Downtown

Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950
By Robert M. Fogelson

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Robert M. Fogelson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09827-3


Chapter One

The Business District: Downtown in the Late Nineteenth Century

Late in 1919 A. G. Gardiner, an English journalist and former editor of the London Daily News, made his first trip to the United States. As his ship steamed into New York harbor, he saw through the late afternoon mist what looked like "the serrated mass of a distant range of mountains, except that the sky-line is broken with a precision that suggests the work of man rather than the careless architecture of nature." "Gradually, as you draw near," he observed, "the mountain range takes definition." It turns into "vast structures with innumerable windows," taller by far than any buildings he had ever seen. "It is," Gardiner wrote, "'down town,'" the business district of America's largest city. Here on "the tip of this tongue of rock that lies between the Hudson River and the East River" stands "the greatest group of buildings in the world"-crowned by the Woolworth Building, fifty-three stories of offices resembling "a great street, Piccadilly or the Strand, that has been miraculously turned skyward by some violent geological 'fault.'" Here scurry the "hosts of busy people" who carry out "all the myriad functions of the great god Mammon." Here, said Gardiner, was the symbol of the American metropolis and the immense country that lay behind it.

By the time Gardiner first set eyes on "downtown," the word was roughly one hundred years old. But it meant something quite different in the early nineteenth century. For New Yorkers like Philip Hone, a prominent businessman, one-time mayor, and indefatigable diarist of the 1830s and 1840s, downtown had a geographical meaning. When Hone spoke of downtown, he meant the southern part of Manhattan Island-just as he meant the northern part when he spoke of uptown. Here he was following the customary usage according to which south meant down and north meant up. Thus when Hone walked south from his home on Great Jones Street, then at the northern edge of the built-up district, to City Hall, he went downtown-just as George Templeton Strong, another well-known New Yorker, went uptown when he walked from his father's house on Greenwich Street, near the southernmost point of Manhattan, to Grace Church, then under construction on what was at the time upper Broadway. (A century and a half later Americans still speak of downstate when they refer to Illinois south of Chicago and upstate when they refer to New York State north of New York City.)

Already the nation's largest city in 1830, New York grew phenomenally over the next forty years. Its population soared from under 250,000 to nearly 1.5 million, and its economy expanded at a rate that amazed contemporaries. Together with the huge influx of immigrants, what a special New York State Senate commission called "the inexorable demands of business" transformed the structure of the city, turning lower Manhattan mainly into stores, offices, workshops, and warehouses and upper Manhattan largely into residences. As early as 1836 Hone, who then lived on lower Broadway, feared he would soon be forced to move uptown. "Almost everybody downtown is in the same predicament," he wrote, "for all the dwelling houses are to be converted into stores. We are tempted with prices so exorbitantly high that none can resist." Hone moved. So did Strong's father, whose family was no longer willing to remain on Greenwich Street once stores, saloons, and boarding houses opened up near their elegant home in the 1840s. By the 1850s the change was striking. Noting that "Calico is omnipotent," Putnam's Monthly remarked that the dry-goods trade has spread with "astonishing rapidity over the whole lower part of the city, prostrating and obliterating everything that is old and venerable, and leaving not a single landmark," not even the "dwelling houses of our ancestors." As Mr. Potiphar observed in a popular novel of the times, "When Pearl street [the center of the dry-goods trade] comes to Park Place [a fashionable residential neighborhood in lower Manhattan], Park Place must run for its life up to Thirtieth street."

Although New Yorkers continued to speak of downtown and uptown when referring to the southern and northern sections of Manhattan, the words gradually took on a functional meaning that reflected the changing structure of the city. Strong, who had gone to work in his father's law firm on Wall Street in the 1840s, soon began to use "downtown" when he meant the business district and "uptown" when he meant the residential. And in the 1850s, Harper's New Monthly Magazine wrote of the "down-town men" who "slip uneasily through the brick and mortar labyrinths of Maiden-lane and of John-street," two of lower Manhattan's busy commercial streets. As men went downtown to work, women went downtown to shop (and also to pay bills, to deal with household matters, and, in some cases, to work). By the 1870s the functional meaning had largely superseded the geographical. As Wood's Illustrated HandBook, a guide written mainly for the British, explained, "The expressions 'down town' and 'up town' are employed to designate the business and social quarters of the city"-one devoted to "commerce, traffic, and law," the other to "private life." "If caprice takes you down town," George Makepeace Towle, U.S. consul at Bradford, informed his British readers, "you soon find yourself in the very whirl and maelstrom of commerce and trade.... As you proceed uptown, quiet and insouciant ease takes the place of the bustle and hurry of the down town quarters."

