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Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place:
Chapter 1: Downtown Growth and Decline

Go back to: Shovel Ready Home | Introduction and Thesis Outline | ahead to: Schenectady's Downtown Story

[This information is from pp. 17-27 of Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place: Rethinking Schenectady's Downtown Strategies, a master's thesis in city planning by Christopher Patrick Spencer (MIT, 2001), and is reproduced with his permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 711 Spe.]

The city is crumbling, it cannot last much longer; its time is past. It is too old.

Le Corbusier, The City of To-morrow and Its Planning

There seems to be no shortage of theories or explanations about the decline of the American downtown over the past 50 years, or what, if anything, should be done about it. For each city that has managed to reverse their downtown's decline, there are explanations about why they were able to do it — and how everyone else could too. But in reality, the downtown of every city is its own place, and the problems that each one faces are different. A big city's downtown is much different from that of a small- or mid-sized city. The downtown in a coastal city is markedly distinct from one in the interior of the country. Southern downtowns are not exactly like Northern ones. The downtown of a New England mill town is not the same as that of a post-industrial, mid-Atlantic or Midwestern rustbelt city. And even within one state, a differentiation can be observed between a downtown in a city that is more isolated versus one that is in a city surrounded by other cities and suburbs. And yet despite the obviousness of this, cities continue to transfer strategies or projects that appear instrumental in revitalizing another city's downtown to their own without considering how the two cities or even their downtowns differ. A convention center that has been a boon for one downtown may be a bust for the next one. The arts and entertainment district and riverfront revitalization that sparked Providence's renaissance, for example, will not benefit all cities — especially those that don't have a river running through their downtown or an active arts community. This is not to say that one city should not study the success of another, but they should, at the very least, be aware of their difference, and the need to adapt strategies to fit their own city's needs.

Adding to the difficulties for many of the small- to mid-sized cities such as Schenectady is that the overwhelming amount of literature dealing more directly with the problems and fixes is targeted to much larger cities. Much of what is commonly noted as vital to making a city great is also focused on the big city. At the other end of the spectrum, the more holistic approaches, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Program, have for the most part, only been implemented in much smaller cities or towns — typically with populations under 50,000. For cities that find themselves in the middle, or more likely on the outside of this discourse, there are lessons to be learned from both the successes of revitalized small towns and the larger cities that are widely considered to have come back. But for United States cities of almost every size, advancements in transportation and communication systems, innovations in building materials and technology, shifts in governmental policies and programs, and changes in personal preferences have all had an enormous impact on their rise and fall.

For many American cities, the site of the downtown is closely linked to that of their founding. Access to the water, suitable land for farming, and an innate natural beauty, were often among the criteria for the location of early settlements. Whether the primary industry was boat building, fishing, farming, or manufacturing, the downtown area, although often largely residential at first, evolved into the center for trading and commerce. The residential character slowly changed to become a mix of mansions, dwellings above shops, apartment buildings, and tenements. Without a viable transportation or communication system, the cities were initially limited to about two to three miles across, or an area not much further than what a person could comfortably walk in about an hour. (1) In the formative years of downtown growth, the realistic commuting limits meant that a greater spatial distribution of residences was not possible, necessitating a much closer proximity between housing for rich and poor than exists today.

Fig 1.01 [enlarge]

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century those who could afford to found respite from the ills of the city in more sylvan settings such as this.

The first wave of people to begin to build outside of the city limits or at least beyond the walking city, other than farmers, were the more well-to-do mill owners, bankers, and prominent businessmen. Transported by rail or coach, some were lured to the countryside after being exposed to the images of Arcadia by Thomas Cole and the Hudson River school of painters and by the romantic writings and idyllic designs of Andrew Jackson Downing. Trained as a nurseryman, and influenced by the architect Alexander Jackson Davis, it was more Downing's picturesque settings rather than his designs that captivated the city audience. He espoused a place free from the evils of the city and one which was an improvement on the crudeness of the truly rural habitat. Although he hoped to discover a uniquely American architecture on the way, his emphasis was on creating a place of repose and civility. In The Architecture of Country Houses, originally published in 1850, Downing writes:

It is the solitude and freedom of the family home in the country which constantly preserves the purity of the nation, and invigorates its intellectual powers. The battle of life carried on in cities, gives a sharper edge to the weapon of character, but its temper is, for the most part, fixed amid those communings with nature and the family, where individuality takes its most natural and strongest development.

