Downtown

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Robert M. Fogelson. Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. pp. 492. $25.00. ISBN 0300098278

Summary

Robert M. Fogelson traces the history of downtown from 1880 to 1950 by charting what he calls its rise and fall, in fact, this is the story of city boosters and critics. Municipalities have found themselves both defending and condemning urban spaces and institutions with and against shoppers, commuters and big and small businesses. The modern city is one made up of skyscrapers and automobiles and beset by a host of complex engineering and social engineering challenges. No longer the old progressive city with factories and industries, the modern city emerges as a white collar place of business and capital speculation. Using New York as his primary, but not only, case study we see how the ‘business district’ became the ‘central business district’ to differentiate itself from other shopping and business areas in the suburbs. Looking at the battle over subways, Fogelson reveals the political power struggles with large financial stakes and the battles over an elevated versus underground solution. As these transportation battles played out in major cities, the downtown corridor was easily recognizable by its ‘tall buildings’ later known as skyscrapers. These are also the subject of government regulation as well as aesthetic and cultural criticism all of which are detailed in a chapter called the ‘sacred skyline’.

By the time of the Depression and World War 2, the downtown was an outmoded concept and the business associations began to lobby for more recognition, the ‘taxpayers’ had fallen vacant and shoppers were starting to head for the drive in strip malls of Los Angeles or the early malls of suburban Washington, D.C. Fogelson reminds us that the automobile brought the biggest challenges to downtown and in an extensive chapter he explains how the freeway played a role in shifting the downtown demographics. Lastly, Downtown summarizes the issue of ‘blight’ and its potential solutions, reflecting the change over time from downtown from the ‘heart’ of the city to the center ring of an exurban system.

Using journals, trade magazines and extensive contemporary secondary literature, Downtown: Its Rise and Fall provides a well researched history that looks to downtown not as a mecca, rather, as a place of critical engagement and a moving target for critics. He is especially strong when he contrasts and compares business versus government to explain how downtown became plural as cities both evolved and devolved. Urban historians take away a fundamental ordering of the time period covered and a more nuanced understanding of the concept and dynamics of downtown and its critics.

Commentary Alan S. Brody, Fall, 2011

Fogelson begins his work with some affective ties to downtown as a child and he claims a fascination with both the concept and the experience of an urban center. Fogelson likes the concept of an urban core and the large city, as this is what he sources and sources well. This is not the downtown of Alison Isenberg’s. Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It (ISBN 0226385078) rather this is the meta narrative of government and the battle for agency, where merchants associations stand in for people and where shoppers and commuters are best viewed by the number of vehicles they drive daily. This is not, however, to denigrate what is a solid look at how the concept of downtown morphed from a place inhabited by many to a place inhabited by only the rich and poor. It is easy to see downtown as a place in decline in the modern city, however, the issues had been present since the founding of the earliest cities.

What changes in the modern city is that the new Progressives are sitting on municipal boards and in public offices and they find themselves conflicted about potential solutions. Downtown always meant a small business district and from the start, Fogelson emphasizes this fact. The questions for modern cities become how to attract, retain and then manage all of these business workers, their infrastructure and leisure activities effectively and efficiently. The subway is an excellent example of this, there were rival plans and even competing issues of ownership and control. Transit Commissions and others were often surprised that people would object or that the new subway might not solve all the problems. In the end, “Americans also started to have second thoughts about the conventional wisdom that the equilibrium between residential dispersal and business concentration would hold forever. “ (p.111) This seems to be Fogleson at his best, trying to retell a narrative not of progress, rather one of conflict at the highest levels. The notion there that are groups vying for control and power in cities is not new, however, the similarity and way that cities faced and resolved many issues was interesting as the city becomes a proving ground for various ideas about mass transit.

Originally called tall buildings skyscrapers were a powerful symbol of modernity and individual cities boasted of their safe and modern skyscrapers. The skyscraper was a powerful symbol of the 1920’s and one that secured the office tower and downtown corridor as one and the same. Despite critics who claimed they blocked light or were fire hazards, the skyscraper became the dominant form. Folgelson’s treatment addresses these issues from the municipal limitations on height, especially in New York, where the issue was overcome fairly quickly. To better understand how skyscrapers changed the culture and what the impact on society was, see Katherine Solomonson’s The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition: Skyscraper Design and Cultural Change in the 1920’s (ISBN 02267680007). If the skyscraper called workers downtown, by definition then downtown became a site of contested boundaries and purpose. In his chapter about the central district, Fogelson notes that the core became more focused and specialized, while department stores, offices and white collar jobs and services remained, many cultural institutions moved while new zoning laws and insurance companies also changed the face of traditional business areas. A short explanation of the ‘taxpayer’ reminds us that change was inevitable and with the advent of cars, the automobile question would be the next target for challenges.

