Downtown: Its Rise and Fall (1880 – 1950)
© 2001 Robert Fogelson
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 care…
(“Downtown”, Petula Clark)
When Petula Clark sang that she knew a place you can go, she may have well been speaking of downtown, for it used to be the place to go. Downtown chronicles the decline of American city centers, from Gilded Age preeminence to steady 20th century decay. Though ostensibly concerning the local politics of major cities (New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles especially), this is in a sense a social history, the complete transformation of how Americans lived, shopped, and traveled told through the decline of city centers. The author writes without any apparent agenda, something of an accomplishment given the central subject of public policy. Despite the role played by city, state, and the national government in hastening the disintegration of American cities, even unintentionally, Fogelson’s conclusion is that the state of urban development in the United States has more to do with an instinctual aversion to crowded city centers than public policy. While that’s an unsatisfactory explanation of suburbia, it doesn’t diminish Downtown as a gold mine of information about the gradual transformation of transportation, housing, and public policy.
A city is nothing less than an economic engine, a place formed by the coming together of producers and merchants to trade. So it was with American downtowns; commercial enterprises preferred to congregate one another. The reasons were simple: prior to telecommunications and rapid transportation, business transactions were handled in person, and companies preferred to be close to their supporting services — to their bankers and insurance agencies, for instance. What transportation systems existed at the time favored central locations for streamlined delivery and sales. Given the eagerness of enterprises to acquire land close to the action downtown for commercial purposes, land values there rose, and residents who could cashed in to settle in the country. From those elevated land prices grew elevated buildings, when the arrival of industrial steel manufacturing allowed for it: landowners wanted to maximize the use of the land they were paying so dearly for, and so the towers soared. Downtown was not exclusively commercial; apartment buildings took equal advantage of the Bessemer process to compete with offices in the climb toward the sky. Though some city-dwellers complained about the towers blocking light, few attempts to limit the height of buildings took; even what scant regulations appeared were quickly riddled through with variances.
The commericial life of the city would involve political meddling, however. The attempt of an entire a metropolitan area to conduct its shopping, banking, and theater-going in one relatively small area lead to chronic congestion. This is a congestion beyond levels appreciable by Americans today, even those who sit in LA traffic jams. Photos show pedestrians shuffling down sidewalks cheek-to-jowl, trolleys crammed like sardines and the streets utterly filled with these as well as horse carriages, rag-wagons, and delivery carts. That traffic was the economic life of the city, but the thought of competing in such crowds could fill some with despair: was it really worth it? What it was worth is a question pursued by city governments who attempted to find some better way of transportation in and to the city center, either elevated or underground train lines. (Trolleys were nice, of course, but the glorious chaos of city streets meant they were frequently slowed and altogether blocked by pedestrians and carts.) Such prospects were expensive undertakings for private enterprise, and required considerably more politcking — getting permissions from landowners to dig under them, for instance — and so city governments themselves often had to take on the burden of attempting them. The el-lines were not altogether popular, casting a constant gloom over the streets and treating pedestrians to showers of sparks and cinders. Subways were much more expensive and time-consuming to build, a daunting fact given periodic economic downswings, but little by little the major cities edged into using them.
Change was in the air, however. Frustrated with the chronic congestion of the city center, made worse now by construction in the rights-of-way, some urbanites began shopping closer to home when they could. Soaring land values also tempted start-up businesses into offering their goods outside the city center, as well; other residential areas might not deliver as much traffic, but concentrated near the trolley lines as they were, a go could still be made. Soon downtown apartment stores were joining them, sending out colonies — branches — to do business to residents who didn’t want to come to them. Technology was allowing for more distance between residents and businesses, too; a man could now telephone his accountant, or extend his traveling range in a relatively cheap automobile. The arrival of automobiles into the downtown core only worsened congestion, however, consuming much more space than pedestrian traffic, especially when parked. They arrived at the worst possible time, too, when the economic life of American cities was threatened by the worse economic disaster in its history. The Great Depression, which would break the back of American urbanism, arrived in 1929.
The calamitous effects of the Depression were not limited to the economic havoc itself. Land values fell, and under unrelenting property taxes — constituting the bulk of municipal budgets — more than a few landowners torn down their towers to build parking lots instead. Requiring zero labor and taking in fees from automobiles, such holes in the urban fabric were known as ‘taxpayers’. As people continued to shop on the outskirts instead of the center, downtown merchants decided their problems were two-fold. First, there was there was the problem of accessibility; no one wanted to come downtown because it was too crowded, as Yogi Berra might have put it. Elevated lines were too unpopular, trolleys increasingly in dire straits because of overzealous expansion and a public that didn’t want to pay for the privilege of traveling like a mobile sardine, and subways too expensive. Secondly, as the upper and middle classes drifted out of the city into the rail suburbs, they left a vacuum filled with the kind of riff-raff that scared off good customers. Who would come downtown when they had to pass through tenement blocks filled with gangs of working men, immigrants, and mobs of un-supervised youngsters? Several factors conspired against these tenements: Reform movements, which saw the tenements as unfit for human life; the downtown businessmen, who wanted to distance the rabble from their shoppers, and the government, which needed to create jobs. Together a plan was born: seize the land, tear down the tenements, and build things like freeways and ‘modern’ housing projects. Government involvement was now quite beyond municipalities: the Federal government itself was active in urban areas, deciding what buildings should go and what kind should remain. FDR’s new government programs effectively encouraged urban decentralization by subsidizing developing outside the city, and impeding private development within it by refusing such largesse, especially when minorities were involved. The damage done by this kind of improvement — the erection of wall-like freeways gutting the city and directing activity into the suburbs — continued to sap the strength of the once dominant city center. It had already fallen from THE place to do business to merely the main place for business; now it lost even that as the future of America became written in interstates, parking lots, and strip malls.
Downtown is a a wealth of information, and remarkably varied — covering in different chapters the politics of subway construction or housing policy. It is a dispassionate obituary, even if it misdiagnoses the cause of death.
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