chapter  2
28 Pages

Historical and Regional Context of the Resilient Downtowns

Downtowns are the original sites where cities were first settled. In the United States, the favored sites have typically been those that facilitated the transportation of goods from one location to another. As a result, proximity to rivers and railroads were the preferred sites for early settlements. At the city core was a mix of uses, as residents operated businesses from their homes. Commercial, entertainment, as well as civic and cultural activities intermingled in the downtown. This was equally true in the cities with resilient downtowns. As shown in Table 2.1, most of the cities were planned during, or prior to, their settlement. Land was reserved at the town center for civic, retail, religious, and educational uses. Town squares and plazas were provided as communal and social meeting grounds at the town center. Government buildings, such as courthouses, were also provided. Residential development surrounded the town centers and built out from the core. As industry proliferated in the city, the intermixing of land uses became a problem and people became more aware of health concerns. Those who could afford it left the downtown for better locations at the fringe where there was serenity in the countryside and less pollution. Spatial differentiation gradually took place with the downtown becoming the location of heavy industry and the abode for new immigrants who could not afford higher housing costs at the fringe. The advent of the railroad and the highway led to further spatial differentiation by making it possible for the nouveau riche to live farther away from the downtown. Suburban neighborhoods were built to cater to those who chose the Jeffersonian dream of living close to nature. By the mid-twentieth century, there was a stark spatial demarcation between the downtown, the central city, and the suburbs. Increasingly, downtowns became identified with blight, poverty, and the social malice of urban life. The residential areas immediately surrounding the downtown had denser housing with a variety of architectural styles and niche retail businesses. Central city neighborhoods, especially in large cities, were also identifiable by their diversity of racial and ethnic groups, but were starting to suffer from archaic infrastructure. The suburbs became the bedrooms for the middle class; a place of “order” from the chaos of the central city. To prevent the problems of the central city from encroaching on the suburbs, Euclidean zoning was used to keep out all but single-family residential land uses. In comparison to the central city, suburbs were identifiable by their lack of housing and sometimes racial/ethnic diversity. To facilitate the easy commute of the middle class to the central city, wide residential and collector streets were designed to accommodate

the automobile. At the same time, sidewalks were discouraged in the suburbs as these were anathema to the automobile and might invite the wrong crowd.