During the mid and late nineteenth century the word "downtown" spread to many other cities, to large ones like Boston and small ones like Salem and Worcester. The word "uptown" also spread, though to far fewer cities. Outside New York both words lost their original meanings. Susan E. Parsons Brown Forbes, a Boston schoolteacher, wrote of going "down town" in the early 1860s, even though downtown Boston was north of her home on Waverly Place. After she and her husband moved to Springfield in 1866, she continued to make trips "down town," even though downtown Springfield was east of her new home on State Street. Much the same was true in Chicago, where a journalist writing just after the great fire of 1871 remarked, "As I passed up West Madison Street, I met scores of working girls on their way 'down town,' as usual, bearing their lunch-baskets as if nothing had happened." Yet the girls were walking east, not south. The words lost their original meanings because in very few cities was downtown south and uptown north as they were in New York. Downtown lay to the south in Detroit, but to the north in Cleveland, to the east in St. Louis, and to the west in Pittsburgh. In Boston, a resident pointed out in 1880, downtown was in the center of the city. Uptown was north of downtown in Cincinnati, but south of downtown in New Orleans and San Francisco. In New York, a Philadelphia real estate journal wrote in 1886, "everybody down town must go up town; here everybody down town can scatter to the four points of the compass."

By the end of the century, if not earlier, downtown was synonymous with the business district virtually everywhere in urban America. When the word first appeared in dictionaries in the early 1900s-it was not included in Webster's Dictionary in 1881 or in Worcester's Dictionary in 1886-that was how it was defined. "Uptown," which had appeared in Webster's as early as 1870 and in Worcester's ten years earlier, was defined as "the upper part of a town or city." But it was commonly understood to mean the residential section, especially the affluent residential section. And it had already acquired the connotations of wealth, elegance, sophistication, and social prominence that were still strong a century later. As well as a new word, "downtown" was, as Webster's noted, an American word. It was virtually unknown in England and other Western European countries. Well into the early twentieth century English travel writers thought it necessary to explain the meaning of "down town" to their readers. And even today the English speak of the city center when they mean the urban core-just as the French use le centre de ville, the Spanish el centro, the Germans das zentrum, and the Italians il centro. American reporters and public officials routinely refer to "downtown" in cities all over the world, but the word does not have much meaning outside the United States. For downtown was not only an American word, it was also a uniquely American place.

As a place, downtown was hard to define. Legally, it did not exist. Unlike the city of which it was a part-indeed, unlike every parcel of real estate in the city-downtown had no formal boundaries, no precise lines to show where it began and where it ended. Nor did downtown exist politically. For governmental purposes, every American city was divided into wards. In some cities downtown lay in one ward; in most it spread over two or more. In none-not even in Chicago, where the business district and the first ward overlapped closely-did downtown and one or more wards have the same boundaries. And in some, like Detroit, where each ward ran in a narrow strip through the whole city, downtown and the wards were completely distinct. In virtually every city downtown had some sort of physical boundaries, usually a bay, a lake, a river, or, in a few cases, a combination of them. But nowhere did these boundaries define downtown with precision-except perhaps in Pittsburgh, where downtown was hemmed in by the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers on the north, south, and west and by a steep hill known as the "Hump" on the east. And nowhere did these boundaries confine downtown to its original site.

Although hard to define, downtown was easy to locate. It was the destination of the street railways, which were still pulled by horses in the 1880s, the elevated railways, which ran above the streets of New York, and the local ferries, which carried millions a year in a handful of cities. Except where the steam railroads were barred from entering it, downtown was also the site of the railroad terminals. Downtown was the home of the tall office buildings, ten to fifteen stories high by 1890. These skyscrapers, as they came to be known, were more then just very tall; they were also very convenient. In buildings like Chicago's "Rookery"-"a little city in itself," one Chicago resident called it-a businessman could "find under one roof his customers, his bankers, his principals, his restauranter [sic], his barber and his bootblack." Downtown was also the site of Macy's, Wanamaker's, Marshall Field's, and other huge department stores. Another nineteenth-century innovation, which came after the railroad station but before the skyscraper, the department store was designed to be what H. Gordon Selfridge of Marshall Field's called the "downtown home" for its customers, mostly middle- and upper-middle-class women, for whom it provided such amenities as tearooms, writing tables, and even nurseries, where they could leave their children while shopping. As late as 1890 downtown was the only part of the city wired for electricity. At night, when darkness fell over the rest of the city, what a Houston journalist described as "a perfect burst of sunlight" lit up many of downtown's streets, shops, hotels, restaurants, and theaters. Brilliantly illuminated, downtown at night was "indescribably exhilarating," wrote an English visitor at the turn of the century.