The social and historical aspects of parking appears to be an open topic for academic inquiry but it is important to the story of downtown because gridlock in New York went back to the nineteenth century and the new freeways and over passes were not solutions. Merchants worried that motorists would not drive downtown to shop preferring the new suburban branches of stores and businesses worried that their employees would have no place to park, while the city planners saw the need for an almost infinite number of parking spaces. Beyond parking, many workers still lived in the city, perhaps not in the now expensive business district but in the residential areas and outer boroughs, including the old tenement neighborhoods and it this link that lets Fogelson look at housing and ‘blight’. The issue of housing in the New Deal is best explained by Gail Radford in Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era (ISBN 0226702227) where she reminds us that urban renewal and its ilk were really experiments in the state and its role in the economy and in urban renewal. Fogleson seems to take this right for granted an he claims that blight was ‘invented’ , which seems a viable claim expect that the working and underclass have been present in all cities. Folgelson point is that the cost of urban renewal or slum clearance made it an almost impractical solution from the start and here he recounts more of the political issues than the social ones. To be fair, he does point out that this was probably the most polarizing of issues for downtown merchants.

If removing the ‘blight’ was costly, the downtown business district was facing more and more competition from the suburbs, especially as William Leach and others remind us. It was very clear form places like Los Angeles that alternative models were very viable and they were being built around the automobile as Richard Longstreth has so wonderfully documented. For Fogelson the downtown of the past was being replaced by the decaying downtown, with huge office towers and very few cultural icons sharing space. Corporations moved operation to the suburbs and in the process they invented corporate ‘campuses’ and all but abandoned their former headquarters. The one consistent theme is the optimism which the downtown associations, business and merchants shared and still share – some faith that the core business district will continue to play an important role in American life as an idea and in fact. As a social historian, I worry about the false nostalgia for Main St, the ‘other’ downtown and a part of the popular imagination. Fogleson shares some of these affective ties to the massive urban centers, that, however, does not stop him from presenting a fair and balanced effort to explain how various coalitions worked to create and manage the city center. This books raises three important questions: How did municipalities react to shifting groups of stakeholders vying for control of downtown? Why did downtown experience such rapid growth and an even faster decline? What should be the relationship between a business corridor and its urban neighbors? Folgelson makes us think about these in ways that are important to understanding reform, which is the narrative story line.

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Downtown as a word and physical place has significantly changed during the twentieth century. At one time, downtown represented the concentrated business district that housed corporate offices, movie houses, department stores, and elegant hotels, a place where “[y]ou can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.” Downtown today, however, has a negative connotation. Now the central business district, downtown has gained a close association with disrepute and poverty, a place where few regularly visit and where successful businessmen like Edward DeBartolo refuse to financially develop (3, 6). Scholars have overlooked downtown’s changing physical presence, not to mention its place in the American mindset. Prompted by scholastic oversight and by curiosity, Robert M. Fogelson examined how American perception of downtown changed over time. Using newspapers, trade journals, and planning reports, Fogelson argued that spatial living patterns facilitated the commercial decentralization that sealed downtown’s fate, turning America’s once commercial mecca into an obsolete nineteenth century phenomenon with no role in the twentieth century (4, 5).

Fogelson characterized downtown in its heyday as a small, congested portion of the urban environment that conducted a significant portion of the city’s business. Though hard to define, Fogelson showed that downtown represented a small space. Downtown Boston, for instance, represented only one percent of the entire city, while downtown San Francisco represented a comparable size to the University of California’s Berkeley campus (12-4). Yet, despite the size, downtown represented an extremely congested space. Vehicles crammed the streets, while the sidewalks “were ‘jammed to suffocation with pedestrians’” as men and women flocked to the downtown offices, theatres, stores, saloons, or gambling dens for work or leisure. The congestion illustrated the amount of business conducted downtown. In Chicago, downtown conducted more trade than in any other part of the city combined. Downtown housed the city’s financial institutions, light industries, and government offices. In short, downtown represented the business district (14-6).

