Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950

Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950

by Robert M. Fogelson

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Written by one of this country’s foremost urban historians, Downtown is the first history of what was once viewed as the heart of the American city. It tells the fascinating story of how downtown—and the way Americans thought about downtown—changed over time. By showing how businessmen and property owners worked to promote the well-being of


Written by one of this country’s foremost urban historians, Downtown is the first history of what was once viewed as the heart of the American city. It tells the fascinating story of how downtown—and the way Americans thought about downtown—changed over time. By showing how businessmen and property owners worked to promote the well-being of downtown, even at the expense of other parts of the city, it also gives a riveting account of spatial politics in urban America.
Drawing on a wide array of contemporary sources, Robert M. Fogelson brings downtown to life, first as the business district, then as the central business district, and finally as just another business district. His book vividly recreates the long-forgotten battles over subways and skyscrapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And it provides a fresh, often startling perspective on elevated highways, parking bans, urban redevelopment, and other controversial issues. This groundbreaking book will be a revelation to scholars, city planners, policymakers, and general readers interested in American cities and American history.

Editorial Reviews

Witold Rybczynski
[A] stimulating new history...[Fogelson] approaches the subject dispassionately and meticulously, and in the process punctures a few myths.
Wilson Quarterly
Samuel Zipp
[A] thorough and accomplished history. . . sophisticated and far-reaching. . . admirable and timely.
Washington Post Book World
Phillip Lopate
[A] thoughtful, admirably researched study. . . Fogelson writes in a polished, accessible style that should engage the lay reader.
Michael Spinella
. . .[A] well researched history of America's downtown experience. . . engaging. . . for those interested in the history of cities and urban experience.
A major contribution to urban history and planning. . . . [P]rovides [an] insightful overview . . . of the big-city central business district.
Publishers Weekly
The history and ever-changing status of "downtown" in the United States is far more complicated than Petula Clark's hit single ever let on. From the late 19th century, American cities were built and structured around the notion of "downtown" a specific area dedicated to business, entertainment and cultural activity. But economies changed, residences began to move further from the city center and the loci of urban experience shifted. Fogelson (The Fragmented Metropolis), an MIT professor of urban studies and history, delves beneath these surface phenomena to recover the huge forces at play. His comprehensive, superlative study charts fights over public transportation (subways could take people away from the center as well as bring them there); the devastating effects of the depression and of World War II; and the "invention" of the concept of urban blight, promoted as a precursor to "redevelopment." Exceedingly provocative as well as informative, this study explores everything from the availability of light and air in the age of the elevated to the "parking ban" of downtown Chicago, and makes a vital contribution to the study of American life. (Oct.) Forecast: While extensively footnoted, this book reads like an extremely thoughtful trade book. If hand-sold to history and city buffs, it could reach beyond the academic market of libraries and syllabi, where it should be a steady seller. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
One of the nation's leading urban historians, Fogelson (urban studies, MIT; The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930) examines the history of the American city center, from a position of business and commercial dominance in 1880 to one of obsolescence in the mid-20th century. Drawing on his comprehensive research, Fogelson presents a detailed portrayal of downtown's fragmented reaction to residential dispersal, the decentralization of business, traffic congestion, the Depression, and want of vision by downtown's leaders and advocates. He tracks controversial and conflicting public policy debates over rapid transit systems, limited building heights, zoning, traffic regulations, and public parking, which highlight uncoordinated and shortsighted attempts to reshape a once-dominant central city. Fogelson concludes with the perceptive and perhaps rueful observation that downtown's decline in the first half of the 20th century was mostly the result of an American vision of "bourgeois utopia," a nation of suburbs, which brought the beginning of urban sprawl. A superbly thorough analysis of the causes of inner-city blight, congestion, and economic decline in mid-20th century urban America, this is essential reading for American historians and an excellent addition to academic and urban libraries. John E. Hodgkins, Yarmouth, ME Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Yale University Press
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Chapter One

The Business District:
Downtown in the
Late Nineteenth Century

Late in 1919 A. G. Gardiner, an English journalist and former editor of the London Daily News, made his first trip to the United States. As his ship steamed into New York harbor, he saw through the late afternoon mist what looked like "the serrated mass of a distant range of mountains, except that the sky-line is broken with a precision that suggests the work of man rather than the careless architecture of nature." "Gradually, as you draw near," he observed, "the mountain range takes definition." It turns into "vast structures with innumerable windows," taller by far than any buildings he had ever seen. "It is," Gardiner wrote, "`down town,'" the business district of America's largest city. Here on "the tip of this tongue of rock that lies between the Hudson River and the East River" stands "the greatest group of buildings in the world"—crowned by the Woolworth Building, fifty-three stories of offices resembling "a great street, Piccadilly or the Strand, that has been miraculously turned skyward by some violent geological `fault.'" Here scurry the "hosts of busy people" who carry out "all the myriad functions of the great god Mammon." Here, said Gardiner, was the symbol of the American metropolis and the immense country that lay behind it.

