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Downtown America was once the vibrant urban center romanticized in the Petula Clark song—a place where the lights were brighter, where people went to spend their money and forget their worries. But in the second half of the twentieth century, "downtown" became a shadow of its former self, succumbing to economic competition and commercial decline. And the death of Main Streets across the country came to be seen as sadly inexorable, like the passing of an aged loved one.
Downtown America cuts beneath the archetypal story of downtown's rise and fall and offers a dynamic new story of urban development in the United States. Moving beyond conventional narratives, Alison Isenberg shows that downtown's trajectory was not dictated by inevitable free market forces or natural life-and-death cycles. Instead, it was the product of human actors—the contested creation of retailers, developers, government leaders, architects, and planners, as well as political activists, consumers, civic clubs, real estate appraisers, even postcard artists. Throughout the twentieth century, conflicts over downtown's mundane conditions—what it should look like and who should walk its streets—pointed to fundamental disagreements over American values.
Isenberg reveals how the innovative efforts of these participants infused Main Street with its resonant symbolism, while still accounting for pervasive uncertainty and fears of decline. Readers of this work will find anything but a story of inevitability. Even some of the downtown's darkest moments—the Great Depression's collapse in land values, the rioting and looting of the 1960s, or abandonment and vacancy during the 1970s—illuminate how core cultural values have animated and intertwined with economic investment to reinvent the physical form and social experiences of urban commerce. Downtown America—its empty stores, revitalized marketplaces, and romanticized past—will never look quite the same again.
A book that does away with our most clichéd approaches to urban studies, Downtown America will appeal to readers interested in the history of the United States and the mythology surrounding its most cherished institutions.
A Choice Oustanding Academic Title.
Winner of the 2005 Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians.
Winner of the 2005 Lewis Mumford Prize for Best Book in American
Winner of the 2005 Historic Preservation Book Price from the University of Mary Washington Center for Historic Preservation.
Named 2005 Honor Book from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.
"America's downtowns, if the daily papers and the local chambers of commerce are to be believed, are tottering on the brink of destruction once again. . . . Yet Alison Isenberg holds out a ray of hope in Downtown America. Her endlessly fascinating book argues that Main Street has always been an idealized dreamscape, a kind of Shangri-La of perfect civic bliss that never did quite measure up to its own image."
— Karal Ann Marling
"This is a book that I will be recommending and referring to often in the years to come."
— Francis Morrone
Named "Outstanding Academic Title" by Choice
— Randy Shaw
"Downtown America is not only an interesting look at the history of commercial interests in urban business districts, but in the people and issues surrounding commerce and urban investment--gender and race, economic failure and revitalization. Scholars of women's history, material culture, and urban history will find this book a valuable contribution to their reading lists."
— LaDale C. Winling
"This study opens a doorway of intellectual curiosity for many who are interested in urban. intellectual, cultural, and social history. It is also highly recommended for urban planners, sociologists, economists, and the general reader. This examination greatly contributes to our understanding of the centrality of the city as a distinct place. . . . A 'must read' for all who are intreested in urban change."
— Cornelia F. Sexauer
"A must read for students of the urban scene. . . . The book's liberally annotated bibliography is a goldmine for those seeking further information on the forces shaping downtown."
— David T. Stephens
"Isenberg's sophisticated analysis will forever alter our view of Main Street as it highlights the people who repeatedly created and contested the ideals it represented. . . . Its contribution lies not only in what it reveals to us about the past, but what it can tell us about the present and future."
— Tanya Gogan
List of Illustrations
Beyond Decline: Assessing the Values of Urban Commercial Life in the Twentieth Century
1. City Beautiful or Beautiful Mess? The Gendered Origins of a Civic Ideal
2. Fixing an Image of Commercial Dignity: Postcards and the Business of Planning Main Street
3. "Mrs. Consumer," "Mrs. Brown America," and "Mr. Chain Store Man": Economic Woman and the Laws of Retail
4. Main Street's Interior Frontier: Innovation amid Depression and War
5. "The Demolition of Our Outworn Past": Suburban Shoppers and the Logic of Urban Renewal
6. The Hollow Prize? Black Buyers, Racial Violence, and the Riot Renaissance
7. Animated by Nostalgia: Preservation and Vacancy since the 1960s
Conclusion: "The Lights Are Much Brighter There"
List of Archival Collections