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A Tale Of Two Downtowns

The heyday of the city center was nasty, brutish and short. Yet, downtown boosters idealize the city core as a golden, vibrant place. Can a balance be struck?

July 12, 1998|Eric H. Monkkonen | Eric H. Monkkonen, a professor of policy studies and history at UCLA, is author of "America Becomes Urban."

When people have to tell you that downtown is coming back, that it is exciting, you have to wonder: Why do I have to be told? Why should we care? Is there just a bit of whistling in the dark about this? A fear of the doughnut city, empty at the center, combines with a very selective, if not plainly invented vision of the past.

The classic downtown era of U.S. cities probably lasted about 80 years, 1850-1930. This relatively short span of urban history marked an era when enclosed stores eclipsed open markets and fixed-rail transport proved easier than walking. This "classic" downtown was an economic convenience that, from the beginning, hinged on transportation, particularly waterborne.

Los Angeles started breaking the rules about such transportation with its acquisition of a harbor in the early 20th century: Most big U.S. cities with classic downtowns have water transit close at hand. With its distant harbor, Los Angeles started what airports would be echoing by the 1930s. For if ever a technology was important to the growth of cities, while at the same time serving as a decentering pull, it was the airport. No more stepping off the steamboat or train near the center.

Just as we forget that Angelenos happily attached outrageously distant ports to their city, we selectively remember what kind of downtown actually existed in the brief "classic" era.

Do people want these historic downtowns to come back? Skid rows, dating from the late-19th century, were filled with cheap bars, flophouses and entertainment appropriate to alcoholics and adult men without families. Single-room-occupancy hotels for the poor are probably not high on the list of what people mean by "downtown is coming back."

Want to go back a bit earlier, to the mid-19th century? The bustling streets celebrated by Walt Whitman were crowded with children selling newspapers, shining shoes, selling hot, roasted ears of corn and sweeping the horse manure away from the paths of adults trying to cross the street. Horse manure and urine, from horse-drawn street cars, turned to powdery dust in dry weather or a slippery goo in wet. The hot-corn sellers were usually girls under age 9. Newsboys often lived in lodging houses, sponsored by the more considerate newspapers. Fans of Horatio Alger surely remember his boy heroes who survived on the spare change of the downtown crowds. The adults who wrote about these children thought they loved the exciting life of the downtown streets. But they didn't have a choice.

In early 20th-century Los Angeles, complained reformer Dana Bartlett, the "brick-built, noisy" hotels and "low groggeries" (which had the only toilets) greeted travelers to the city. He and other reformers advocated low-density, spread-out housing as offering "freer and happier conditions," an antidote to the evils of a compact New York, with its "vast population" living in "dark, contracted rooms" high up in the air.

Tradition in a dynamic city like Los Angeles means change, and that includes what and where downtown is. According to Boyle Workman, the new Bullocks on Seventh and Broadway in 1906 was considered "far out of town." The concept of downtown "energy" is meaningful but, in many cities, that energy bursts out all over, leaving the hulk of previous downtowns to be reused or demolished.

Reviewing major news articles about the "return" of downtowns, one begins to be even more suspicious. OK, we know Manhattan is booming. But Newark? St. Louis? Great Falls? Not to mention Pomona, Moorpark, Hartford, Jersey City and Washington? (When I was there last fall, Union Station--now an up-scale dining and indoor shopping mall, with lots of parking--was just buzzing. But outside, the site looked as if it had been abandoned at 6 p.m. on a Friday.)

Downtowns, as American call them, should have tall buildings, streets busy with pedestrians and lots of energy. The energy comes from everywhere: pedestrian walking speed (the subject of a whole area of research), commercial enterprise, entertainments, food and even some residents. The energy, in other words, comes from a mix of all those activities we call urban. You can see this in Manhattan and maybe San Francisco. That leaves an enormous number of U.S. cities where the traditional downtown is gone and has been for a long time. As the current show on Disneyland at the Armand Hammer Museum makes clear, Walt Disney deliberately created a fantasy version of a downtown in 1955: He knew it was not reality.

"Real" downtowns had been fading since the 1930s: If not for the Depression, they would have disappeared faster. The change in most U.S. downtowns came during the past century, aided by streetcars, motor trucks, buses and automobiles; by reduced prices on single-family homes; by increased real incomes; by electronic communication, the telephone, in particular; by the supermarket, and by the shopping mall.

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