The latter half of the 19th Century saw a number of technical innovations that added to both the growth and in some ways decline of the American downtown. In 1850, the idea of commuting to the city on a daily basis for work was not common or easy. Commuting by train was limited by the location of rail lines and the frequency of their stops. Another option, the urban stage coach, or omnibus, which had been around since 1826 was slow and tended to be rough on the unimproved roads and cobblestone streets. (2) With the advent of the horsecar, still pulled by horse but riding on a set of rails, the ride became much smoother. However, it was relatively slow and steep inclines were difficult for the horses to manage. They were other problems as well. "They created a noisome public health problem with their manure and when they dropped dead on the city streets, a frequent occurrence - 15,000 a year in New York at the turn of the century. Feeding and stabling them was expensive and took up a lot of space." (3) With the advent of the electric streetcar in the 1880s, a number of areas outside the downtown began to be developed primarily for residential use. Now a second wave of people, including middle income families, began to move out of the downtown into what the urban historian Sam Bass Warner has called the "streetcar suburbs."

Fig 1.02 [enlarge]

The early streetcars allowed for development outside of the city center and beyond the "walking city."

Streetcars that connected many of the outlying areas to the downtown, combined with a lack of working, shopping, or entertainment alternatives, kept the downtown viable and lively during the day and into the evening despite the dwindling population. In many larger cities, however, the depopulation of the downtown area, or central business district as it was quickly becoming known, had happened much faster and earlier. In cities like New York, which were growing rapidly, the success of the business center spelled the end for residences in those areas. Development and real estate pressures forced or persuaded many people to sell their homes and move to the periphery. Rising land values had created a market that naturally sought out the "highest and best use" of land which was no longer residential. Instead, the new uses included stores, office, workshops and warehouses. Robert Fogelson, MIT professor and urban historian, illustrates New York's situation in 1836 in Downtown: A Troubled History. Quoting from The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851, he writes: "Almost everybody downtown is in the same predicament, for all the dwelling houses are to be converted into stores. We are tempted with prices so exorbitantly high that none can resist." This out-migration of many former downtown residents caused noticeable changes in other cities too, as Fogelson points out:

Downtown slowed down at night, after the stores, offices, and other businesses closed. Downtown Philadelphia, a guidebook pointed out in the early 1870s, 'though bustling and noisy enough during business hours, is a perfect desolation after six o'clock, and the thousands who throng there all day long are miles away, resting, most of them, in comfortable homes, with plenty of living room about them.' (4)

The separation of businesses and residences, although virtually complete by the end of the 19th century in many larger cities, did not happen all at once in the smaller ones. While new transportation systems allowed for a more diffused city and a more spatially distributed class of citizens, they also played a major role in the growth and popularity of the downtown. In the larger, faster growing cities, "Businesses were faced with three choices: to leave downtown, push at its boundaries, or build upwards. All three actions occurred and the functional, spatial and visual characteristics of the downtown changed." (5) In the large cities, the new use of steel and earlier technological advances in elevators allowed these metropolitan areas to expand upwards in a way that masonry construction would never have permitted. Advances in glass, iron, and eventually steel gradually changed the look of storefronts — from a series of multi-light windows placed between structural supports to large expanses of glass, spanning the entire front of the building.

Fig 1.03 [enlarge]

Urban life posed many dangers in the late 19th and early 20th century. This grade crossing was at State Street in Schenectady before bridges were built and tracks raised above the streets.