    By the time Gardiner first set eyes on "downtown," the word was roughly one hundred years old. But it meantsomething quite different in the early nineteenth century. For New Yorkers like Philip Hone, a prominent businessman, one-time mayor, and indefatigable diarist of the 1830s and 1840s, downtown had a geographical meaning. When Hone spoke of downtown, he meant the southern part of Manhattan Island—just as he meant the northern part when he spoke of uptown. Here he was following the customary usage according to which south meant down and north meant up. Thus when Hone walked south from his home on Great Jones Street, then at the northern edge of the built-up district, to City Hall, he went downtown—just as George Templeton Strong, another well-known New Yorker, went uptown when he walked from his father's house on Greenwich Street, near the southernmost point of Manhattan, to Grace Church, then under construction on what was at the time upper Broadway. (A century and a half later Americans still speak of downstate when they refer to Illinois south of Chicago and upstate when they refer to New York State north of New York City.)

    Already the nation's largest city in 1830, New York grew phenomenally over the next forty years. Its population soared from under 250,000 to nearly 1.5 million, and its economy expanded at a rate that amazed contemporaries. Together with the huge influx of immigrants, what a special New York State Senate commission called "the inexorable demands of business" transformed the structure of the city, turning lower Manhattan mainly into stores, offices, workshops, and warehouses and upper Manhattan largely into residences. As early as 1836 Hone, who then lived on lower Broadway, feared he would soon be forced to move uptown. "Almost everybody downtown is in the same predicament," he wrote, "for all the dwelling houses are to be converted into stores. We are tempted with prices so exorbitantly high that none can resist." Hone moved. So did Strong's father, whose family was no longer willing to remain on Greenwich Street once stores, saloons, and boarding houses opened up near their elegant home in the 1840s. By the 1850s the change was striking. Noting that "Calico is omnipotent," Putnam's Monthly remarked that the dry-goods trade has spread with "astonishing rapidity over the whole lower part of the city, prostrating and obliterating everything that is old and venerable, and leaving not a single landmark," not even the "dwelling houses of our ancestors." As Mr. Potiphar observed in a popular novel of the times, "When Pearl street [the center of the dry-goods trade] comes to Park Place la fashionable residential neighborhood in lower Manhattan], Park Place must run for its life up to Thirtieth street."

    Although New Yorkers continued to speak of downtown and uptown when referring to the southern and northern sections of Manhattan, the words gradually took on a functional meaning that reflected the changing structure of the city. Strong, who had gone to work in his father's law firm on Wall Street in the 1840s, soon began to use "downtown" when he meant the business district and "uptown" when he meant the residential. And in the 1850s, Harper's New Monthly Magazine wrote of the "down-town men" who "slip uneasily through the brick and mortar labyrinths of Maiden-lane and of John-street," two of lower Manhattan's busy commercial streets. As men went downtown to work, women went downtown to shop (and also to pay bills, to deal with household matters, and, in some cases, to work). By the 1870s the functional meaning had largely superseded the geographical. As Wood's Illustrated HandBook, a guide written mainly for the British, explained, "The expressions `down town' and `up town' are employed to designate the business and social quarters of the city"—one devoted to "commerce, traffic, and law," the other to "private life." "If caprice takes you down town," George Makepeace Towle, U.S. consul at Bradford, informed his British readers, "you soon find yourself in the very whirl and maelstrom of commerce and trade.... As you proceed uptown, quiet and insouciant ease takes the place of the bustle and hurry of the down town quarters."

