Downtown America

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Alison Isenberg. Downtown America: A history of the place and the people who made it. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2004. pp. xviii + 441. $27.50. Paper: ISBN 9780226385082

Summary

Alison Isenberg presents an urban history of downtown spaces that challenges prevailing models that focus on urban decline. Instead, Isenberg posits an historical interpretation that favors a theme of perpetual reinvention through various and changing constructions of value during the course of the twentieth century.

To see the forms of public and private value, Isenberg first delves into the gendered meaning of downtown spaces through civic efforts by women’s groups in the Progressive Era to clean up public spaces through street light, trash can, and sidewalk campaigns. Professionalization of the city planning industry removed focus from female beautification efforts to more scientific analysis of national trends in urban management. Isenberg compares the moral implications of beautification championed by female civic groups to the financial concerns of property values assessed through commercial standards valued by male city leaders and planners. At the end of the “pink-ribbon debates” Isenberg discovered “beautification meant efficiency and utility and, especially, improved property values” (p. 40). The themes presented in the beautification period did not fade over time as value for downtown property also presented itself in the vibrant postcard industry that advertised downtown merchants. Postcard creators retouched and colored photographs of downtown views and “documented Americans’ ideals of how their beautiful central business districts should appear in a new commercial order” by removing unsightly wires and poles, extraneous people and outdated forms of transportation, and clearing sidewalks of clutter and hazardous or unappealing signs (p. 43). Reinvention during the postcard era comprised of creating visual harmony and a “dignified and simplified retail corridor” rather than the outdated “hodgepodge of individualistic storefronts” (p. 45). A reassessment of value also meant a closer scrutiny of pedestrian traffic and scientific studies of consumer habits. Isenberg points out the key groups in the study as flappers versus the family shopper and executive or professional men versus the lower economic classes. African Americans, though constituting an important percentage of downtown sales were not included in market research, a factor that contributed to racial tension during riots in the 1960s when commercial properties were targeted for not addressing consumer calls for integrated service or for employment.

By the time of the 1930s, falling property values caused a reassessment in property values and Isenberg uses the appraisal industry as a measure for ways in which communities reinvented forms of gauging property values. Instead of viewing the changing downtown structure as decline, Isenberg characterizes the demolition of larger buildings in favor of parking lots or single story buildings as a wise investment choice to reduce property assessments while still generating income. Recycling and modernization even during economic downturn became a novel way to reinvent property value during the Depression rather than a signal of urban decline.

Wartime constriction of transportation and goods forced a “recentralization and downtown boom” of retail industries, but after the Second World War consumers reevaluated their shopping priorities (p. 161). Downtown shopping centers discouraged female shoppers due to congestion and limited parking options. Buildings that seemed modern in the 1920s or 1930s now appeared shabby in comparison to new suburban shopping centers and shoppers often chose the more aesthetically pleasing suburban shopping complexes over urban districts. Isenberg considers the growing unrest in women’s lives during the 1950s and early 1960s as they reevaluated their time citing a 1954 Harvard Business Review article that confirmed that “downtown shopping is no longer the ‘national sport’ of women shoppers, but rather an intermittent chore” (pp. 184-85). Gender concerns clashed with racial concerns in the 1960s as riots targeted downtown commercial districts as places that offered the most public notice and the most security for the demonstrators. Isenberg uses the riots as the “new standard for evaluating urban commercial life in the 1960s” (p. 203).

The final stage of reinvention Isenberg discusses is the nostalgia movements characterized by festival marketplaces, historic districts, and historic preservation that gained popularity in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. During this phase, downtown spaces regained value through the architectural details of older buildings and through the nostalgic feelings consumers experienced when visiting these retail spaces. Some cities found these historic areas capable of revitalizing worn-out urban centers still waiting for renewal after the 1960s riots, but with limited success. Isenberg follows the retail history of chain stores like Woolworth, Kress, and McCrory, long the mainstays of downtown retail business corridors. These retailers maintained a long history of dedicated and loyal customers and their stores and retail practices certainly fit into a category that was ripe for capitalizing on this nostalgic movement, but the declining purchasing power of their customer base and the chain store mentality that left little incentive for individualization and executives opted to move to suburban shopping centers where the majority of middle class consumers took their business.

