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The Evolution of Downtown America

Each downtown or commercial district is unique in its image, roles or functions. The formation and evolution of downtowns is the result of the integration and interaction of several key factors such as climate, topography, proximity to natural resources and transportation routes, as well as survey plans, cultural trends, government policies and commercial and industrial development and corporate decisions. These are influential factors in the evolution of downtowns over time.

Specifically, the significant change to the location of industries that provide jobs for people and the modes of transportation or the distance travelled by people to get to work influenced the evolution of downtowns. This compelled the development of new housing and commercial establishments. According to demographers, people are changing their attitudes, and eventually their aspirations about where they will live, socialize and shop. An identifiable sense of place is what people want in a community and a community’s identity is defined by a healthy and vibrant downtown.

In 1998, a U. S survey stated that the fastest growing segment of the nation’s housing market is downtown housing. (Smith 2000: 7) This is because for years, people became time-conscious and tend to shop closer to home in stores that emphasize quality and friendly service. A city’s downtown serves as the center for arts, culture, history and business of a community. A successful one embodies the spirit of its people. They make significant contributions to finance and politics and the society as a whole. It should be the reflection of residents’ pride and prosperity.

Historical documents prove the start of the long period of decline of urban and downtown areas in America in the fifties and sixties. Individual and commercial behavior has been greatly affected by the popularity of the automobile and the suburbs became the focus rather than the cities for commercial activities, which accelerated further in the late sixties and seventies. As a result, businesses closed as population declines, and eventually pushed the residents and visitors away from downtown areas. The Evolution of Downtown in America

Kennedy Smith (2000) in his article in Main Street News detailed the structural framework and architectural styles evident in the past hundred years in downtown modernization. Smith explained that technological innovations in building and materials over the years improved building structure and style. Construction technology brought changes in commercial buildings but composition, shape, and size remained. The evolution of an entire block maintained a reflection of a traditional commercial storefront building.

With the introduction of bearing walls and floor systems, two downtown storefront buildings were able to share a common wall as one block. A thick brick wall or cast block served as structural support for floor and ceiling joists in both buildings. This enabled an extension to the first constructed building and the possibility of having its added neighbor. As regard the window size, solid sheets of glass were manufactured in 1870s brought change to the size of storefront display windows. The popularity of seamless glass made all windows to appear open on all side which added attraction to shoppers.

These seamless glass sheets are sheets of glass joined at the corners by interior angles, rather than fitted into a frame. Catastrophic fire throughout the 19th century forced a shift from primary wood structures to the works of masonry which is more fire resistant. By 1900, almost all American towns followed legal prohibition of wood materials in buildings in downtown districts. Wall thickness in general, particularly a 19th-century masonry wall is characterized by a foot thick at the base of a two-storey building and an additional story would be added another half foot of thickness.

(Smith 2000: 5-6) As early as mid-1800s, steel framing was used for commercial buildings in American cities but its rarity outside of large urban areas delayed its used. Earlier buildings are generally narrower and usually used wood joists. It was only before 1920 that interior span were extended in two story construction system even without interior columns. Steel structural elements beams, columns, girders, were engaged together. These steel structural elements were supported by tie rods made of iron or steel which are drilled through beams and wall surfaces for stability.

Also, discoloration of building surfaces necessitated structural or decorative changes. Discoloration is identified by ghosts signs or fading of signs painted directly on a facade because of age. Architectural designs in downtown buildings follow certain standards of time. However, a particular style is usually based on the technology of its time. Style, size and material characteristics of certain buildings define the time periods in which they were constructed. (Smith 2000: 5-7) American downtown areas have been prone to continuous change.

Throughout the 20th Century, interested or concerned individuals pushed major real estate decisions in downtowns for possible urban commercial life in the future, the vision of bringing together buildings and people in a district. Varied downtown investors, merchants and property owners have struggled to make their own markets and to prophesized what comes to Main Street in order to protect their stakes. Investors are forced to imitate the rise of shopping malls which is their strong competitor.

This attempt to downtown modernization takes the forms of pedestrian malls, a sort of makeover of traditional buildings with huge, oversized signs to attract attention. This method did not alleviate the decline in downtown because the fundamental problem still exists. Though market changed, businesses did not, and downtowns are no longer people’s choice for shopping. (Loukaitou- Sideris & Banerjee 1998:3-5) In the second half of the twentieth century, the sad end of the Main Street was seen inevitably and downtown lost its former self yielding to economic competition and commercial decline.

In the book Downtown America, Alison Isenberg (2004) detailed efforts for urban civic improvement in the Progressive era particularly emphasizing on the role of women in promoting downtown image such as municipal housekeeping. Also, the author elaborated on the investor’s attitude toward shoppers. Over the last 70 years, women’s role and their role in the workplace has changed and greatly affected the dynamics of urban commercial life. During the progressive era, inspiring new Main Street ideal emerged as civic leaders touched up the images of their downtowns.

Artifacts of Main Street postcards were produced. Urban retailers focus to cater to women shoppers who often handle family budgeting and usually the follower of new trends in styles to their satisfaction. During the Depression, real estate values collapsed imposing challenges to metropolitan growth. This led to storefront modernization to cope with emerging suburban shopping alternatives. According to Isenberg, demolition and development of surface parking lots was a popular method to cover revenue loss.