    During the mid and late nineteenth century the word "downtown" spread to many other cities, to large ones like Boston and small ones like Salem and Worcester. The word "uptown" also spread, though to far fewer cities. Outside New York both words lost their original meaning. Susan E. Parsons Brown Forbes, a Boston schoolteacher, wrote of going "down town" in the early 1860s, even though downtown Boston was north of her home on Waverly Place. After she and her husband moved to Springfield in 1866, she continued to make trips "down town," even though downtown Springfield was east of her new home on State Street. Much the same was true in Chicago, where a journalist writing just after the great fire of 1871 remarked, "As I passed up West Madison Street, I met scores of working girls on their way `down town,' as usual, bearing their lunch-baskets as if nothing had happened." Yet the girls were walking east, not south. The words lost their original meanings because in very few cities was downtown south and uptown north as they were in New York. Downtown lay to the south in Detroit, but to the north in Cleveland, to the east in St. Louis, and to the west in Pittsburgh. In Boston, a resident pointed out in 1880, downtown was in the center of the city. Uptown was north of downtown in Cincinnati, but south of downtown in New Orleans and San Francisco. In New York, a Philadelphia real estate journal wrote in 1886, "everybody down town must go up town; here everybody down town can scatter to the four points of the compass."

    By the end of the century, if not earlier, downtown was synonymous with the business district virtually everywhere in urban America. When the word first appeared in dictionaries in the early 1900s—it was not included in Webster's Dictionary in 1881 or in Worcester's Dictionary in 1886—that was how it was defined. "Uptown," which had appeared in Webster's as early as 1870 and in Worcester's ten years earlier, was defined as "the upper part of a town or city." But it was commonly understood to mean the residential section, especially the affluent residential section. And it had already acquired the connotations of wealth, elegance, sophistication, and social prominence that were still strong a century later. As well as a new word, "downtown" was, as Webster's noted, an American word. It was virtually unknown in England and other Western European countries. Well into the early twentieth century English travel writers thought it necessary to explain the meaning of "down town" to their readers. And even today the English speak of the city center when they mean the urban core—just as the French use le centre de ville, the Spanish el centro, the Germans das zentrum, and the Italians il centro. American reporters and public officials routinely refer to "downtown" in cities all over the world, but the word does not have much meaning outside the United States. For downtown was not only an American word, it was also a uniquely American place.

    As a place, downtown was hard to define. Legally, it did not exist. Unlike the city of which it was a part—indeed, unlike every parcel of real estate in the city—downtown had no formal boundaries, no precise lines to show where it began and where it ended. Nor did downtown exist politically. For governmental purposes, every American city was divided into wards. In some cities downtown lay in one ward; in most it spread over two or more. In none—not even in Chicago, where the business district and the first ward overlapped closely—did downtown and one or more wards have the same boundaries. And in some, like Detroit, where each ward ran in a narrow strip through the whole city, downtown and the wards were completely distinct. In virtually every city downtown had some sort of physical boundaries, usually a bay, a lake, a river, or, in a few cases, a combination of them. But nowhere did these boundaries define downtown with precision—except perhaps in Pittsburgh, where downtown was hemmed in by the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers on the north, south, and west and by a steep hill known as the "Hump" on the east. And nowhere did these boundaries confine downtown to its original site.

    Although hard to define, downtown was easy to locate. It was the destination of the street railways, which were still pulled by horses in the 1880s, the elevated railways, which ran above the streets of New York, and the local ferries, which carried millions a year in a handful of cities. Except where the steam railroads were barred from entering it, downtown was also the site of the railroad terminals. Downtown was the home of the tall office buildings, ten to fifteen stories high by 1890. These skyscrapers, as they came to be known, were more then just very tall; they were also very convenient. In buildings like Chicago's "Rookery"—"a little city in itself," one Chicago resident called it—a businessman could "find under one roof his customers, his bankers, his principals, his restauranter [sic], his barber and his bootblack." Downtown was also the site of Macy's, Wanamaker's, Marshall Field's, and other huge department stores. Another nineteenth-century innovation, which came after the railroad station but before the skyscraper, the department store was designed to be what H. Gordon Selfridge of Marshall Field's called the "downtown home" for its customers, mostly middle- and upper-middle-class women, for whom it provided such amenities as tearooms, writing tables, and even nurseries, where they could leave their children while shopping. As late as 1890 downtown was the only part of the city wired for electricity. At night, when darkness fell over the rest of the city, what a Houston journalist described as "a perfect burst of sunlight" lit up many of downtown's streets, shops, hotels, restaurants, and theaters. Brilliantly illuminated, downtown at night was "indescribably exhilarating," wrote an English visitor at the turn of the century.