Although these buildings were very large, downtown itself was very small. According to Mayor Nathan Matthews, Jr., downtown Boston had only 217 acres, just over a third of a square mile, or less than 1 percent of the entire city. Without rushing, the Massachusetts Rapid Transit Commission noted, a man could make a circuit of downtown Boston, about a three-mile walk, in one hour. Downtown Pittsburgh was even smaller. In a city of 41 square miles, it covered less than a third of a square mile. According to estimates made in the early 1890s, downtown Chicago had one-half to three-quarters of a square mile, a tiny fraction of the midwestern capital's 169 square miles. Downtown New York was somewhat larger. To look at it another way, downtown Pittsburgh was only two and a half times as large as the Carnegie steel company's plant in nearby Homestead, the site of the infamous industrial dispute in 1892. Downtown Chicago was not much larger than the Union Stockyards, the slaughterhouses later immortalized by Upton Sinclair, and a little smaller than the Pullman Palace Car Company's works, located in George M. Pullman's model town a few miles south of the city. Downtown Boston was only slightly larger than Mount Auburn Cemetery, a rural cemetery on the Cambridge-Watertown line, where more than a few downtown businessmen and professionals were buried. Downtown New York was somewhat smaller than Central Park. And downtown San Francisco could have fit easily into the University of California's sprawling campus in nearby Berkeley.

In view of how small downtown was, it was striking how much business was done there. More trade was done in downtown Chicago than in the rest of the city combined, the Chicago Real Estate and Building Journal wrote in 1897, by which time the city had grown to 195 square miles. And trade was just part of the picture. Downtown Chicago also housed all of the city's financial institutions, most of its professional offices, and many of its light industries. "No place on earth [has] such a congregation of business interests," said Washington Hesing, a Chicago resident. Downtown Chicago was by no means unique. In every big city downtown was the business district. The retailers and wholesalers worked there, as did the bankers, financiers, insurance, utility, and corporate executives, the lawyers, realtors, architects, engineers, and accountants, the clerks, typists, salesmen, salesgirls, and messengers, and many craftsmen and laborers. The courts, government agencies, and post and telegraph offices were located downtown, as were most hotels, restaurants, places of popular amusement, and institutions of high culture. Downtown was the site of nearly all the city's businesses except heavy industries (like steel mills), noxious activities (like slaughterhouses), and a wide range of neighborhood trades and shops, many of which catered largely to one or another of America's many ethnic groups.

Also striking was how much business downtown was done by women. Long gone was the day when respectable women were loath to venture into the business district without an escort. Except for places like Nashville's Men's Quarter, Omaha's Douglas Street, and Seattle's Yessler Way, tiny enclaves of boarding houses, saloons, pawnbrokers, cigar stores, gambling dens, and Turkish baths, no part of downtown was off-limits to women in the late nineteenth century. By then women worked there, in offices, hotels, restaurants, shops, lofts, factories, and department stores, the largest of which had well over a thousand salesgirls. Women also went downtown to dine, to watch plays, and to listen to lectures. Above all, women did their shopping downtown. They flocked to the great department stores on Market Street in Philadelphia, State Street in Chicago, Canal Street in New Orleans, and Broadway, the "Ladies Mile" of New York. Watching so many women shop on lower Fulton Street, commonly known as "the Broadway of Brooklyn," one journalist was led to imagine "what Eden might have been were Adam and his part in life dispensed with." Many women went from one store to another, sometimes buying, sometimes window-shopping. Others went to only one, shopping on one floor, lunching on another, relaxing on a third, finding everything they needed, one woman wrote, "without having been obliged to leave the store."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Downtownby Robert M. Fogelson Copyright © 2001 by Robert M. Fogelson. Excerpted by permission.
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