benfield

Posted December 18, 2013

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  Chicago, 1964 (by: Jeanette Williams, creative commons)

When I was a kid, people went downtown to do their Christmas (or whatever) shopping.  That’s where the department stores were, the specialty clothing stores, the sporting goods and music stores, the toy stores, the shoe stores, the jewelers, the gift shops.  Downtown was also where you’d find the most restaurants, theaters, and hangouts, where a group of us from high school might gather and eat burgers and fries after school before going the rest of the way home.  Downtown was where most offices were, too, along with civic buildings and the library, the city auditorium.

This view of a traditional downtown remained true when I went off to undergrad school in Atlanta and law school in Washington, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Downtown remained the best place to go shopping or do most anything else.  It was where you went for excitement, a place with a critical mass of activity.  Suburban malls were starting to sprout up with branches of the downtown stores, but the tragic flight of people and investment out of the city center hadn’t yet sapped all the life out of the central shopping district.

Indeed, readers of a certain age may recall the hit song, “Downtown,” by Englishwoman Petula Clark.  After being released in four different languages, the song reached number one on the American charts in 1965:

When you're alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go downtown
When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown

Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares

So go downtown
Things will be great when you're downtown
No finer place for sure, downtown
Everything's waiting for you

Don't hang around and let your problems surround you
There are movie shows downtown
Maybe you know some little places to go to
Where they never close downtown

Note the date of the song.  I was in high school, as it happens. 

We all know what happened next, unfortunately.  Nearly every American city, along with most small towns, hollowed out in the decades to follow.  Tulsa, 1955 (by: army.arch/Adam, creative commons)Except for cities with a long history of multifamily residential buildings downtown such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, walkable central districts lost their shopping pizzazz along with their department stores and high-end retail (and a lot more). 

Aaron Renn, author of the long-running and always-provocative blog The Urbanophile, believes that my generation, the baby boomers, was the last to experience in large numbers the kind of downtown that Petula Clark sang about.  Ten to fifteen years later, certainly twenty years later, it was over in most American cities. 

The sense of loss suffered by boomers and previous generations as a result of what I might call The Great Disinvestment prevents many of us, Aaron suggests, from a more positive view toward urban progress today.  Here’s a passage from his essay “The Rupture,” collected in his new e-book The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the CityAlthough in this passage he is writing primarily about Rust Belt cities, I think his insights apply in a lot of places across the country:

“Gen-X and the Millennials have much more optimistic and positive views of urban areas than baby boomers and previous generations.  I think this results from the rupture that those earlier generations experienced when our urban cores declined.  If you read a newspaper interview of someone in that age bracket, you always hear the stories about the wonderful things they did in the city when they were younger. It was the land of good factory jobs, the downtown department store where their mothers took them in white gloves for tea, of the tidy neighborhoods, the long standing institutions and rituals – now all lost, virtually all of it.  Unsurprisingly, this has turned a lot of people bitter.  Many people saw everything they held dear in their communities destroyed, and they were powerless to stop it. T hese people are never going to be able to enter the Promised Land.  

For people about my age or younger, it’s a very different story.  None of us knew any of those things.  Our experience is totally different.  We’ve basically never known a city that wasn’t lost.  Gen-X, which Jim Russell views as the heartland of Rust Belt Chic, is a generation defined by alienation, so the alienated urban core suits our temperament perfectly.  The Millennials of course have a very different attitude towards cities.”  [Emphasis added.]

I don't know about the white gloves and tea, but I sure can identify with the rest of that first paragraph.

Although I know plenty of boomers who, like myself, have very positive and optimistic views of cities, I think Aaron is on to something.  I know I have a very clear image of what an ideal downtown is, but that dream of a complete, exciting downtown serving as a hub of all things urban may well be lost in many American cities.  Younger people never knew the concept of a healthy, unified downtown to begin with, so it doesn’t bother them that what is emerging today is more diffuse, less geographically centered, less complete, without large retail anchors where one might do much of one’s holiday shopping.

I’m not sure it bothers me, either, though I will confess to a certain nostalgia for the good old days.  To take the DC example, I pretty much love what is happening in central Washington today – including, by the way, our outdoor holiday market.  Downtown DC has become an exciting place again, to work, to eat, to gather, to shop.