    Although these buildings were very large, downtown itself was very small. According to Mayor Nathan Matthews, Jr., downtown Boston had only 217 acres, just over a third of a square mite, or less than 1 percent of the entire city. Without rushing, the Massachusetts Rapid Transit Commission noted, a man could make a circuit of downtown Boston, about a three-mile walk, in one hour. Downtown Pittsburgh was even smaller. In a city of 41 square miles, it covered less than a third of a square mile. According to estimates made in the early 1890s, downtown Chicago had one-half to three-quarters of a square mile, a tiny fraction of the midwestern capital's 169 square miles. Downtown New York was somewhat larger. To look at it another way, downtown Pittsburgh was only two and a half times as large as the Carnegie steel company's plant in nearby Homestead, the site of the infamous industrial dispute in 1892. Downtown Chicago was not much larger than the Union Stockyards, the slaughterhouses later immortalized by Upton Sinclair, and a little smaller than the Pullman Palace Car Company's works, located in George M. Pullman's model town a few miles south of the city. Downtown Boston was only slightly larger than Mount Auburn Cemetery, a rural cemetery on the Cambridge-Watertown line, where more than a few downtown businessmen and professionals were buried. Downtown New York was somewhat smaller than Central Park. And downtown San Francisco could have fit easily into the University of California's sprawling campus in nearby Berkeley.

    In view of how small downtown was, it was striking how much business was done there. More trade was done in downtown Chicago than in the rest of the city combined, the Chicago Real Estate and Building Journal wrote in 1897, by which time the city had grown to 195 square miles. And trade was just part of the picture. Downtown Chicago also housed all of the city's financial institutions, most of its professional offices, and many of its light industries. "No place on earth [has] such a congregation of business interests," said Washington Hesing, a Chicago resident. Downtown Chicago was by no means unique. In every big city downtown was the business district. The retailers and wholesalers worked there, as did the bankers, financiers, insurance, utility, and corporate executives, the lawyers, realtors, architects, engineers, and accountants, the clerks, typists, salesmen, salesgirls, and messengers, and many craftsmen and laborers. The courts, government agencies, and post and telegraph offices were located downtown, as were most hotels, restaurants, places of popular amusement, and institutions of high culture. Downtown was the site of nearly all the city's businesses except heavy industries (like steel mills), noxious activities (like slaughterhouses), and a wide range of neighborhood trades and shops, many of which catered largely to one or another of America's many ethnic groups.

    Also striking was how much business downtown was done by women. Long gone was the day when respectable women were loath to venture into the business district without an escort. Except for places like Nashville's Men's Quarter, Omaha's Douglas Street, and Seattle's Yessler Way, tiny enclaves of boarding houses, saloons, pawnbrokers, cigar stores, gambling dens, and Turkish baths, no part of downtown was off-limits to women in the late nineteenth century. By then women worked there, in offices, hotels, restaurants, shops, lofts, factories, and department stores, the largest of which had well over a thousand salesgirls. Women also went downtown to dine, to watch plays, and to listen to lectures. Above all, women did their shopping downtown. They flocked to the great department stores on Market Street in Philadelphia, State Street in Chicago, Canal Street in New Orleans, and Broadway, the "Ladies Mile" of New York. Watching so many women shop on lower Fulton Street, commonly known as "the Broadway of Brooklyn," one journalist was led to imagine "what Eden might have been were Adam and his part in life dispensed with." Many women went from one store to another, sometimes buying, sometimes window-shopping. Others went to only one, shopping on one floor, lunching on another, relaxing on a third, finding everything they needed, one woman wrote, "without having been obliged to leave the store."

    Downtown acted on men and women alike as a small but extremely powerful magnet. In New York, a London Times correspondent wrote in 1887, "half a million or more rush `down-town' every morning, and back `up-town' at night"; hundreds of thousands more crossed the East and Hudson rivers, commuting from Brooklyn and New Jersey. Hundreds of thousands made the daily trip downtown in Boston, Chicago, and other cities. Some workers left home as early as six, and some shoppers as late as eleven; but most people went downtown between seven and nine—and returned home between five and seven. Referring to what would later become known as rush hour in New York, a French visitor wrote in the 1860s, "Neither the boulevards [in Paris], the Strand [in London], nor the Corso of Rome in carnival time can give an idea of this tumultuous movement." A few walked downtown. Some took ferries, in many of which, one Englishman noted, "everyone pushes up unceremoniously against his neighbour till there is scarcely anything of his neighbour left." Others journeyed by steam railroads, especially in Boston. And in New York many rode the els, which were so crowded, one writer remarked, that passengers "have literally to fight their way out of the cars [and] are often carried one or two stations beyond their destination." But most came by street railways—horse-drawn cars, cable cars, and, as a result of a technological breakthrough in the late 1880s, electric cars. The street railways carried twice as many passengers in the United States as in the rest of the world combined in 1890. And they transported far more people per capita even in ordinary American cities like Denver and Cleveland than in Berlin, Vienna, and other great European capitals.

