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Lure of the suburbs

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Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 By Robert M Fogelson. Yale University Press, 2001. 492pp. £25

A good many years have gone by since Petula Clark first had us singing the praises of downtown, the place where 'you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares'. Yet throughout that time, while the song has remained familiar, the word 'downtown' has still seemed unnatural to English ears. We talk obsessively about our cities and our urban centres, but this key term in the American vocabulary on urbanism has never been adopted here.

Robert Fogelson's book is solely about the downtown of American cities, so at first glance it may seem irrelevant to British and European experience. But even if the lessons from it do not travel easily, it is a model of what such a study should be. Fogelson's interest is not so much in the appearance of downtown as in the spatial politics that have shaped it: the overlap between business, property and local government that has created the context for a distinctive urban architecture. His methodology, if not his message, could usefully be applied to the likes of Birmingham, Lille or Hanover.

His study starts in the late 19th century, when the success of downtown seemed inevitable. The separation of business and residence appeared to be, as FL Olmsted put it, 'a fixed tendency among civilised men'.

Actually not just men: although downtown was a predominantly masculine office district, it was also the destination for suburban housewives patronising department stores and families going out to the theatre.

The connection between the suburbs and the centre was by streetcar, at first horsedrawn but from the 1880s electrically powered. The symbol of downtown was, of course, the skyscraper of 10 storeys or more, and not just in New York or Chicago: an obscure town such as Beaumont, Texas, could boast six skyscrapers by 1929, more than London, Paris or Berlin.

But the success of downtown was shortlived, not because of the height limits on tall buildings, nor because of zoning laws. The essential problem was a failure to replace the streetcar by segregated systems of mass transit. As a result of municipal uncertainty about how to finance major infrastructures, aided by the hostility of outlying districts, US cities had only about 350 miles of elevated railway or subway by the late 1920s, mostly in New York. As car ownership increased, the streetcars could not compete because they were trapped by congestion;

and that congestion affected car drivers as well who, instead of driving downtown, went elsewhere.

This is a familiar story, not unique to the US, but what is special about Fogelson's account is his emphasis that downtown had gone into decline before the Great Depression. The migration of business, retail and entertainment (especially cinemas) to the suburbs gathered pace in the 1920s, and although there was an office-building boom in 1945-50, the number of people going downtown to work, shop, or forget their troubles, continued to fall. The invention of the motel and the regional shopping centre (the first in Los Angeles in 1947) confirmed a well-established trend.

History, like politics, is all about timing.

The essence of Fogelson's argument seems to be that, if rapid transit had been invested in more widely before the 1920s, the natural pull of the suburbs might have been resisted.

But in his most gloomy moments he admits that downtown was inevitably destined to have an artificial, short-lived existence in a country so in love with suburban culture.

Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter & Associates

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