  DC holiday market (by: Adam Fagen, creative commons) 

But, generally speaking, the retail choices are fewer and much more limited, as well as more spread out among various shopping areas.  I’m now in need of a sports store where I can buy a heart rate monitor, for example, and I’m not sure there is a good sporting goods store downtown.  There’s one very good department store where I might find housewares and a variety of clothing, but only one.  Not all of this retail shrinkage is due to disinvestment, of course – if the geography of buying and selling shifted dramatically once from city to suburb, it has changed yet again in the era of online shopping.

As for the other places I’ve lived, Atlanta’s downtown is but a very faded replica of what it once was.  I visited a few years ago and found it terribly lifeless and depressing.  I don’t spend much time in the Rust Belt, but I know it’s much worse there.

As for smaller cities, it varies.  Some downtowns emptied out and have yet to rebound.  Others are doing better:  the lively, compact and walkable downtown of Asheville, where I grew up, has enjoyed a wonderful revival, as I wrote some time back.  Most of the wonderful old art deco buildings are still there, but repurposed.  The restaurant and bar scene is great, as are the galleries and high-end craft shops.  There are new residential buildings downtown, which I find very encouraging, though I'm told they are very expensive to buy into.  There’s still a first-rate independent bookstore.

But the clothing stores are long gone, with few exceptions.  One certainly wouldn’t go downtown to buy housewares or sports equipment.  I’d have to say that the retail in the old shopping district is now geared more to the city’s bustling tourist trade than to non-arty locals.  I wouldn’t call it “traditional,” but it might represent some of the best of what’s possible today, instead of what once was. 

And maybe that’s just fine.  Times do change. 

Would Petula Clark feel at home there, or in today’s downtown DC?  Hard to say.  But, just as many downtowns are re-emerging once again as exciting places, there may be some significance in the fact that she re-released "Downtown" in 2011, this time with my favorite Irish roots-rock band, the Saw Doctors.  The song hit number two on the Irish pop charts.  Enjoy the video:


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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  Kaid’s forthcoming book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, will be published January 6, 2014 and can be pre-ordered now.

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Steve MouzonDec 18 2013 09:16 AM

Kaid, there are two things going on here: the loss of downtown activities, and the loss of the physical settings of those activities. Activities come and go, and can return. What's more serious is the loss of the physical settings, without which we're left with only historical markers. In my experience, we can cover something good with something else, leaving the good thing to be rediscovered later. Sometimes it's a physical covering like the horrid aluminum skins we put over Main Street buildings in the 1970s, and other times it's more existential. But in either case, I'm optimistic enough to believe that the coverings can be removed to reveal our better selves once again.

Kristen JeffersDec 18 2013 09:54 AM

Just to add the Millennial perspective, I do enjoy living in a revitalized downtown. However, I hate having to drive out to feed myself without breaking my budget, going to see a movie that's first run, buying reasonably priced clothes (or the supplies to make them) and of course, seeing all my friends and family that don't live down here because it's barely in budget for me and completely out of budget for them.

I think we need to keep pushing for a full rebirth of the boomer experience, at least in part (one-two chain stores with suburban prices). Otherwise, all of our smart growth efforts are negated in places that do not support urbanist edge city growth or any real growth at all due to poverty and reduction in old line jobs like manufacturing.

Michael LewynDec 18 2013 10:01 AM

Discount retail was the first thing to leave downtown,. and may be the last thing to come back. But in the very strongest downtowns they are back- New York has a KMart a block from Penn Station, and dollar stores every few blocks if you know where to look for them. Similarly, downtown Philadelphia has dollar stores aplenty and a K-Mart. Washington isn't quite ready for these amenities yet- maybe if the city lifted its height limits and brought down the price of commercial real estate there might be discount retail in DC,

Alex B.Dec 18 2013 10:49 AM

Downtown DC has a sporting goods store, and I'm pretty sure they carry heart-rate monitors:

I would challenge the idea that what a successful downtown like DC is trending towards is somehow less complete (in your words); what a downtown like DC is building towards is quite complete. You can find your heart rate monitor there. You can get your housewares, too. There are indeed lots of clothing stores returning along F Street. When you consider the new retail opportunities coming/rumored (in the City Center project, as well as other rumored tenants with a comprehensive scope like Target), I see a quite 'complete' offering.

Instead, I think you're describing primacy. And no, the downtown of today, even a successful one, will never have the primacy over all other nodes in a region the way that pre-war downtowns dominated their regions.