    With so much business and so many people crammed into so little space, downtown was extremely congested. Besides street railways, all sorts of vehicles—some carrying people, others hauling freight—jammed the streets. On one day in the mid 1880s more than twenty-two thousand of these vehicles, or one every two seconds, passed the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street between seven A.M. and six P.M. Even with the help of the police, traffic was regularly tied up on Broadway for ten minutes or more, one observer noted:

For those who are not obliged to cross the choked-up thoroughfare, the scene is full of a brief amusement—hack-drivers, truckmen, omnibus drivers, swearing vehemently at each other, or interchanging all kinds of "chaff;" passengers indignantly railing at the delay, and police officers yelling and waving their clubs in their attempts to get the machinery of travel again moving smoothly. If, at such a time, a fire engine comes rattling up the street, post-haste for a scene of a fire, and attempts to enforce its right of way, the confusion becomes doubly confounded, and the scene a veritable pandemonium.

The sidewalks were as congested as the streets. As American Architect and Building News complained in the early 1890s, downtown Boston's sidewalks were "jammed to suffocation with pedestrians," many of whom were "elbowing each other off the sidewalk into the gutter." The sidewalks were so crowded in the retail center, the Boston Herald noted, that now and then the women shoppers "were obliged to hold their paper boxes above their heads to keep them from being crushed."

    Downtown was very busy. Except for the shoppers, many of whom went about their business in a leisurely manner, everybody was in a great hurry, rushing to and fro, trying to get as much done as possible. Downtown Chicago, one of the busiest business districts, was "like three hundred acres of the New York Stock Exchange when trading is active," wrote one journalist. Downtown was also dark, particularly in winter. The tall buildings hid the sun, as did the smoke that spewed out of the coal furnaces. Also blocking the light was what an English visitor called a "perfect maze of telephone and telegraph wires." Integral features of the city's communications system, the wires crossed and recrossed one another like "the meshes of a net." Downtown was very noisy, too. Drills whined, bells clanged, brakes screeched—a terrible din. "A few more years of the present indescribable uproar in Chicago," a St. Louis newspaper wrote, "and the people there will do nothing but make signs. As it is now, you see thousands of them walking along talking to themselves as if they had just escaped from an asylum for the insane. It is the only way they can think." It was noisy indoors as well, especially in restaurants at lunchtime. Of New York in the late 1860s, one writer observed: "From 12 o'clock to 3 of the afternoon, the down-town eating-places are in one continuous roar. The clatter of plates and knives, the slamming of doors, the talking and giving of orders by the customers, the bellowing of waiters, are mingled in a wild chaos.... Everybody talks at once; everybody orders at once; everybody eats at once; and everybody seems anxious to pay at once."

    Things slowed down at night, after the stores, offices, and other businesses closed. Downtown Philadelphia, a guidebook pointed out in the early 1870s, "though bustling and noisy enough during business hours, is a perfect desolation after six o'clock, and the thousands who throng there all day long are miles away, resting, most of them, in comfortable homes, with plenty of living-room about them." Outside its entertainment district, even downtown New York was still at night. The stillness, an observer remarked, was relieved only "by the blaze of lights in the newspaper establishments of Printing House Square and the Western Union Telegraph Building, by the occasional tramp of the policeman or reporter, or the rattling of the casual carriage over the stony pave." Downtown was quiet at night because few people lived there. Speaking of New York, one writer observed in the early 1880s, "In the strictly commercial quarters dwellings are very rare, and the population is made up almost entirely of janitors and their families, who occupy the upper floors of business houses and public buildings." Much the same was true in Cincinnati, where a visitor remarked in the late 1880s that virtually "everyone lived in the suburbs," and Chicago, where a guidebook noted in the early 1890s that residences were "entirely excluded from the business district." Only in small cities like Atlanta, Nashville, and Richmond did many people still live downtown in the 1890s.


Excerpted from DOWNTOWN by ROBERT M. FOGELSON. Copyright © 2001 by Robert M. Fogelson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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