Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It

Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It

by Alison Isenberg



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226385075
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/15/2004
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.74(h) x 1.25(d)

About the Author

Alison Isenberg is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University.

Table of Contents

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


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 the1970s—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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Shrike58 on LibraryThing 2 days ago
The particular interest of this book is that the author addresses the evolution of the American city through the prism of business and retail interests; people who kept their collective eye fixedly on the pursuit of the affluent female suburbanite and were prepared to move heaven and earth to cater to this class. This is at the expense of the working-class and non-white communities who did make up much of the actual urban shopping clientele. Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book deals with the contrast between the blue-sky business plans of the Twenties, the golden age of "Downtown," as compared to the various survival modes that the owners of urban real estate have had to adopt in the decades since; all very relevant in the wake of the current real estate bust.