Now, I say all of this through the lens of DC, which is indeed a very successful downtown compared to others in the US that are still stuggling along (you mentioned Atlanta). However, a 'complete' downtown is definitely possible.

Payton ChungDec 18 2013 12:03 PM

I'm inclined to agree with Douglas Rae's book "City": the industrial American city, and its uniquely focused downtown, were the historical exception rather than the rule. Pre-war downtowns also had railroad-based transportation systems, a more geographically centralized employment base, higher levels of social trust, and less inequality than we have today. The city in history was typically polycentric, and we've returned to that formulation.

Another shift since the postwar years, partly tied to increased inequality, is that cities now exhibit a much stronger sectoral orientation. Whereas downtown used to be a fairly central location to reach consumers, in many cities it's now at one edge of the "favored quarter." In DC, downtown was historically at the eastern edge, but growing wealth in spots like Capitol Hill have significantly changed that equation.

That said, I'm also encouraged by the return of full-line retailers. The new flagship Walgreens are all in downtowns, and offer a really surprising assortment of products 24/7 -- I don't remember much about Woolworth's, but I imagine it was comparable. And then there's the big * just at the edge of downtown now...

Darin GivensDec 18 2013 12:37 PM

I deal with this phenomenon of baby boomers lamenting the old downtown Atlanta a lot.

I've got a blog (ATL Urbanist) where I praise a lot of the great things happening here. I live in Downtown with my wife and kid in a great old 1913 office building that was converted to condos. We've got awesome neighbors here and in other nearby condo and apartment buildings, we've got GSU's campus all around us bustling with activity. It's wonderful.

But many Atlanta baby boomers look at Downtown and see none of the good, on something sad. It's because the neon signs from long-gone department stores and movie palaces are gone and the shopping meccas (like Rich's) are gone. Things that defined a good downtown for that generation do not define one for mine. I have no desire to live in a quiet neighborhood of detached houses and travel to a shopping/office-focused downtown.

In fact I think those old downtowns that were so dependent on cars driving in from surrounding neighborhoods look kinda sad, and we're still dealing with that old car-parking infrastructure from previous decades in downtown Atlanta today.

This situation with people living here and investing in the place in the way that only residents can -- alongside store owners, students, office workers and events attendees -- that's the most exciting kind of downtown I can think of.

John BaileyDec 18 2013 05:15 PM

Thank you Kaid for the really interesting article. I'll answer "yes" and "yes" to your subject title questions, but add a little bit explanation.

My wife tells me I'm Gen X not millennial so I'll take her word for it, but I did grow up post "Ford to City: Drop Dead" so have no nostalgic memories of downtowns. (Actually, the town I grew up in, Galveston, TX, is well-known for its successful historic downtown, but it's probably 90% geared towards tourists like a lot of successful main street stories. That's fine for what it is, but not what you're talking about.)

I have been lucky enough to live in a couple of great cities since (San Francisco and DC), but even those (non-cratered) downtowns never did anything for me. I find urban neighborhoods infinitely more interesting, and even more urban, than downtowns. Living in those two cities turned me on to what was great about urbanity, but not their downtowns. For a non-work reason, I never would have gone to downtown SF and the financial district. While living in DC for 6 months as a college intern, I thought Dupont Circle was the most amazing place in the world. I'd buy a book at Second Story, get a Burrito Brother's burrito and sit by the fountain. I'd never experienced anything like that. But I never would have thought of going downtown, and this is true even later as a "grown-up" with some disposable income.

Heck, even my experiences of NYC are far more defined by other neighborhoods than Midtown or even lower Manhattan.

For me, and I know this is completely subjective, the things that are great about cities (lively gathering spots, different building types, small stores, pocket parks, diverse neighborhoods) have always existed in the neighborhoods than the downtowns.

Oh, and I recall a sports store opening up next to that new movie theater on 7th street,right?

Paul WesselDec 19 2013 08:13 AM

As "a reader of a certain age," I feel compelled to share with my younger fellow readers that which you may have missed. As Disneyfied ersatz downtowns remind us, aint nothing like the real thing, baby. See Petula Clark's original 1964 version of Downtown at and how it had already evolved in this "iconic" 1967 version on the Dean Martin Show - Both versions beat the pants off the self-referential, almost cynical Saw Doctor's version

Kaid @ NRDCDec 19 2013 10:58 AM

Great discussion.