Despite romantic visions of the downtown of the early 1900s, the streets were often a miserable and dangerous place to be or navigate. With throngs of people working, living, and shopping in the downtown, the streets were at times completely impassible. Originally laid out and developed around simpler transportation systems, downtown streets were now choked with almost every mode of transportation imaginable, all competing for a limited amount of space. The center of the street was reserved for but not limited to electric and horse-drawn streetcars. Elsewhere, private automobiles, delivery trucks, pedestrians, and horse-drawn carriages jockeyed for position. Adding to the chaos and danger were the powerful and fast moving locomotives that often steamed across these busy streets at grade — with no protection and little warning for those in its way.

Fig 1.04 [enlarge]

Envisioning what the future of cities might be like often involved transportation networks weaving through buildings and occurring at every level.

Order and safety in larger cities, many thought, could be obtained through greater vertical separation of transportation modes. Visionaries imagined skyscrapers with elevated trains running thought them at one level, automobile traffic on another, and pedestrian traffic on another — often with small planes close overhead. Despite the lack of grounding in reality of these projections, many larger cities did in fact begin to operate on a number of levels, with subways, surface streets and highways, as well as elevated transportation networks for cars and trains. But for the smaller cities, verticality was not something their budgets would allow them to aspire to — and their problems continued to spread.

By the 1920s, the industrial revolution was in high gear and cities were filled with belching factories, increasingly congested streets, and other urban afflictions that only strengthened the resolve of many to leave town at the first opportunity. Between the deplorable condition and confusion of the downtown streets, and the uncoordinated and often frequently unreliable streetcar service, the public was ripe for an alternative form of transportation, and in particular, a private one — the automobile. The Ford Motor Company offered Model T's at a price average people could afford; by the time the last one rolled of the assembly line in the late 1920s, Henry Ford had seated about 15 million Americans behind the wheel. General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tire and Rubber were also working overtime to cure the city of the ills caused by streetcar traffic and transform peoples' commuting habits to cars. These companies formed a number of holding companies and subsidiaries that essentially bought up streetcar lines and ran the service and ridership into the ground, until their demise was a foregone conclusion. GM and others then sold the cities buses — which naturally needed tires and fuel to run. The drop in public transportation ridership that ensued also helped Detroit sell more cars to an insatiably auto-hungry public. (6)

Fig 1.05 [enlarge]

The rising popularity of automobiles and federally backed mortgages allowed for the outward migration of people and jobs that emptied many downtowns and city centers.

Fig 1.06 [enlarge]

The rush to cover over anything that hinted at the age of downtown buildings led to a loss of identity in many cities and made upper floors unlivable.

Despite the fast-growing (and already high) number of private automobile owners, Americans were dependent on the federal government to supply them with roads to fuel their growing driving habits. Until that was accomplished, driving would remain more of a recreational than an occupational necessity for most Americans. Thanks in part to numerous Road and Highway Acts which helped build nearly 500,000 miles of highways in the 1950s, and a generously funded and federally backed mortgage guarantee program that favored suburban construction to city rebuilding, commuting by car would soon become an inevitability for many Americans. Almost overnight, a new economy was born — building automobiles, highway systems, shopping malls, and cul-de-sac filled developments of look-alike homes, complete with attached garages to house the newest members of the American family.

For a while, it seemed as if the downtown and city core had been abandoned — in body, mind, and spirit. Eventually the federal government responded to the decay and disinvestment that was occurring in the cities and offered to help them remove much of their substandard urban core and replace it with a more suburban standard. Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 [free PDF viewer required], which became know as the federal urban renewal program, promised to remove blight and eliminate slums. By combining these efforts with local road widening projects and highway building through and around cities, it was thought that the decay would be arrested, the core rebuilt, traffic congestion solved, and access to the cities and downtown improved.

In truth, the result was not as glorious as the planners or promoters of these big government programs had hoped for or promised to the cities. In most cases, despite the fact that the intention of the program had been to improve housing conditions, urban renewal programs only seemed to add to or shift the decay. The road widening projects in the cities, rather than decreasing the congestion, typically resulted in adding volume and increasing congestion. In the end, the highways that were supposed to provide easier access to the cities only seemed to provide an easier escape from them. However, programs such as urban renewal were completely voluntary; the federal government was only the financier of these schemes in which many cities opted to participate. With federal money, cities set about to remove blight, or cause it and then remove it, acquire entire neighborhoods of homes, relocate the people and raze the structures (although not always in that order). Finally, the authorities assembled the land for transfer to private developers, whose improvements it was hoped, would increase the taxable value of the land. Not all cities were fortunate enough to take part in this process. But Schenectady was, and did.

