What happened to America's Downtown
Before World War II, downtown was the community's primary commercial hub.
Downtown buildings usually had several tenants-typically a ground-floor
retailer and, frequently, several upper-floor offices or apartments; together,
these tenants provided enough rent for property owners to keep their buildings
in good condition. The presence of the post office, library, banks and local
government offices added to the steady flow of people downtown. Not only
was Downtown the center of the community's commercial life, it was also
an important part of its social life; people thronged the streets on Saturday
nights to meet friends, see a movie and window-shop.
In the past 40 years, America's downtown have changed drastically. The
creation of the interstate highway system and subsequent growth of suburban
communities transformed the ways in which Americans live, work and spend
leisure time.With improved transportation routes, people found it easier
to travel longer distances to work or shop. Roads that once connected neighborhoods
to downtown now carried residents to outlying shopping strips and regional
malls. Throughout the nation, in town after town, the story repeated itself.
Downtown businesses closed or moved to the mall, shoppers dwindled, property
values and sales tax revenues dropped. Some downtown sank under the weight
of their own apathy. Neglected buildings, boarded-up storefronts and empty,
trash-strewn streets gradually reinforced the public's perception that nothing
was happening downtown, that nothing was worth saving there. People forgot
how important their downtown and its historic commercial buildings were
in reflecting their community's unique heritage.
In many communities downtown merchants and property owners, tried to halt
this spiral of decline by imitating their competition-the shopping mall.
Their attempts to modernize downtown take the forms of pedestrian malls,
covering traditional building fronts with aluminum slipcovers, and attaching
huge, oversized signs on their buildings to attract attention. These well-meaning
but usually ineffective methods did not stabilize downtown's decline, mostly
because they did not address the fundamental problem-that businesses did
not change when the market did, and that people did not see the downtown
as a destination for shopping any more. With the the economic boom of the
1980s, Main Street also saw increased development occurring outside traditional
areas, and the issue of "sprawl" with its uncontrolled growth
and cookie cutter architecture that reflected neither a sense of place nor
a sense of pride, has become an issue that most communities contend with
Facing these issues, over 1,200 communities have adopted the Main Street
approach in the past 16 years to look again at Main Street, their heart
of the community, to save its historic buildings, to revive its commercial
core, to strengthen business, to control community-eroding sprawl, and keep
a sense of place and community life in America.