Wednesday, March 16
Downtown Living Is Not Tradition, But...
This William Fulton article, which appeared in the Contra Costa Times a couple of days ago, rejects the notion that residing in a downtown is a traditional way of life and discusses the "revolution"-ary "inserting [of] housing into districts that, historically, were used exclusively for offices and stores":
Wistful urban planners claim that [downtown living] is simply a return to the way things used to be -- a time when everybody lived "above the store" in close proximity to jobs and everyday services.
In fact, however, such nostalgia isn't quite accurate. As MIT professor Robert Fogelson points out in his excellent recent book "Downtown," the emergence of the American downtown between 1880 and 1920 was based on the opposite premise: that a downtown was exclusively a business district where nobody lived.
Fulton then explains that the residential centers that supplied the downtown with workers, even then, were actually suburbs and "suburban districts," their growth sparked by power of downtown and enabled by streetcars and eventually automobiles. This is all very true, but did no city dweller call a downtown, or at least its outer areas, his/her home neighborhood?
I won't claim to be a professional historian or Bill Fulton-level expert, but it's pretty clear from architectural observation that, during the late 19th- and early 20th-century period, the American downtown's closest residential neighborhoods were not very far away. If residences were not on floors above the downtown businesses, they were just a distance of blocks from the main streets--in a small town, one block; here in San Jose, about three or four blocks; in San Francisco, about ten or fifteen blocks; but, in any case, blocks.
This is not to say that everyone lived that close to a downtown, that streetcar suburbs were not populated, or that downtowns thrived primarily on immediately neighboring residents, but it should be noted that, while downtown housing might be a new idea, housing near downtowns is not.
As a footnote, the article was packaged under the headline "Succumbing to sprawl" with a separate article by Joel Kotkin on accepting and "making the best" of suburbs. Also, on the topic of higher-quality suburbs, I would like to link to this item on the charming suburbs created by that early "sprawl machine," the electric streetcar.