For cities and their downtowns, the suburban migration of people, jobs, and stores was a devastating blow and a particularly perplexing problem to solve. Starting in 1950, with the inauguration of an open air mall called Northgate, just outside of Seattle, downtown's problems began to multiply. (7) Soon these new strip malls were sprouting like crabgrass all along formerly undeveloped rural roads. Cities began to deal with this new unsightly shopping paradigm the only way they knew how — by defiling their own downtowns. Department stores and retailers on the city's Main Streets painted, covered over, and hacked off any detail that hinted at the buildings' antiquity or architectural reality. Even upper floors and windows were masked, disguising the fact that anyone used to live there and ensuring that no one ever would. With limited resources and in short order, cities all over managed to transform their downtowns into a collection of nondescript, generic boxes — effectively matching the character of the new shopping centers. Still, more shoppers were choosing the faceless shopping strip over the newly façadamized downtown. Pressured by merchants and downtown business associations, cities began to remove their downtown to build more parking.

Politicians and planners carefully considered what was happening on the retail front and began to find ways to milk the urban renewal cash cow. They envisioned big new developments and shopping centers adjacent to or in many cases, in the center of downtown. Urban renewal began to be "regarded as a program for tax-hungry city officials, downtown business interests and their hirelings in big planning and architectural firms…" (8) Some of the really bold plans proposed leveling and rebuilding the downtown. Typically the designs considered were based on the new iconography of suburban retail success — single-use, one story, flat-roofed buildings surrounding acres of parking. This added parking capacity, the planners thought, would benefit the existing retailers by helping them to retain their current customer base and allowing them to capitalize on the swarm of expected shoppers who would be driving to the new downtown. This new vision and new way of thinking about the downtown was the urban response to suburbia. In Downtown Inc.: How America Rebuilds Cities, authors Bernard Frieden and Lynne Sagalyn explain that during the frenetic race to rebuild cities in the 1950s, "Tight alliances of mayors, corporate executives, and civic leaders wielded money, power, and media access to get construction projects going." The leading minds behind this new vision came together for a national conference to commiserate about the problems of cities and to strengthen their resolve on how to deal with this changing world. The authors go on to describe the findings of this new collective mindset:

To replace the obsolete city with this new vision would mean tearing down much of what was there. There was little talk of preserving historic buildings or keeping the traditional character of the city center. In order to save downtown, it was going to be necessary to destroy it. Since streets could not be replaced without the knocking down the buildings that lined them, speakers argued that a complete remedy would be possible only through the redevelopment of the entire area. Clearing the downtown would not be enough; neighborhoods surrounding the downtown were also obsolete. 'The task,' according to these authorities, was 'renovating entire neighborhoods to provide a completely new land-use pattern.' (9)

Fig 1.07 [enlarge]

A common scene in Schenectady starting with urban renewal in the 1950s — old buildings making way for new development. Here the crowd watches Kresge's Department Store making way for the city's new civic center and ice rink.

By the time the Urban Renewal program died in 1974, most experts on urban affairs agreed that the program had been a failure. (10) Whether it was the application or the design of the program is still up for debate. In any case, after spending billions of dollars, displacing millions of people, and destroying thousands of viable neighborhoods, cities were left with a number of long-lasting scars — including vast tracts of land that had been cleared and were still awaiting redevelopment. Speaking to Congress in praise of the program in 1961, President Kennedy said, "Our communities are what we make them. We as a Nation have before us have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to remold our cities, to improve our patterns of community development, and to provide housing for all the segments of our society." (11) By the 1970s, it was clear that despite the best intentions, our cities were hurting, our downtowns were vacant, and many of our neighborhoods were a disgrace. Our communities were what we had made them and for the most part, we had made them worse. Despite the influx of federal funds starting in the early 1950s, cities remained unprepared and ill-advised as to what to do about the next wave of suburban retail expansion.