Urban renewal, as one of the main historical themes during the decade, affected not only urban landscaping but also the discussion of downtown revitalization. Urban commerce was made more attractive to suburban women who are intimidated by confusing downtown. This was interpreted by clearance of slums and rationalization of downtown planning. Race, according to Isenberg, was also important to retail discussion. African American customers, for instance, were considered “lower quality” patrons despite rise of black-owned businesses in downtowns and the increasingly importance of urban black customers to downtown retail vitality.

During the late nineteenth century, Chicago became the paradigmatic American city since it poses a miracle of the American economy. The economy of the America had a second restructuring in the 1870s through concentration of capital in the form of corporate monopolies, industrial decentralization and intensification of land use which made Chicago a magnificent city. The development of new transportation technologies made downtowns as hub to the expanding metropolis. At the turn of the century, large companies became the economy’s principal organizational unit replacing small businesses.

Headquarters of these companies remain in prominent location in central business districts, though their factories remain at the edge of downtowns. Thus, the wealth and power of businesses would be forever reflected in the urban form of downtowns. (Loukaitou- Sideris & Banerjee 1998:8-9) American downtown or central business districts will always be the heart of America’s economy, although entertainment and retail establishments also exist. American downtown areas such as that of Chicago and Houston are now well developed and serve as large sports and convention venues.

For years, some cities in the United States have mixed the use of downtown and uptown to refer to these business districts, such as Minneapolis, and Dallas. Charlotte, Chicago, and Oklahoma City, use “uptown” instead as historic name for a separate business centre or neighborhood. Los Angeles and Indianapolis use downtown for the city core while Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware use the term center city for their central business districts. Downtown as primary metropolitan center continues to serve American industries.

The advent of skyscrapers provided greater opportunity and enterprises for finance, insurance and commerce, and trade and now stood as prominent symbols of American central business districts. As Isenberg said “the democratic, melting-pot downtown has been an evolving ideal, not a past accomplished reality from which Americans have strayed. Throughout the twentieth century, that democratic ideal has teetered in balance with exclusionary ideals and investment. ” (Isenberg 2004: 315) Issues and Challenges American downtowns still has to face current vital issues essential for future innovations.

Rural Economic Development Data and Intelligence (2009) reported these issues ahead of downtown development. At the community level, as a consequence, a possible decline in rural populations and depopulation of American communities, particularly by the younger generations. There might be neglect or withdrawal of government, administrative and financial services from smaller communities; a decline in public infrastructure and community identity because of regionalization and globalization of rural economies.

There will also be inconsistency level of qualified and skilled local management making it hard for average citizens to be involved in the economy. A possible rise on crime and vandalism is also seen as well as inadequate access to skills, tools, and learning opportunities. On one hand, the consumers may become generally cautious and will be more demanding of quality products and services. There may be loss or reduced emotional ties to local downtowns among citizens and they will be able to do more commercial transactions from home.

Development in downtowns will increase the role of e-commerce in the cities and there will be continued but decline in regional scale shopping centers. Another consequence might be widening of role of power centers and dominant stores while new private and public recreational and cultural facilities located outside the downtown will be established. These issues may be realized as future opportunities are opened to American downtowns. The people of downtown communities move to smaller communities from large and busy communities to enhance the quality of life.

Independent and specialized retailers will have the chance to market Residential growth will also be possible and an increased focus on recreation and leisure for boomer generation will be enjoyed as well as specialized festival and tourism events. On the part of the consumer, the aging population will have an increased interest in heritage, culture and cultural tourism while younger generations will continue to increase their sense of belonging to their community. As always, high expectations for quality and service should be addressed.

Competition within the business districts will be much stronger as electronic retailing is expected to grow which will eventually take retail sales away from the downtown. This is the case when offered by larger operators outside the community. Finally, e-commerce and other technological innovations could provide opportunities for local investors to market their unique products and quality services in new ways to local customers for the improvement of life. (Smith 2000: 10-11) References Berridge, J (2000) Why is Downtown Revitalization Important to Ontario’s Broader Regional Economies?

Downtown Forum, North York, Ontario. Center City Commission. (2006) Downtown Memphis Moving Forward: A Strategic Framework for Success. Downtown Memphis Website. Retrieved 07 May 2010 from <http//:www. downtownmemphis. com>. Isenberg, Alison (2004). Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Loukaitou- Sideris, A & Banerjee, T. (1998). Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form. Berkley: California Press. Peevey, A. (2009) Summary: Downtown America.

News21 Website Retrieved 08 May 2010 from <http://ning. news21. com/profiles/blogs/summary-downtown-america> Smith, K. (2000) Documenting Your Downtown’s Past, Part II. Main Street News. Retrieved 07 May 2010 from http://www. preservationnation. org/main-street/main-street- news/2000/03/main-street-101. html Winling, L (2005) Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It Journal of Social History, retrieved 07 May 2010 from <http://findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_m2005/is_2_39/ai_n16016036/>

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