Elements of spatial progress facilitated downtown’s nineteenth century rise. As Fogelson noted, “Americans attributed the rise of downtown to a number of things, the most important of which was what Frederick Law Olmsted…called in 1871 ‘a strong and steadily increasing tendency’ toward the separation of businesses and residences” (21). The development of streets, steam, and elevated railways prompted the development of remote residential districts to the middle and upper-middle classes, and, combined with the growing demand for commercial space downtown, the separation of business from residences became possible. Some, like publisher and playwright O. B. Bunce, objected, arguing that cities should develop inward as opposed to outward. As Fogelson showed, however, most Americans viewed the separation as an “auspicious development,” believing that the home should be removed from work. Moreover, most Americans did not enjoy apartment style living, leading one midwestern observer to note how ninety-nine percent of Chicagoans did not enjoy living above or below each other (21, 24, 28, 30-1).

Spatial separation, though, helped facilitate the commercial decentralization that prompted downtown’s decline. While downtown businessmen and property owners attributed the rapid separation of home from work as a cause of decentralization, Fogelson noted that other factors contributed. Downtown property rates remained high, which restricted the recruitment and retention of business and cultural institutions. Meanwhile, downtown businessmen bowed to political pressure to zone undeveloped city land, leading to an increase in business on the periphery. Technological advances further facilitated decentralization, as businessmen could now communicate with each other from greater distances. Most of all, downtown’s traffic congestion threatened its accessibility. Congestion had been a problem in the nineteenth century, but grew worse during the twentieth century (194, 201, 230-1). As a result, Fogelson noted that downtown started to lose ground. Not only did downtown lose railroad and automotive industries and other businesses, downtown also lost cultural institutions like the Boston Museum of Art to the periphery (194-6).

Downtown businessmen, city planners, and civic leaders expressed concern over the rate of commercial decentralization, and they offered responses that did little to reverse downtown’s dwindling fortunes. As city planners like Harland Bartholomew noted, “[d]ecentralization was…doing more damage to the central business district than anticipated.” Baltimore’s Downtown Committee responded to decentralization by attempting to make downtown more accessible (244, 249). Yet, the response did not yield the desired results. Freeway development made downtown accessible to many outlying residential districts. However, as Fogelson noted, freeways further fueled downtown’s decline through the increased promotion of decentralization, providing people with an easier means of leaving the city (314-16). Fogelson thus concluded that downtown’s fortunes had been tied to spatial living patterns, noting that downtown would not thrive unless “Americans who have a choice prefer to live in or near the center…” (397-8).

Fogelson’s methodological approach prevented him from producing a completely nuanced history that chronicled downtown through its rise and fall. First, he begins his story in 1880, a time when downtown had already established its dominance. Fogelson, in essence, started his study in mid-story, allowing his analysis to operate in a vacuum by overlooking the pre-industrial city. Moreover, Fogelson’s top-down approach also overlooked important internal dynamics that existed within downtown’s power structure. He noted that his approach would not be popular, but he also noted that his study would focus on “how Americans shaped (or tried to shape) downtown” (7). By providing a top-down approach, Fogelson left a historiographical hole that Alison Isenberg attempted to fill in Downtown America, especially in her discussion of how women worked and interacted with city fathers on downtown beautification projects. Fogelson’s drawbacks are minor and do not significantly detract from an otherwise significant study.

Fogelson, though, strives when examining the debates that centered on mass transportation, height limits on downtown buildings, and urban renewal. In each richly researched and expertly expressed section, Fogelson laid the foundation for additional research on topics centering on the urban environment. Taken together, though, Fogelson used each topic to advance his argument, noting that debates over each issue represented attempts to make downtown more attractive, thereby preventing commercial decentralization. Yet, if anything, the results seemed to harm, not help, downtown. The derailing of the subways, for instance, led some Americans to wonder about the feasibility of a concentrated business district (111). In doing so, Fogelson highlighted the historiographical significance of his study. His analysis did not simply answer whether downtown represented a simple issue of decline or rebirth, but an issue of decline over time because downtown’s leaders failed to stop “the centrifugal forces [that] were beginning to overpower the centripetal forces…” (216).

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