Love the Pet Clark version, but the Saw Docs' version of 'Downtown' is anything but "almost cynical": see the comment above by the band's lead guitarist, Leo Moran.

alurinDec 19 2013 02:24 PM

But isn't it the Boomers themselves who helped to destroy the old downtowns, by moving out to the suburbs and shopping at the malls?

Jim NoonanDec 23 2013 01:03 PM

Great article and posts. Of all of the posts I find John Bailey's observations the most relevant. From my perspective, even in the 60's, most of our positive experiences were in the neighborhood retail areas rather than in the downtown commercial district.

Many people tend to view a large city as a uniform entity. I view it more as a collection of distinct neighborhoods, each with different strengths and weaknesses. I am fro mBaltimore. There remain some run down areas (OK more than a few), but the choices available of neighborhoods, many surrounding a reasonably vibrant downtown core are varied and attractive.

By the way, John, regarding your gratuitous slap at Mr. Ford, I refer you to the link to the NY Times article from 2006.

Elaine CleggDec 23 2013 04:17 PM

Kaid, All,
I grew up in surroundings that were ideal for learning about urbanity and preparing me for the work I do today. Early in life my family lived in a working class neighborhood on the edge of downtown Boise. My grandparents lived a few blocks away in one of the old grand dame houses within the greater downtown. We often walked to our grandparents house and to downtown. There were all of the neighborhood amenities currently thought of as suburban on the edges of downtown such as; a drug store (with a great soda/ice cream fountain), three small grocery stores, a hardware store, a fabric shop, schools and parks. In downtown were five department stores with their full service retail and tea shops as well as a number of discount stores including a Newberry’s that also had a great soda fountain/hamburger counter. And we had the specialty retailers including jewelry, sporting goods, haberdashers, movie theaters, shoe stores, hotels and more. The state Capitol Building was a favorite playground. My family didn’t have a second car and in fact my Mom never learned to drive until years later. If we needed to go further than we could walk we took the bus.

Then we moved to Denver. We didn’t live near downtown, but my Dad’s woodworking business was right on the edge of downtown (now part of the University of Denver’s downtown campus) and our piano teacher’s house was in the historic neighborhood northeast of downtown. My Mom still didn’t know how to drive so we took the bus everywhere, and most of my memories involve going to downtown; to shop, to ice skate, to eat, to see the Christmas lights at the courthouse, and to spend the day taking my music teacher’s dog for a walk while my sisters were having their lessons. My favorite times were going with Dad to the factory on a Saturday and wandering around what is now LoDo soaking up what I now know is great urban fabric. That part of Denver was then skid row so my memories are not the glitz and I suppose my Dad would be criticized today for letting me wander alone, but I never got into trouble and never felt in any danger. I did fall in love with the network pattern and the architecture.

When we moved back to Boise we couldn’t buy a house in the old neighborhood, it had been redlined and my parents couldn’t get a loan there. Our inner suburban neighborhood was a real neighborhood with services; we could and did walk lots around the neighborhood to those services. But my Mom had to learn to drive as the bus service had been cut back so much that driving was the only way she (and us kids) could get downtown and to our grandparents house efficiently and reliably. My family bought a second car for the first time. It wasn’t a luxury, it was necessity and frankly kind of a bother. Downtown Boise was still complete however, and I have really great memories of dressing up (you couldn’t go downtown in just jeans!) and taking all day trips to downtown to shop, eat, play, visit grandparents and soak up the activity.

Downtown Boise never completely dried up though it got awfully close in the 80’s. The big department stores slowly (then quickly when the mall was built) moved or closed. The Macy’s held on until just recently and only closed because the parent company couldn’t be bothered to remodel the building, as it was still profitable. I mourn its passing especially when I am forced to get in my car to get to a department store.
But Boise today is vibrant without the department stores. It is still the center of the region and generates lots of activity other than retail. The cultural scene is thriving as are restaurants and the weekly market. As more people move back to areas in and close to downtown I envision retail re-emerging. I think the pattern will be similar to what was here historically. The neighborhood services are already coming on the edges. The downtown itself is beginning to see more retail, though they are specialty retailers today. I can envision a large discount store and department store as viable at some point, maybe more depending on the number of residents and the re-emergence of bus service. It’s no longer the retail center and likely won’t be again. But retail should – and I think will – re-emerge as an important part of what is already a thriving downtown.

Kaid @ NRDCDec 26 2013 05:23 PM

Elaine, that's a great, great story. We all have different experiences of downtowns, and I loved reading about yours.

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