Isenberg tracks a century of downtown urban development not as a story of decline, but as a story of perpetual reinvention in the face of changing assessments of value.

Commentary

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Isenberg provides an interesting perspective on the definition of urban value in her history of downtown spaces. Beyond numerical calculations, Isenberg focuses on the gendered and racial constructions of value through an analysis on disparate groups often marginalized in traditional studies. While acknowledging that the outward appearance of downtown business centers supports a model of urban decline, Isenberg looks deeper into national trends of beautification, appraisal strategies, visual imagery, strategic demolition, modernization, and historic preservation as methods for reasserting commercial or aesthetic value into downtown spaces. Her analysis of national trends based on Progressive Era urban designers John Nolen and Charles Mulford Robinson seeks to place downtown value within a national context. Likewise, national real estate journals and appraiser publications like the Real Estate Analyst provide information on principles of urban growth based on national trends rather than regional goals or socioeconomic conditions. This national approach helps explain gendered roles in the City Beautiful movement and the desire to create images of dignified and orderly business corridors during the postcard advertising craze of the early nineteenth century, but a generalized view of downtown areas becomes more complex as financial crises changed the nature of value structures.

Limited attention is given to the political and cultural underpinnings of racial segregation as a force that changed downtown structures. According to Isenberg, zoning reached new levels in the 1920s as a means of enforcing “the desired density and concentration of stores” as an extension of the housekeeping metaphor used by women’s groups to beautify cities (p. 101). Realizing that racial zoning was unconstitutional, Isenberg claims “mutual agreement” became the norm for the “creation and consolidation of black business districts, as well as the segregation of Main Street shopping” ostensibly to “protect, among other things, property values” but there is no explanation as to who is agreeing to these policies and how this impacted disaffected businesses (p. 109). Isenberg’s placing of racial segregation in the 1920s without any political or cultural background for the sudden shift differentiates her work from Thomas Hanchett’s Sorting Out the New South City that not only connects trends in urban development to local, state, and national political and cultural tensions, but situates segregation movements in Charlotte, North Carolina thirty years prior to Isenberg’s chronology.

Other than the long section on race riots that appear to focus more on the perceived use of commercial spaces as forums for public protest (and which place more emphasis on white shopper fear than black consumer goals), Isenberg places little analysis on black agency in promoting or enhancing value in downtown spaces. Isenberg uses statistics from the early decades of the century to claim that black businesses “clustered in low-capital, small-scale enterprises such as groceries, general merchandise, and barbering” and as such presented minimal value to economic surveyors (p. 121). Isenberg mentions the development of black Main Street areas, but only briefly as minimal enterprises with limited success. In Isenberg’s telling of the downtown story, African American roles are marginalized and primarily negative, a narrative that only works if the book is focused on a middle class, white downtown that ignores black or multicultural business districts. While this perhaps portrays a generalized national trend, it ignores the contributions of multicultural and racially diverse businessmen and women who created value in their own retail districts. This view also fails to take into account specific regional differences like the Eurasian immigrant neighborhoods of New York City or the Hispanic-Asian neighborhoods of the West Coast that did not prominently feature a black-white dichotomy.

Isenberg also makes the story of downtown value the story of gendered consumerism. Her insights into market studies of white middle class shoppers provide an interesting window on social life and gendered expectations over a hundred years, reflecting changing consumer patterns and urban / suburban culture over time. These views focus on market surveys of white, middle class women as the dominant shopping force in business districts and how their views of aesthetic value helped determine shopping location, despite Isenberg’s astute research that calculated the financial power of African American shoppers in urban business districts.

Downtown spaces provide a fascinating place to construct community values. Whether these values were calculated in aesthetic, gender, racial, moralistic, commercial, or nostalgic terms, Isenberg offers a compelling resource for rethinking the role of downtown spaces and public perceptions of their significance.

Sheri A. Huerta-- 02:03, 16 October 2012 (UTC)

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