By 1956, a new suburban retailing model had been born, and quickly began to impact the already dying downtown. (12) A reverse of the prototypical shopping plaza — with its large parking lot surrounded by individual shops and protected by a continuous awning — the new model offered a totally enclosed, climate controlled, Muzak-playing, pseudo biospherical wonderland, surrounded on all four sides with acre upon acre of glorious blacktop. Inside was a prototype of Main Street, brimming with plastic trees, antique lighting, and fountains — where consumers could throw away even more money while wishing they were some place real. The irony of this was probably lost on the millions who had fled the cities, and now had to drive everywhere, even to these malls that were as disconnected from reality as was most everything else in suburbia. Once inside, however, they could enjoy an exclusively pedestrian experience, and as James Kunstler points out, not "have to look at all the goddamn cars and be reminded of what a depressing environment they lived in." (13)

The response by a number of cities was swift and predictable, considering their already impressive resumes of bad decisions. They began to mull over the prospects, and then set about to mall over their downtown. This was accomplished by either roofing over entire sections of the downtown, building malls to fill in the vacant land created through urban renewal, or connecting and turning their buildings inward, so that people could have that artificial, protected mall environment. And in some cases, such as Scranton, Pennsylvania, cities imploded entire blocks of the downtown to make way for new malls. Most of these solutions lacked even the basic amenities that the suburban malls provided and in their quest for mediocrity, these cities had destroyed the characteristics of a good downtown. Even when the in-town malls were busy, they usually managed to remove more people from the streets than they added.

Fig 1.08 [enlarge]

In the 1950s downtowns tried to hide their identity…

Fig 1.09 [enlarge]

…in the 1980s they begin to rediscover and uncover it.

By the mid-1980s, another role reversal was underway. More and more downtowns were discovering something new — themselves. They learned that they were not shopping plazas, strip malls, or indoor shopping malls, and they were glad. Underneath the "updated" façades they found rich architectural details, a composition and articulation of building materials, windows, and doors that gave rhythm to the street, and a collection of buildings that added to the character and uniqueness of the place. As these cities uncovered the upper windows, they found that these old buildings could support new life. On the ground floor, new shops began to occupy old spaces. People began to come downtown to live, work, shop, play, or just to watch or be watched. As this happened, these cities learned something Jane Jacobs had been trying to teach for over 25 years — that "deadness and monotony repel life" but "liveliness and variety attract life."

These were not all stories of big plans, expensive government programs, or overnight transformations. They were, however, stories of groups and individuals doing small things that had a powerful collective effect. Like the "cancer" of blight that cities had so worried would spread, the new exuberance and life, it turned out, was also contagious. Starting with one storeowner, one landlord, one building, ideas caught on. Flowers were planted, sidewalks swept, windows washed, details highlighted and the rich stories were rediscovered and added to. These were not destined to become stories of the past, but rather stories of people in the present who respected and utilized the past, added to it, and would pass something of value on to the future.


Although theories and explanations about the rise and fall American cities continue to be advanced, there are none that fit every case exactly. There are, however, common problems that a number of cities have faced, especially in the past 100 years. Perhaps a clearer distinction can be drawn on the basis of how they have dealt with the problems they faced. Many cities went about trying to answer to the suburban malls by trying to look, although not necessarily act just like them. Other cities continued to build on the characteristics that differentiated their downtown from the malls. And while the automobile remains the scapegoat for many who are trying to point out the problems of a city, there have been extremes in the way cities have dealt with cars as well. As early as 1920, Los Angeles had decided that automobiles were the scourge of the downtown, and banned them from parking there entirely. The effects on the businesses were disastrous and the parking ban was soon lifted. (14) In other cities, the roads were given over almost entirely to the automobile, at the expense of the pedestrian and other forms of street life. In the 1970s and 1980s, cities again tried banning cars from the street. And again, it didn't work.

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