"It has sometimes been urged that this [low residential density in American cities] is largely the result of the development of the electric street railway in America, but the causal connection is not apparent. . . . It should rather be said that the American penchant for dwelling in cottage homes instead of business blocks after the fashion of Europe is the cause, and the trolley car the effect." -Adna Ferrin Weber, The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century (1899).
|The "penchant for dwelling in cottage homes": |
"Sprawl" circa 1900, Rochester, NY.
As Robert Fogelson points out, however, the existence of a small central district devoted to business and commerce was perceived as normative, rather than as a distinctively American feature. Even today, of the hundreds or thousands of extant books and studies critiquing the form of American cities, the majority focus on suburban sprawl, with fewer specifically addressing downtown areas, much less critically.*
More typically, the 19th century commercial downtown is set up as an object of nostalgic admiration in spite of its generally unimpressive 20th century track record. The reasons for its decline, whether absolute or relative, are not usually attributed to anything inherent in its conception or layout, but in the damaging acts done to it: among them freeway construction, urban renewal, street widening, and a rash of anti-urban regulations ranging from parking minimums to setback requirements. If downtown died, the cause was malpractice based on a faulty diagnosis, not any underlying illness.
Could it have been, though, that downtown was doomed to decline or stagnation from the start, at least in the form envisioned by 19th and early 20th century Americans? The fundamental problem was this: for a large and growing city, continued high-density commercial growth in the center and omnipresent low-density residential growth elsewhere were ultimately incompatible. Incompatible, because low-density growth required rapid outward expansion, and that same expansion carried increasingly large proportions of the urban population beyond a reasonable travel distance from the center, at least before the arrival of the automobile.
The story of downtown, as Fogelson tells it, is of increasingly desperate attempts by downtown merchants to fight the effects of this trend without sacrificing their monopoly on commercial space. It was ultimately a losing battle, however, since the very transportation devices perceived by the commercial interests as great centralizers – the omnibus, the streetcar, and at last the automobile – were perhaps, as Weber observed, only symptoms of an epic decentralization.
Each device, moreover, led inexorably to its successor: the omnibus and railroad carried the wealthy to outlying mansions, whose dispersal created a built-in market for speedier streetcar service; the streetcar suburbs, in turn, with their low-density and segregated uses, created a built-in market for the automobile.
Transportation, in this view, was in the United States** often a lagging indicator of land use changes driven partly by personal preference, partly by increasing wealth, and partly by the sheer growth of urban populations and the arrival of heavy industry. The auto, at last, shattered the monopoly of fixed-route transportation lines and, by connection, the monopoly of downtown itself.
The tendency, at this point, is to fault the automobile for the decline of downtown, as though a different approach to transportation policy in the critical years from 1890-1930 might have altered urban trajectories. But this seems unlikely. Fogelson describes how large and wealthy cities like Detroit and Cleveland did launch major, but ultimately failed, efforts to construct subways in the 1920s. It could be said that Detroit was a city built around the automobile before the automobile existed. Low-density, use-segregated, single-family detached homes on wide streets lent themselves to motorized personal transport much more than mass transit. And once the car had arrived, why not simply move the department store, the supermarket, and even the workplace itself closer to one's residence?
Downtown commercial interests, however, were convinced that downtown's problem was not its form and land use patterns, but in its lack of accessibility to shoppers and commuters. The suburban preference, rightly or wrongly, was taken for granted in most places. Once cars began to proliferate in the 1920s, the response was not, in most cases, to entice suburbanites with visions of urban living, but to either make valiant attempts at mass transit systems or, more often, to turn over large swathes of the downtown to the car. As Norman Garrick and Chris McCahill have shown, this policy sometimes (as in the case of Hartford) resulted in an absolute decline in downtown jobs, indirectly assisting the ongoing decentralization of business.
Jane Jacobs knew better. In the early days of urban renewal, and only two years after the passage of the Highway Act of 1956, she proclaimed in Fortune magazine that "Downtown is for People," by which she meant not only commuters and shoppers, but residents as well. For decades her advice went unheeded, but it's still one of the best rallying cries out there for rethinking the American downtown.
*For just a small sampling, see Sprawl: A Compact History; Streetcar Suburbs; Crabgrass Frontier; Bourgeois Utopias; Suburban Nation; Building Suburbia; Geography of Nowhere. Books focusing on downtown are much rarer: Fogelson's work and Alison Isenberg's Downtown America are the only general, book-length treatments I'm aware of, setting aside Death and Life, but if anyone knows of others I'd be glad to learn.
**Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier describes how streetcars were generally much slower to catch on, and ridership lower, in European and Japanese cities, even though these were denser than the great majority of American cities.